INC. Esprit Holdings - Fashion Designer Encyclopedia

American fashion design company

Cofounded: as Plain Jane Dress Company by Susie and Doug Tompkins and Jane Tise in San Francisco, 1968; the Tompkins became sole owners, 1975; couple divorced, 1989; shares sold to Susie Tompkins, 1990; company incorporated and name changed to Esprit de Corp., 1970; Company History: Worldwide sales reached more than $1 billion by 1987; Esprit Men designed in Dusseldorf and launched in Europe, 1989; Ecollection, environmentally friendly line using organic fabrics and low impact fibers, launched, 1992; ready-to-wear in Japan, 1993; 240 retail stores worldwide by 1994; Susie Tompkins line discontinued, 1995; creditors take over, Tompkins replaced by Jay Margolis, 1996; joint venture with China Resources Enterprises, 1997; celebrated 30th anniversary and launched DKNY toddler and infant line, 1998; lost DKNY children's license to Oxford Industries, 2000; Margolis departed and Joe Hein took the reins, 2000; debuted Esprit Scents and Senses line of fragrances, 2001; signed licensing deals for sleepwear, outerwearm and swimsuits, 2001. Company Address: 900 Minnesota Street, San Francisco, CA 94107, U.S.A. Company Website: .




Sudjic, Deyan, "Esprit: The Singular Multiple," in Blueprint (London), June 1987.

Benson, Heidi, "Reinventing Esprit," in the San Francisco Focus, February 1991.

McGrath, Ellie, "Esprit, the Sequel," in Working Woman, September 1991.

White, Constance C.R., "Tompkins Gets Her Line," in WWD, 2March 1992.

Zinn, Laura, "Will Politically Correct Sell Sweaters?" in Business Week, 16 March 1992.

Lawson, Skippy, "Esprit and the Rain Forests," in WWD, 29 April 1992.

White, Constance C.R., "Susie Tompkins: Crossing a New Bridge," WWD, 10 March 1993.

"Susie's New Spirit," in W, 10 May 1993.

Stodder, Gayle Sato, "A Perfect Fit," in Entrepreneurial Woman (New York), Summer 1993.

Ozzard, Janet, "Jay Margolis Heading Esprit, Opting Out of Deal on Tracy, in WWD, 9 January 1996.

Underwood, Elaine, "Reinventing Esprit's Core," in Brandweek, 13May 1996.

White, Constance C.R., "Esprit Shifts Its Focus," in the New York Times, 4 February 1997.

"Esprit Slates DKNY Line for Infants," in WWD, 11 June 1998.

Hofman, Mike, "Susie and Doug Tompkins," in Inc., September 1998.

Lockwood, Lisa, "Margolis to Exit Esprit," in WWD, 9 September 1999.

Carlsen, Clifford, "Revlon Exec to Lead the Troops at Esprit deCorp.," in the San Francisco Business Times, 3 December 1999.

"Karan Switches License for DKNY Kids to Oxford," in WWD, 7March 2000.

Drier, Melissa, "Lancaster Launches Esprit Scent Sextet," in WWD, 20 October 2000.

"Esprit Set for Return to UK," in UK Retail Report, December 2000.

"Hochman's Esprit Deal," in WWD, 16 July 2001.


When we started the Plain Jane Dress Company in 1968, we never dreamed it would develop into the worldwide organization now known as Esprit, with operations in [dozens of] countries. "Esprit de Corp.," our official corporate name, was intended to inspire the spirit of the organization and evoke a sense of cooperation, camaraderie, and community.

When we started Esprit we had no previous experience whatsoever in the fashion business…what business skills we might have possessed came from being in the mountain climbing equipment industry for a brief time, where any reference to fashion was an anathema. The idea of fashion, image, and image-making was far from our minds. It was not, in fact, until 12 years after the founding of the company that any attempt to form an image and create a context for the product was made. In 1980 a radical shift in direction was undertaken. A mixed bag of seven different trade names was consolidated under one name, Esprit, and a new logo along with new labels, tags, packaging, and strong fashion photography was created.

As in all things that start modestly and by amateurs, progress, growth, expansion, and refinements come in steps and stages. Experience is gathered on the job and a process begins and evolves. Likewise, success leads to more opportunities, mistakes, improvements, and avoidance of repeating past errors, or hopefully so!

Today, Esprit designs, manufacturers, and distributes product lines four seasons per year, including infant, toddler, kids, womenswear, menswear, footwear, accessories, bath and bed, eyewear, and watches. Because clothing is one of our most basic means of self expression, the fashion industry lends itself toward the communication of values, and offers us the challenge and opportunity to interpret the ongoing changes throughout the world. Our corporate mission statement is: "Be informed. Be involved. Make a difference." It may seem like an idealistic and unusual guiding philosophy for an international fashion company, but Esprit has never been "business as usual."



The Esprit label graces clothing, shoes, accessories—anything a woman can wear with comfort both at work and at play. As W magazine put it, Esprit is "part of that huge, growing category of well-priced clothes that range from the street-smart style of DKNY and CK Calvin Klein to the career-oriented mood of Ellen Tracy and Anne Klein II." Perhaps the most distinguishing features of Esprit fashions are what the clothing are not—Esprit labels may never appear on the clingy cocktail dress, the stifling "power suit," or the crippling high-heeled pump. Instead, a typical Esprit outfit shows a looser-fitting rayon vest or tunic over wide-legged pants or perhaps a flowing, calf-length skirt made of soft cotton.

According to the journal View on Colour, Esprit "has come to epitomize the Northern California lifestyle, an informative mix of a sunny climate, bold colors, outdoor sports, eternal youth, and social values. Esprit's saucy sportswear…encouraged (if not triggered) the worldwide sportswear boom." This success was the result of the personal vision of Esprit de Corp. cofounder Susie Tompkins, who got her start, along with partner Jane Tise, in her native San Francisco selling homemade frocks under the name Plain Jane in 1968. For its first several years, the line was especially popular with teenagers. Eventually, however, the clothing represented both youthful style and career-minded fashion that might be found in grown-up settings, such as the casual office.

In the early 1980s, a poor business decision over shopping venues nearly caused the downfall of Esprit de Corp. Though it had its best success as a subsection of other retail outlets the company attempted to expand its base into individual outlets. This put Esprit into direct competition with such names as Gap and The Limited. By the time Esprit had extricated itself from this marketing notion, the fashion line had, according to industry expert Allan Millstein, "missed the market for five years. They missed 20 seasons…[meaning] they lost half a generation of kids."

Between 1975 and 1987, Esprit's worldwide sales approached $1 billion. But by 1987, after Tompkins and her husband/business partner Doug Tompkins disagreed on the company's direction, sales dropped. Doug offered to buy the company from under Susie; she considered the proposal until a meeting with another fashion entrepreneur, Bruce Katz of Rockport Shoes, persuaded her to stay with the company she had founded. So the designer elected to buy out Doug instead, enlisting the financial support of Katz and several others. The estranged Doug and Susie met to work out the future of Esprit. They came to the decision that Susie would buy back the company, and Doug would bow out to the tune of $125 million.

Under Tompkins' direction, the company initiated the Ecollection line of clothing in the spring of 1992—"a big step, even for trendsetting Esprit," according to View on Colour . The Ecollection fashions were notable for being produced in the most environmentally friendly way possible. Ecollection wasn't the only Esprit subsection, however, since the 1970s the company has initiated several product lines. Besides the regular Esprit-branded products, there are Esprit Foot-wear and Accessories, Esprit Kids, and the Susie Tompkins signature line which was considered more sophisticated and aimed at working women older than 25 (line discontinued in 1995).

In the field of marketing, Esprit worked hard to keep its brand name in chain department stores like T.J. Maxx and in various company-owned venues. Franchises ranged in location from Hawaii to Puerto Rico, and Esprit maintained outlet stores throughout the United States. In March of 1993 Tompkins outlined Esprit's future for Women's Wear Daily, stating that the firm wanted to "Develop business with existing customers as well as with existing stores…Esprit, like the entire junior market, is in the process of reevaluating the customer today, and I'm continuing to pursue this marketplace with consideration of the roots and culture of this company."

Tompkins also stressed Esprit wasn't "trendy," as she stated in a San Francisco Focus article. "We don't have to be doing what everybody else is doing. We just have to do our style, which is a kind of eclecticness and an integrity of design. Mixing old things with new things; having a really nice way of presenting color." Unfortunately for Tompkins and Esprit, however, was the company's slide into trouble in the mid-and late 1990s. Tompkins left the company after creditors took control, and Jay Margolis, formerly of Tommy Hilfiger, was brought in to save the ailing retailer in 1996.

Margolis succeeded in revitalizing Esprit's image and bringing the firm back to profitablility through a slew of shrewd marketing deals. Declining to renew his contract, he left in late 1999 was replaced by Joe Heid, a former Revlon executive. Heid focused less on licenses and more on Esprit's own brands, telling Clifford Carlsen of the San Francisco Business Times (3 December 1999), "We need to grow Esprit, and the avenues are limitless." Heid reintroduced the company in the UK by opening two large stores in 2000, even though only two years earlier nine Esprit outlets had been shuttered. Additionally, Heid initiated a $10-million advertising campaign in home base San Francisco, signed licensing deals for sleepwear, outerwear, and swimsuits for women and girls, and launched a line of bath and body products, called Esprit Scents and Senses, in its two biggest markets, Germany and Hong Kong.


updated by OwenJames

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