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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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His image campaigns, characterized by perky models who were posed not to look like models, included the work of photographer Oliviero Toscani (now of Benetton fame) and artist/designer Ettore Sottsass. Tompkins learned Italian and made frequent trips to Milan to hobnob with the aesthetic elite. He spent tens of millions of dollars on designers who produced high-concept packaging knickknacks, breezy, bouncy, fresh-faced catalogs, casually breathless magazine advertisements, and sprightly billboards.

The pioneering genius of Doug Tompkins, fashion analysts and executives still say, was to place an abstract image in the public consciousness that evoked the same sensibility year to year, despite seasonal changes in clothing designs.

The result: a brand name known to -- and seemingly desired by -- every 17-year-old girl in the United States, Europe, and Asia.

"Doug had incredible vision, and the timing was right for that vision to be acted upon," says fashion industry consultant Harry Bernard. "Everybody and their mother wanted Esprit. It probably had the strongest consumer franchise of any brand in our business. Esprit was the benchmark against which everybody measured their junior presentation."

As Doug pushed image, Susie came into her own as Esprit's design director. She would travel frequently to the world's great fashion capitals, filter the latest trends through her laid-back, Northern California sensibility, and come up with colors and designs that became the season's buzz.

"Susie's great strength was a nose. She had one of the most sensitive noses for trends. Traveling the world as often as she did, she was able to pull things together from disparate places and bring a common denominator to them," says Bernard.

By 1986, Doug and Susie's potent combination had turned Esprit and its loosely connected overseas divisions into $800 million in yearly sales. Northern California chic graced the backsides of American schoolgirls coast to coast. Esprit's triple-bar logo was the talk of the industry.

But there was trouble in paradise. Doug's stable of Milanese image-makers never really got along with Susie. They regarded her fashion ideas as dross.

Toscani "used to say Susie's ideas were sort of like a fart. It smells bad, but it goes away quickly," recalls Peter Buckley, former Esprit Europe CEO.

Doug and his image team weren't entirely welcome in the design division either. And as the couple's fashion ideas diverged, their marriage foundered. By 1985 they were living apart. Susie recalls the breakup as more a result of the normal course of their lives than any specific catastrophe.

"I outgrew Doug, he outgrew me," she says. "It just was a time that we needed to get on with our lives."

But they didn't. Not right away, anyway. Instead, their bickering took its toll on the company, employees of that era recall.

"It was a challenging environment during that time. Both Doug and Susie had very strong visions, but some of the synergy had fallen away, so it did make it more difficult," says Danny Kraus, who worked for the company from 1986 to 1996, mostly in the public relations department. "It was more difficult because people knew there was internal conflict."

The company's problems went beyond Susie and Doug's marital troubles.
Under the couple's tutelage, the company had enjoyed more than a decade of amazing success, and that success had given Esprit a can-do-no-wrong air of invincibility. But suddenly, in the fall of 1986, Esprit's pastel and polka-dot fashion sensibility fell from vogue. The fall line sold poorly. Subsequent collections were similarly blase.

It seemed Susie had lost her nose for fashion.
Doug, meanwhile, was pursuing his vision of a chain of Esprit superstores. The stores' spare-no-expense Italian interiors were meant to dazzle customers like its Oliviero Toscani ad campaigns had. At the same time, the company-owned retail outlets would allow Esprit to escape the tyranny of department stores and their buyers, who were ever more difficult to please as the casualwear garment business became more competitive.

While physically stunning -- Doug spent a reported $15 million to fashion a store out of an abandoned Los Angeles skating rink -- the superstores were economically foolish. Press accounts described such accouterments as Uchida fixtures, Zolatone walls, steel staircases, metal grids, chrome handrails, Sottsass sculptures, Alpi wood, and Vicenza stone.

The idea of selling Esprit clothes through company-owned retail stores may have been forward-looking: The Gap and its Banana Republic subsidiary have spun the company-store concept into an empire.

But, Buckley recalls, "Doug completely ignored the first three rules of retailing: location, location, location. He built these superstores in bad locations."

The L.A. skating rink, like Esprit's San Francisco outlet store, was built in a warehouse district.

By 1988, the bickering, the money drain created by the stores, and troubles with the Esprit clothing line were combining to put the firm in a real financial crunch. While Susie and Doug painstakingly cultivated the company's image and style, Esprit's back office -- the inventory controls, purchasing and delivery systems, manufacturing oversight, and other details crucial to what is essentially a commodity manufacturing business -- had been badly neglected. As a result, when sales growth sputtered, profits evaporated.

What's more, Susie and Doug's bickering created a paralyzing standoff, stymieing either partner from capitalizing on their ideas, friends and associates recall.

From the inside, it looked as if Esprit were two different, competing companies, Buckley says. "He would shoot advertisements he wanted to shoot, she would shoot things she wanted, and they were fundamentally contradicting each other," he says.

It was Susie's lawyers who appeared before a San Francisco judge and asked that an independent director be appointed to mediate between the quarreling partners. As part of a resulting agreement, Susie and Doug jointly appointed three new members to Esprit's board of directors. The new board would decide whether Doug or Susie would guide Esprit.

About The Author

Matt Smith

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