Esprit de Corps
The fashion designs of Susie Tompkins made Esprit a popular maker of colorful, casual clothes for teenage girls in the 1980s. Tompkins later led campaigns to establish an additional clothing line for older, working women, and to promote Esprit as a company with a social conscience.
Born Susan Russell in 1943, Susie Tompkins spent much of her childhood in San Francisco's wealthy Russian Hill neighborhood. Though her childhood may have been privileged, it was less than ideal—she was sent to boarding school at age three. And as Tompkins recalled in Business Week, "When I was little, I wanted to be a nun, a cowgirl, a cheerleader, a professional ski racer . . . . Mother said to me a dozen times: 'You'll never amount to a row of pins.'" When she was 15, Tompkins's father lost his business and the family lifestyle was altered. She was a rebellious young adult and did not finish high school or go to college.
In 1963 Tompkins was working in a Reno, Nevada, casino. One day she picked up Doug Tompkins while he was hitchhiking and the pair married the same year. Susie and Doug Tompkins were married for 25 years and had two daughters, Summer and Quincey. In 1996, Susie Tompkins remarried and changed her name to Susie Buell.
In 1968 Susie started the Plain Jane dress company with friend Jane Tise. Doug soon became involved, hoping to turn the successful small business into a big one. Tise and Allen Schwartz, another partner, left the company after 10 years of corporate unrest, at which time the company name was changed to Esprit de Corps. The clothing line changed, too, to brightly printed casual clothes for young women. The concept of "ageless dressing" was promoted and they began to advertise their clothing line. They also sent out catalogs to upper-income households. Doug ran business operations and Susie was design director.
Under the Tompkinses' direction, Esprit was extremely successful. Esprit clothes were sold in upscale stores such as Macy's, I. Magnin, Nordstrom, and Saks 5th Avenue. The company did well until late 1987, when earnings began to drop. Doug and Susie did not agree on how to respond to the financial crisis and began publicly criticizing each other's work. Their marriage and business were falling apart simultaneously. Soon, the Tompkinses filed for divorce and agreed to sell the company. Susie was now only nominally involved in the company as a consultant, and a new CEO replaced Doug.
In early 1990 Tompkins met Bruce Katz, the founder of Rockport Shoe Co., who told her how much he regretted having sold the company he had created. Tompkins subsequently made up her mind to buy out Doug's interest in Esprit. With three partners, she struck a deal with her ex-husband that gave him $125 million. The company may have been worth as much as $380 million, based on an independent appraisal.
Under Susie's direction, Esprit changed both stylistically and philosophically. Tompkins had always wanted to design work clothes for older women, and could now do so. In 1992 she launched an adult line under the Susie Tompkins label, which was aimed to regain customers who had worn Esprit clothes 10 to 15 years earlier. Metropolitan Home described this collection as "a fresh interpretation of classic shapes from the Forties and Fifties." Tompkins also steered the company away from the excesses of the 1980s, when it was known as "Camp Esprit" for its lavish perks, and used Esprit to support a variety of social causes through employee volunteerism programs and marketing. Tompkins's attempt to sell fashion with a social conscience came from a deep personal commitment. This approach was something of a departure from company policy in earlier years, when it lavished its attention on employees with rafting trips and foreign language lessons. Tompkins explained in Working Woman, "The wave of the '90s is to do good things. . . The '80s were all about style and lifestyle. The '90s are about soul-searching."
Tompkins's own soul searching led her to make the company a more responsible manufacturer, to minimize negative impact on the environment by using more enzymes and fewer chemical pollutants in the manufacturing process. An "Eco-Desk" run by daughter Quincey audited corporate practices. She used Esprit to promote programs run by the Glide Memorial Methodist Church, which assists battered women, drug abusers, people with AIDS, and the homeless. Also, Tompkins gave employees time off to do volunteer work. "We can be a company that inspires its employees, that tries to do more in the community, that tries to make a more conscientious product," she said in Working Woman.
But these changes failed to revive Esprit. A 1992 Business Week headline queried, "Will Politically Correct Sell Sweaters?" Seemingly, it did not. The Susie Tompkins line was closed in 1995, after having been introduced not with a fashion show, but by a sermon on inner-city troubles from the pastor of Tompkins's favored Glide Memorial Methodist Church of San Francisco. Furthermore, the company was plagued by distribution problems, caused by a long-standing use of department store "boutiques." In 1996, Doug and Susie Tompkins sold their Asian and European interests in Esprit to Michael Ying, in Hong Kong, and their U.S. interest was bought out by Oak Tree Capital Management and Cerberus Partners in October 1996.
Chronology: Susie Tompkins
1963: Took job in a casino.
1969: Founded Plain Jane, a dress company, with Jane Tise.
1979: Founded Esprit with partner Doug Tompkins.
1989: Divorced Doug Tompkins.
1990: Bought out ex-husband's U.S. interest in company.
1996: Susie and Doug Tompkins sold all interests in company.
Social and Economic Impact
While her husband was largely responsible for the innovative marketing strategies that propelled Esprit to its financial pinnacle in 1986 with $800 million in sales, Tompkins's clothes were the key to the company's success. Her designs for playful, casual separates were also innovative and placed the company as an important stylistic predecessor to stores such as the Limited and the Gap. Her influence on Esprit and on the fashion industry was very straightforward and personal. In keeping with this, she was known at the company simply as "Susie." Never having studied design or marketing, her ideas came from the heart. She told Metropolitan Home,"When you don't know the 'right' way to do something . . . you're less inhibited by dogma."
When the Tompkinses argued over design decisions, however, Doug often prevailed. He vetoed Susie's idea to create more sophisticated, mature designs. An industry consultant cited in Working Woman said that Esprit had thus "dropped the ball" and missed out on a major fashion trend; "Their customer was growing up—and they weren't growing up with her." Tompkins's return after a two-year hiatus during the couple's breakup had a big impact on the company's direction. Sue Copeland, an Esprit design director, opined in Working Woman, "what Susie brought back to the company overnight, in the eyes of the industry, is a feminine point of view—style, print, the foundation for the success of Esprit."
Sources of Information
Contact at: Esprit de Corps
900 Minnesota St.
San Francisco, CA
Business Phone: (415)648–6900
Appelbaum, Cara. "A Tight Fit." Adweek's Marketing Week, 16 March 1992.
Beard, Patricia. "Generation Gab: Five Mother-and-Daughter Sets." Town & Country Monthly, 1 September 1994.
Contemporary Newsmakers. Detroit: Gale Research, 1987.
D'Innocenzio, Anne. "Tompkinses In Deal To Sell Last Holdings in Esprit to Partner." WWD, 16 October 1996.
McGrath, Ellie. "Esprit the Sequel." Working Woman, September 1991.
Rapp, Ellen. "The War of the Bosses." Working Woman, June 1990.
Saeks, Diane Dorrans. "Always True in Her Fashion." Metropolitan Home, September 1992.
Tuhy, Carrie. "Catching the Spirit at Esprit." Money, July 1986.
White, Constance C.R. "Patterns." New York Times, 4 February 1997.
Zinn, Laura, and Michael O'neal. "Will Politically Correct Sell Sweaters?" Business Week, 16 March 1992.
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