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Esprit de Court 

How Susie Tompkins Buell built, wrecked, and sued San Francisco's legendary Esprit de Corp. clothing company, and why she still gets to sit next to President Clinton

Wednesday, Oct 8 1997
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"A friend of mine was looking for a job, and I suggested we start this business."

Other accounts from those days describe Susie serving largely as Jane's aide-de-camp, hauling racks of clothing in her station wagon. But by 1967, they were making dresses in lots of 100. By 1968 they had filled a $15,000 order from Joseph Magnin. The growth came in part thanks to the help of third partner Allen Schwartz, an East Coast salesman who trucked their dresses from department store to department store, pestering buyers until they agreed to try Plain Jane clothes.

Susie, meanwhile, had married Doug Tompkins, whom she had picked up hitchhiking at Lake Tahoe a couple of years earlier. Tompkins had left a Connecticut prep school, shunned his parents wishes that he attend college, and migrated to California in hopes of making the U.S. Ski Team. He joined the budding Northern California rock-climbing scene. Together, he and Susie became part of the love 'n' Haight party-hopping set, traveling to Mexico together in a Volkswagen bus, and, eventually, moving to then-bohemian North Beach.

While Susie carted cotton dresses around in her station wagon, Doug was founding the North Face rock-climbing store across the street from the fabled City Lights bookstore. Tompkins took merchandising at his North Face store and catalog to high concept. His store's image was fashioned around the just-evolving clean-climbing movement, in which scalers try not to mar their boulders with the sorts of nicks, holes, and spikes that their forebears had.

The business thrived, even though Doug spent much of his time skiing, climbing, and surfing. Still, the store interfered with Doug's larger passions, so he cashed out for $50,000 and took off on a trip to southern Argentina with his friend Yvon Choinard. Choinard would later found an outdoor clothing company named after the Patagonia region they visited. Doug tried again to make the ski team, signed on as producer of a rock-climbing documentary, and did more traveling.

But he eventually came back revived, refreshed, and anxious to get involved in running Plain Jane.

While he knew nothing of the fashion industry, Doug brought to the business a rock climber's sense of precision, and an adventurer's verve for self-invention. He soon began clashing with the other partners, who by 1970 had built Plain Jane into a nearly $2 million-a-year business, and who fancied themselves as doing perfectly fine without his interference.

Doug saw no future in sportswear, which Schwartz had been doing a nice business selling to New York department stores. He didn't like the name Plain Jane, and convinced the partners to change it to Esprit de Corp. The name was "a sort of joke on the Marine Corps," says Peter Buckley, a close friend of Doug's and former CEO of Esprit de Corp. Europe.

Doug's drive to fashion the company in his own image was not a joke, though, and Tise and Schwartz found themselves increasingly sidelined by this one-time athlete's single-mindedness. Touchy-feely rock-climber environmentalism aside, Doug at heart was a merchant. "He knows how to project an image around something. This comes from his mountain-climbing days, and starts with focusing on the real subtle things," says Buckley.

In 1972, the company -- then making $8 million a year -- moved into an old wine storage warehouse that Doug had remade into a posh, California-style headquarters, complete with showers, a full kitchen, and roof gardens. Tompkins set up import-export, and later retailing, operations in Hong Kong. He also waged what has been described in press accounts as a guerrilla war against Tise and Schwartz, making more and more decisions without consulting them. In 1975, the Tompkinses bought out their partners.

The next year, after the company's headquarters were destroyed in a fire, Doug and designer Hanz Keinz rebuilt the company's Minnesota Street offices in a spectacular, polished, bare-wood, barnlike structure that included a greenhouse, a large cafe, a gymnastics area, and a furniture-making studio. The Doug Tompkins era had arrived, and it was to help shape the fashion world for a decade to come.

Doug Tompkins is a very difficult man to reach by phone. He resides in a remote area 150 kilometers south of Puerto Montt, Chile, a port city just across the border from the Patagonia region of Argentina. Every couple of weeks or so, he visits an office in Puerto Montt, where he conducts the business of his Fundacion Bosque Pumalin.

His contact with the outside world consists of a fax machine turned on in the Puerto Montt office, which he checks periodically.

Tompkins has used part of the estimated $125 million he received cashing out of Esprit in 1990 to become the second-largest landowner in Chile, creating the 785,000-acre nature preserve that has earned him enmity in Chilean industrial circles, and fulsome praise from U.S. environmentalists.

Amassing this huge chunk of land hasn't been an easy task. Suspicious Chilean government bureaucrats have held up some purchases. Other balked at Tompkins' offer to turn over the land to the Chilean government on the condition that it be kept a nature preserve. But through single-minded relentlessness, Tompkins has largely prevailed, and his preserve looks destined to become a Chilean national park.

This is the same irresistible nature Tompkins brought to his role as "director of image" for Esprit through the 1980s. In that post, he pioneered the sort of obsessive attention to high concept that now characterizes many image-conscious brands, including Benetton and Versace. He was among the first to link socially progressive rhetoric to merchandising. He engineered the strategy, perhaps now most used by the Gap, of employing anti-consumerism to promote consumption.

In molding Esprit in his own image, Doug Tompkins tried to create a workers paradise for the outdoorsy-minded, attractive, idealistic youngsters he aimed to populate his company with -- and sell his clothes to. Employee programs included discounted tickets to cultural events, subsidized vacations to Doug's favorite exotic vacation spots, and French language and kayaking lessons.

About The Author

Matt Smith

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