VOL. MMXIII..No. 209

Design We Love | The Badass and the Beautiful

From Plain Jane to Esprit: The Making of a California Icon


 

 

In the annals of iconic brand identity, Esprit is one brand that often gets overlooked, even though the recent renaissance for all things 80’s has certainly caused plenty of brands to help themselves to Esprit’s esprit.

 

Founded in the late sixties by Doug and Susie Tompkins, Esprit was not originally destined for greatness, but some key players propelled the brand to unexpected heights.

 

Susie Tompkins thought what the world needed was a line of cheap and cheerful dresses called Plain Jane – not exactly a name most women would warm to.

 

The Esprit logo, designed by John Casado, based on the concept of a shipping container’s stencil.

It was her husband Doug, fresh from selling off the North Face brand, who had in mind to elevate Plain Jane to another level altogether — and that would involve a new name as well.


{ Esprit’s visionary was Doug Tompkins. When he and Susie divorced and she took over, the brand began to stagnate. }


John Casado, the creator of Esprit’s famous logo, tells the story of meeting Doug for the first time and discovering that the young entrepreneur had a secret collection of books on graphic design.

 

“Doug says, ‘yeah, it’s been a passion of mine for years. It’s kind of a hobby. I don’t know how to do it, but I love looking at it, which is why I found you.’”

 

It becomes clear that Esprit’s visionary was Doug Tompkins. When he and Susie divorced and she took over, the brand began to stagnate. By all accounts, Susie Tompkins ran the brand into the ground.

 

“He had a distinct idea of what he thought the brand was and should be. He was less concerned with the clothes and more with what the brand would communicate.”

 

 

Esprit’s early campaigns were shot by Oliviero Toscani, who insisted on using real people rather than models.

{ “He [Doug] had a distinct idea of what he thought the brand was and should be. He was less concerned with the clothes and more with what the brand would communicate.” }


The 1980’s was a turning point in design: the age of post-modernism and Memphis, combined with the sartorial experimentation of punk and New Wave.

 

John Casado’s answer for Esprit’s brand identity was a strikingly simple yet bold stencil which could be transformed via color.

 

“Doug asked me, he says, ‘Why did you design that stencil?’ and I said, ‘Because you export things. You have things made in China and you bring it all back.’ And he says, ‘Is that a concept?’ Well, it’s as good a concept as any, it’s what you do with it.”

 

To develop the image of the brand, Doug Tompkins tapped fashion photographer Oliviero Toscani.

 

Toscani was already a superstar lensman who’s work graced the covers of Vogue, Elle, and the image campaign for Fiorucci. He would go on to create a controversial campaign for Benetton.

 

 

 

Images from the 1985 book, Esprit: The Making of an Image. On the book’s cover, co-founder Susie Tompkins — standing on a box featuring a picture of Doug Tompkins. It was a complex relationship.

“To be honest, I wasn’t so keen to work on Esprit,” says Toscani, speaking to us from his apartment in Milan. “It was so ‘All-American’, so kitsch, it was just this mail-order catalogue called Plain Susie or something.”


{ “Doug and I had great ideas, great energy, great images – even if we didn’t have a great product.” }


Toscani doesn’t mince words, especially in regards to Susie Tompkins’ role.

 

“I mean the clothes, they were nothing! She would just go to Europe and copy. Doug and I had great ideas, great energy, great images – even if we didn’t have a great product. I said let’s do this: I wanted this energy with real people, girls we find in schools, not models. No makeup. We go out we improvise, we see what happens.”

 

 

At top, a classic Toscani image, while below, Toscani himself with his son. While he initially did not want to work on Esprit, he created some of his most memorable work.

The resulting campaigns shot by Toscani look innocent and even dated by today’s standards, but the effect they had on the industry at the time was transformative.

 

In nearly all of his images there is movement and emotion; so much so that he allows it to go out of frame– and yet makes the rough edges part of the picture. With those images, Esprit came into its own.

 

“I go with the moment and what the moment needs to communicate” says Toscani. “I don’t photograph fashion. Fashion is a consequence of that.”

 

 

 

 

 Esprit’s groundbreaking collateral and package design, developed by Tamotsu Yagi, who joined the company in 1984.

In fact what Toscani, Tompkins, and Casado did was make “Esprit” a powerful message of independence, vitality, and youth. The Esprit t-shirt found its way into everyone’s wardrobe. The style of layered pastels and repurposing one garment into something else became a recognizable look.

 

Together with Toscani’s imagery, those crisp, minimalist images drove a new aesthetic and lifestyle. Even if the clothes amounted to little more than ordinary sweatshirts and plastic shoes.

 

“Doug and I, we critiqued all the time what was happening in fashion, that’s how we developed our ideas,” says Toscani. “We wanted to go against that. I told him, ‘Drop that de Corps [the registered brand mark was Esprit de Corp], that’s bullshit. It’s so pretentious, so California.’”

 

 

Esprit tapped the legendary industrial designer Ettore Sottsass to create store interiors, which showcased many of his Memphis furnishings.

When it came time to open stores, Doug Tompkins used Toscani’s connections to parlay his way into the office of the legendary Ettore Sottsass, whom he convinced to design Esprit’s stores and furnishings.

 

Did customers know they were shopping in an environment replete with of-the-moment Memphis furnishings? Probably not, but by now Esprit was profitable and could spend lavishly on bold brand ideas.

 

Tamotsu Yagi joined Esprit in 1984 and furthered Casado’s design ideas with revolutionary packaging concepts involving bold colors and plastic shells. Virtually every piece of collateral featuring inventive graphics and materials.

 

To this day, Esprit’s graphic design continues to be a touchpoint for designers.

 

If you can get your hands on it, the 1985 book, Esprit: The Making of an Image by Helie Robertson is an incredible look back at what made the brand’s image campaigns so influential.

 

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