Fashion Biography

Susie Tompkins, Fashion Designer

The year was 1964. Aspiring San Francisco designer Susie Russell slowed down to pick up a hitchhiker on the road near Lake Tahoe, California. He is Doug Tompkins, tree topper and Olympic hopeful skier. Both were 21. The pair married 6 months later.

Four years later, the pair"s dressmaking business with partner, Jane, was expanding fast. In 1971 Doug and Susie met Michael Ying who became the founder of the predecessor of Esprit Far East Group which acted as a principal sourcing agent for the U.S. business. Doug and Susie became shareholders.

In those early days, head office was the Tompkins" San Francisco apartment, and the back of their station wagon served as a showroom. Nevertheless the business grew fast. By the early 70s, the company was incorporated as "Esprit de Corp." and 7 product lines had been developed, each with its own label.

In the late 70s, annual sales reached US$120 million. Doug and Susie bought out Jane"s share in the business; formed partnerships for production, sales and distribution in Hong Kong and Jčrgen Friedrich in Dčsseldorf, Germany to create the international network that remains as the company"s backbone today. Esprit"s quintessentially American style was popular throughout Europe.

In 1979 John Casado designed the famous Esprit stencil effect logo. Despite worries that the triple bar "E" would not be legible to customers, the new logo became one of the most recognized and memorable in international fashions.

The first few years of the decade saw Esprit launching in Canada, Chile, Germany, New Zealand, the Philippines, Switzerland and the US. A large format mail order catalogue enabled the business to reach its customers directly in their homes. The catalogue broke stodgy mail order design conventions, got record response rates and made Esprit a household name in America all without magazine, television or billboard advertising.

In 1981, Esprit Kids was launched with its own mail order catalogue. Esprit also brought the Shop in Shop concept to America: a self contained space, complete with distinctive fixtures, staff, music and shopping bags, is created within the larger department store. The look was industrial, matte black 80"s one customer called it "Darth Vader"s kitchen". 150 such Shop in Shops opened in the US within the first few years and the concept took root even more successfully in Germany. In 1983, Esprit"s first freestanding retail store opened in Hong Kong. In 1988, Esprit International was created to manage and develop the trademark and brand of Esprit worldwide.
Over the next few years the Esprit brand truly gelled. The separate product lines were brought together under 2 collections: Esprit and Esprit Sport. The look was bold, simple, and strong; it defied old demographic barriers, appealing to teenagers and grandparents alike. Olivero Toscani"s sexy, colorful, quirky photographs captured the essence of the brand. Roberto Carra shot the still lives without props, gimmicks or tricky effects. Tamotsu Yagi directed the graphics so that everything from labels and store signs to the napkin rings for the first Caffe Esprit in San Francisco fitted with Esprit"s unique look.

In the mid 80s Esprit ploughed its mail order profits into new Esprit stores in major cities around the world. Innovative designs provided free advertising through press coverage. Esprit developed its unique display style, which rejected artificiality and ostentation. In 1984 the mail order catalogue was discontinued.
1984 also saw the launching of the Real People campaign, featuring Esprit employees as models in catalogues and posters. Customers got their turns in later the seasons. The pictures were accompanied by offbeat quotes. Some people thought it was all pretty funny the comedienne Sandra Bernhardt was rumored to ridicule the concept in her stand up comedy routines but public reaction was massive.
late 80s
In 1985 retail operations began in Singapore. The following year a European design center in Dčsseldorf was built, and Esprit opened its first store in Germany. Esprit expanded its operations into Taiwan, the Netherlands, Belgium and Denmark the year after.

In 1987 Esprit devoted a page of its seasonal mailer to a letter from Doug and Susie urging the public to confront the growing AIDS epidemic. Outrage and praise followed. Esprit, the Comprehensive Design Principle was published by Japanese art publisher Robundo in 1989. It remained a standard reference for designers, artists and marketers around the world. The next two years saw Esprit launching in Norway, France and UK.

early 90s
In 1990 Esprit took out an ad in the Utne reader challenging over consumption. The ads" buy only what you need message triggered praise from the environmental movement, uproar from everyone else.

1990 also saw Doug and Susie going their separate ways. Susie, Michael Ying and Jčrgen Friedrich now shared ownership of the company worldwide. Meanwhile, Doug set up the Foundation for Deep Ecology and moved to Chile, where he eventually turns over 800,000 acres of virgin Andean forest into a nature reserve.
In the early 90s Esprit dedicated an in house design and research team to finding more environmentally and socially responsible ways to make clothes. That resulted in the Ecollection range. Despite extensive coverage in the fashion, lifestyle, ecological, agricultural and business press, Ecollection struggled to establish itself as a financially viable business, and was eventually discontinued in 1995. In the same year, Esprit Europe commited to exclusive use of organic cotton in its clothing.

In 1992, Esprit asked its customers: "What would you do to change the world?" 20,000 responses recorded a mixture of frustration and humor, idealism and realism. The answers and their authors became the subject of controversial magazine ads, and even got a spot on MTV. Stark black and white portraits, with no make up and almost no Esprit products in sight, accompanied messages like "keep a woman"s right to choose unless George Bush is free to baby sit". The US campaign was dropped after two rocky sessions. In Europe the concept was highly acclaimed and the campaign ran for 2 years.
1993 saw Esprit"s Asian distribution business listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange as Esprit Asia Holdings Limited.

mid to late 90s
In the mid 90s Esprit applied its design philosophy to new product lines: Eyewear, Timewear, Bath + Bed (or Bed + Bath if you shop in Hong Kong) and Socks + Tights. The Pacific Rim became the most active retail zone, with Esprit stores opening in Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, China, and Japan. Esprit Australia opened its 50th store, and in the UK, Belgium and Holland store numbers doubled in under a year.

In 1994 Esprit introduced its first collection of Dr. Seuss products for children. The collection featured the "Cat in the Hat" character and includes clothing, footwear and accessories. Soon adult Dr Seuss t shirts and sweatshirts were introduced; to everyone"s surprise, sales eclipsed the kid"s business. Men"s silk boxers and ties were introduced for the Holiday 1995 season and retailed so well that stores struggled to keep up with demand.

By 1996 Esprit served 44 countries worldwide and had creative offices in Hong Kong, Dčsseldorf and San Francisco. Fairchild publications, publisher of Women"s Wear Daily, conducted a nationwide poll to determine the 100 most recognized brands in the U.S. Esprit was ranked 28th. In 1997 Esprit moved away from its regional style operation and went global. Esprit Asia Holdings Ltd acquired Esprit Europe, Esprit Sourcing, 63% Esprit International and 5% Esprit US, more than doubling the size of the company"s then existing business. Esprit Asia Holdings Ltd was then subsequently renamed Esprit Holdings Ltd to reflect the business" multi regional scope and its vision of a vastly enlarged and vertically integrated company.

In 1998 Esprit celebrated 30 successful and innovative years of design. The decision to go global could not have been better timed, supporting the company through the financial lows in parts of Asia with booming sales in Europe and Australia. The licensing business remained highly profitable. Esprit also acquired Red Earth, a younger cosmetic business with potential stretching from New Zealand to Scandinavia.
The company gained a secondary listing on the London Stock Exchange.

Worldwide Thousand Ltd was formed in 1996 by acquiring Esprit Europe, Esprit Sourcing, 63% Esprit International, 5% Esprit US and 10% Esprit Japan.)

2000 to now
The new Millennium opened with Esprit asking: "how much faster can we grow?" In the 2001 financial year, the company has achieved eight consecutive years of turnover and profit growth and controlled over 3 million square feet of retail space in Europe and the Asia Pacific. Operating profits after finance costs of over HK$1.1 billion were recorded in financial year 2001. But the focus remains firmly on future expansion. In the new millennium, new product lines such as sportswear, clothes for newborns and toys were introduced.
In May 2000 the company was awarded the Forum Preis in Germany, in recognition of its outstanding entrepreneurial performance in the textile and fashion industry. In the same year Esprit Holdings Ltd became a constituent stock of Morgan Stanley"s MSCI Hong Kong Index.

The Esprit brand continued to enjoy great recognition during the new millennium. In 2001, a German independent market survey showed that the brand awareness of Esprit was the highest among women"s wear, reaching 84% of those surveyed. The same year, Fairchild publications" nationwide poll placed Esprit as the 52nd most recognized brand in the U.S.

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By Courtney Lynne
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