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Unlikely Couple Hitches Up to Take Esprit on High Road of Sloppy Chic

November 16, 1987|MARTHA SHERILL DAILEY | Washington Post

Doug and Susie Tompkins can't be found in Who's Who in America. They don't fly first-class. And when Forbes magazine dropped the couple from its list of the "Four Hundred Richest People in America" (last year's estimated worth, $350 million), Doug says he was relieved.

"I hate the whole idea of that damn thing," he says. "It's a drag."

The Tompkinses are a part of a new generation of entrepreneurs who have merged their counterculture ideals with their corporate identities. They say their product--suitably sloppy clothes for the MTV generation--is not simply fashion; it's a way of life.

They not only have esprit, they are Esprit.

"Esprit is so much more than anyone thinks it is," says Susie, 45, who started the business 20 years ago out of her cramped San Francisco kitchen. "It's a life style, a culture, a society."

"Whatever is unique to Esprit is the effort to put a comprehensive show together," says Doug, 44, CEO and administrator of the architectural department. "It's your clothing, your image and the aura that you spin around the clothing, the form of advertising and promotions, the catalogues, the use of photography, store architecture, the interiors."

It's High Concept. Just as Ralph Lauren sells WASP nostalgia or Banana Republic markets the allure of exotic travel, Esprit trades on Northern California hip.

It successfully sells an image the way its competition--the Gap, the Limited, Benetton--sells a product. Fresh, casual and just a little funky, the Esprit clothes often make less of an impression than the Esprit ethos.

"It's like, it's no big deal," Susie says. "They're just clothes." But her designs have accomplished the impossible: They straddle the line between what a teen-ager wants to wear and what a parent is willing to buy.

Esprit has invaded Europe, the Far East and the Middle East as well as America, with worldwide sales estimated at $800 million a year. Sixty-five percent of sales are international--the clothes are sold in 25 countries. Twelve new stores will open in Italy this year. An Esprit Superstore is set to open on Sloane Street in London.

The Tompkinses were both in Washington in September for the opening of the new East Coast flagship store, 11,000 square feet of white walls, soaring ceilings and streamlined polished steel. Airy, modern, a little hollow, it is a timeless backdrop for the changing moods of adolescence.

But they were together only in esprit. More like business partners than partners in marriage, Doug and Susie rarely see each other.

They share a house on the curvy part of Lombard Street on San Francisco's Russian Hill, but Doug spends half the year outside Milan, and Susie spends many months at their place in Hong Kong.

"There's a conflict between us, but there's a dynamic that can create a lot of positive energy," she explains.

Susie has never dressed for success. Her sunny blond bob is tousled, and her Esprit suit needs ironing. She wears no makeup and only two pieces of jewelry--a plain gold wedding band and a man's stainless steel Rolex.

As design director, she's here to check on the clothing displays and the supply of short skirts. Sitting in the new Esprit store, she is constantly turning over a thought and checking her feelings.

When she bought herself a "little Mercedes" recently, she says, Doug thought it was "vulgar." But "it doesn't mean that I've copped out," she says. "I don't think it's vulgar."

And Doug, still stewing about his childhood spent with rich kids, doesn't believe in inheritance. Their daughters, Quincey, 21, and Summer, 20, will have to survive on Susie's half of Esprit. "You sit around waiting for the money to come in, and it retards your personal growth," he says.

"I don't agree with him," Susie says, "but that's the way he is."

Three days after his wife leaves town, Doug arrives. Cruising around the new store, he's got on his corporate uniform--pressed cotton shirt, belted jeans and Timberland shoes.

Speaking softly, just louder than the be-bop piped in over his head, he doesn't sound like an aggressive, ambitious, teenwear tycoon. He seems more like a man on vacation.

"I see all sorts of slapdash stuff up and down this street," he says of Wisconsin Avenue in Georgetown as he settles back in a black, high-tech office chair. Considering himself an architect without a license, he's here attending to what he loves most--the Esprit environment.

"First of all, the tapes around here now are not my favorites," he says, referring to the be-bop. He prefers more profound shopping music--instrumentals like "Celestial Sodapop" off Ray Lynch's "Deep Breakfast" album. It's wistful, space-age jazz, the kind of sound track you'd imagine for a California condor on its final flight.

Doug, like Susie, is kid-size, inquisitive and aesthetically preoccupied. They have designed everything for Esprit, from dressing rooms reminiscent of black port-a-johns and postmodern sales receipts to management style and advertising.

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