Our Esprit by Opening Ceremony collaboration (launching for the first time last fall) was a decades-long dream in the making for OC co-founders Carol Lim and Humberto Leon. The iconic brand of the ‘80s and ‘90s ushered in a new era that extended far beyond clothing—Esprit was an ethos, and a community. “We grew up visiting the Esprit stores, saving up for the logo sweatshirts,” they remember. “We’re so excited to share the Esprit story with the next generation.”
Here Carol and Humberto sit down with Esprit co-founder Susie Tompkins Buell to talk about the origins of the brand, creating a culture of inclusivity, and the importance of bringing consciousness to everything that you do.
CAROL + HUMBERTO: We grew up with Esprit and are such huge fans of what you created. From the clothing to the ethos of the brand, everything about it has been a big inspiration to us as entrepreneurs and business owners. How did you first start Esprit? What were the conversations you had before launching?
SUSIE BUELL: To be honest, it all started very simply. I had a friend, Jane, who loved fashion and I had just returned from a trip to Europe, and I was so inspired by the fashion I’d seen there—young women had such great style, and you didn’t really see that in America at the time. It was an expression of personality. One day we were talking and just decided to start our own company, and made a really simple line of dresses. They ended up doing really well, and one thing led to another and we kept expanding into different lines. Doug [Tompkins, Esprit Co-Founder] had been away for several months climbing, and when he came back he saw how well we were doing, and felt it was really something he could get behind. The energy was so amazing and it just propelled us to do more, see more, and make more.
It’s great when things just keep happening and falling into place like that. How did you come up with the name Esprit?
When we first started out, the dress line was called Plain Jane after our partner. Just a fun play on words. Then as we started expanding, we had a bunch of different lines—Sweet Baby Jane blouses, Coordinates which were a line of separates. We got to a point where we needed a name to encompass everything, and I’d heard the phrase “Esprit de Corps”—it was an army battalion or something—and it meant “The Spirit of the Group.” We liked the idea and energy behind that, and then we had the logo designed by John Casado and that really brought everything together. It just kept growing and moving forward.
We’re big thrifters, and have a lot of Coordinates from back in the day. We had no idea those were Esprit too!
Yes! From the very early days.
A lot of what you’re describing is how we started Opening Ceremony. We didn’t have fashion backgrounds, it was just a naïve curiosity and the love of creating an experience. And some of that was really inspired by Esprit, we remember visiting the stores as kids, everything about the experience was so memorable.
I’m glad that it was noticed! We really wanted to emphasize architecture and art and display it in our stores. We didn’t realize at the time how innovative it was, but it really was a new frontier in many ways.
There was such a great balance of industrial and artistic elements. And the iconic Memphis Design pieces, it was all so joyful and beautiful. How did you decide to work with Ettore Sottsass and the Memphis Design Group?
Doug was a huge fan of Italian culture, and he was always traveling back and forth to Italy. And we’d experimented with shop-in-shops at different department stores, so we had tried some different things out. When we decided to open our first store in the ‘80s, Doug wanted to work with them because he loved the Italian energy. Their aesthetic, colors, and designs really fit with Esprit. And same with the artist Joel Resnicoff, who we collaborated with on a series of prints. We wanted to work with like-minded people.
Esprit really was starting a conversations that no one else was having, about diversity, and social issues, and the environment. There always was such a consciousness in everything you did.
Everything we cared about—whether it was something aesthetic or something we discovered while traveling or protecting the environment—it was all channeled back into Esprit. As we traveled to India and Asia for production, we saw the impact of the industry first hand, and there was so much pollution and poverty and degradation. We didn’t want to contaminate the Earth with our business, so we changed our practices and our production. We were kids of the ‘60s and really took responsibility for what we created. I wish there was a greater sense of corporate responsibility today.
It really is so important, and something we constantly try to incorporate at Opening Ceremony, from our factories to the brands we collaborate with. It needs to be more at the forefront.
It’s not talked about enough. If I could share one message, it would be to create consciously—in every way. From the visual or aesthetic decisions to the way that things are made and produced, just be conscious.