The End Of Esprit

Once a go-to label for those seeking affordable threads with a trendy spin, Esprit has lagged behind to the point it has to now close all of its stores across Asia, except, for the time being, China


Esprit SG 1Shuttered during the during the Circuit Beaker, Esprit will now close, probably for good. Photo: Zhao Xiangji

Seriously blighted by the COVID-19, fashion retail in the region just witnessed its first major tragedy. Hong Kong-headquartered Esprit announced yesterday that it would pull out of the Asian market, except in China. Esprit’s closure surprised no one. Its appeal has waned for many years as shoppers—more discerning, we’re told—are lured by cheaper and even more casual rags offered by brands such as H&M and Bershka, as well as local outfits such as The Editor’s Market. It’s telling when digital-native news outlets react to such a large-scale regional closure by saying, “If your mum and aunt are fans, it’s probably best to break the sad news to them.”

Esprit has been talking about “turnarounds” since at least 2013. Yet it never quite achieved it. To be sure, the brand has been languishing, as if waiting for something as insidious as COVID-19 to strike. For most millennials, Esprit does not register on their radar, a situation evident from the time ‘millennials’ became an important consumer category. For many in the trade, it did not adapt despite clearly evolving retail and fashion trends. The situation became more dire after its entrepreneur-turned-billionaire chairman Michael Ying (邢李㷧), ex-husband of Taiwanese screen legend Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia (林青霞), vacated that corporate seat in 2006 and, as reported, cashed out half of his stake in the brand.

In the early ’70s, the stars had aligned for Mr Ying, then working in a garment factory at a time they still existed in Hong Kong. Fate intervened and it was here that he met Esprit founders Susie and Doug Tompkin. They described him to Time that he struck them as “confident and smart”. In 1972, he was appointed their sourcing agent, and two years later, with a borrowed USD2,600, joined the husband and wife, and created Esprit Far East Group. At first, the Tompkins designed the clothes (mostly the missus, by our understanding), while Mr Ying oversaw the production. In time, the Hong Kong operations grew to become Esprit Asia, allowing Mr Ying his own reign over the market he was thought to know best, while the Tompkins controlled the US operations and planned their European expansion. In 1993, Esprit was listed on the HK Stock Exchange, and three years after that, the Tompkins sold their shares to the man who made their brand big in Asia. The business on our island, similarly, was looking promising.

But fashion is not known to be lenient on the labels that lag. As the ’90s wound down, Esprit in the US went from trendy to fusty. By 2012, it closed all of its North American stores after banking on its past glory for a turnaround that barely struck for nearly a decade. As early as 2005, a year before Mr Ying stepped down from his influential role at the company he co-created, the media was speculating that Esprit was “at risk of being left behind by trends”. Zara had opened its first Singapore store in 2002 (Hong Kong in 2004). The near-instant success and widespread influence of Zara should have affected or alerted Esprit, by then considered a “tired brand”, but, enervated or not, they simply coasted.

Esprit SG 2A closed-during-Circuit-Breaker Esprit store. Photo: Zhao Xiangji

Analysts said that Esprit was in serious need of trendy-looking stores, filled with trendy-looking (if not trendy) clothes. In their early, halcyon years here—when, as they say, your mum and aunt were fans, Esprit was, in fact, a sprightly clothing line retailed in swanky modernistic interiors that would not be out of place in post-Amazon Singapore, even today. Its Orchard Road flagship in the mid-’80s was conceived by the late Japanese design giant Shiro Kuramata, who was noted during that decade and after for his more avant-garde interiors for Issey Miyake’s stores throughout the world. Fans of Shiro Kuratama’s work also remember him to be part of the Ettore Sottsass-led design collective known as the Memphis group, once quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle as “a shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and FisherPrice”.

The duplex Esprit store was situated at the now defunct Crown Prince Shopping Centre (replaced by Knightsbridge where the Apple store is), a part of the Crown Prince Hotel that opened in 1984, with a three-storey retail podium, much of it barely visited except for Esprit. Although Esprit was a mass-market label that might have recalled the Gap, it was more Benetton in spirit, and very much captured the era that saw the birth of Swatch. Yet, its retail setting was unlike any of its ilk. For starters, that flagship was huge, and it was not packed to the rafters with merchandise the way it is today at, say, Uniqlo’s main Orchard Road store. Inside, it was not only spacious, it was a nod to modernism without that “shotgun wedding”.

We remember quite vividly the massive glass door-fronted entrance, after which lies an escalator, stretching diagonally from the second floor into the centre of the first. Under this pair of moving staircases was a circular cashier counter. The perimeter of the space is a meandering fringe of wire ropes, used not as balustrades, but as framework on which racks and shelves could be affixed. A former employee, who asked not to be identified, told us that “Esprit was really a nice space—very designer, not like their later stores. For many customers, Esprit was a very fun place to shop in. That it was very big for a mass-market brand probably helped. We moved the merchandise a lot, so that each time, a shopper walked in, they felt like they had entered a different space. We had a terrific visual merchandising team, too. They really made the store different from so many others at that time, such as Benetton, which I thought did not match what we did.”

EspritOne of the Esprit ads from the ’80s that depicted an infectious “Californian” cheerfulness. Photo: Esprit

One ex-editor seconded that: “Esprit was a great place to hang out for members of the press. It was easy to borrow merchandise for our shoots. We could walk in any time. And the staff would be eager to help. I remember one vivacious character Daisy—who is actually David. He would walk us round the store and show us things, even asking us to try them. In the mean time, models and the well-dressed would stop by—Daisy seemed to know them all. And there was their legendary sale!” We remember that too. The die-hards were reported to have queued as early as 7am. Back then, this was unprecedented as it was before the hyped-up collaborations that made camping overnight necessary outside H&M and similar, and certainty way before Robinsons’ Black Friday Sale, now seeing a repeat in the same area of the madness of some 30 years ago.

Esprit’s connection with our city, then one of Asia’s largest markets after Hong Kong, was more that their retail stores, which, at its height, numbered 20 (or more, but today only a dozen stores are scattered throughout the island—by June, as reported, they shall be no more). Yang Derong, a former Singaporean designer director with French label Jean Charles de Castlebajac, was Esprit’s global image director for a reported 11 years (he joined them in 1994). Now the visual maverick behind the irreverent IG page Face Of The Day, Mr Yang’s role, according to the company’s corporate literature, was “to create and ensure the smooth implementation of an integrated image system throughout the operating regions of the Group.” It isn’t clear if he was directly involved in the creation of the images that, by the Noughties, was less bouncy, sunshine-y, and Californian-casual, but his tenure with “a truly international lifestyle brand” was an illuminating beacon for Singaporean creatives.

Esprit’s has always been, for a good part of their successful years, about image. Foremost is the triple-bar ‘E’ in the split-font, stencil-like logo, designed by the American graphic artist John Casado in 1979. Mr Casado was better known later for the logo he co-created with Tom Hughes for the Mackintosh computer of the mid-’80s, specifically the incorrectly described “Picasso” squiggles that appeared on the screen when the computer booted up. And there were the eye-catching communication materials, including hang tags and in-store collateral. Throughout the late ’80s (and, to be sure, much of the early ’90s) Esprit had significant aesthetical impact on fashion retail, especially their visual communication, so much so that Japanese art publisher Robundo put out, in 1989, Esprit, the Comprehensive Design Principle, a compendium of the brand’s corporate design, penned by co-founder and self-styled “director of image” Doug Tompkins.

Esprit bookThe hardback Esprit, the Comprehensive Design Principle. Photo: publisher

Mr Tompkins was, by most account, instrumental in the ‘look’ of Esprit and the swanky retail environment that he accorded the clothes. According to popular telling, he met his wife-to-be Susie Quincey Russell in 1964 when he hitched a ride from her in San Francisco—she in a Beetle, on the way to Tahoe City. In less than a year, the couple were married. At that time, Ms Russell already had a clothing label of her own that was created with a friend. It was called Plain Jane, deliberately ironic since the puff-sleeved floral dresses they sold to stores were anything but plain. (Apparently, Mr Tompkins did not think the name au courant enough and later changed it by adopting the first word of the French expression of mainly military use, esprit de corp.) Concurrently, Mr Tompkins, too was in fashion—sort of. He started a then relatively unknown store across the street from what is considered to be SF’s most famous bookshop, City Lights, selling rock-climbing gear under the name The North Face.

It is arguable that Susie Tompkins’s designs were the stuff of design books, but her husband, many seemed to concur, had taste that could be described as contemporary, even visionary. An Italian design fanatic, he had engaged, apart from Shiro Kuramata, the father of the Memphis group himself, Ettore Sottsass, to design Esprit stores in Europe and in the US. He commissioned controversial Italian lensman and art director Oliviero Toscani, later best remembered for the shocking images he shot for Benetton, as well as for being the co-founder of the Benetton-owned magazine Colorsto churn out images that reflected Esprit’s affable Californian disposition, without the sex appeal that later characterised the work of Bruce Weber for Abercrombie & Fitch.

A better-world was what Esprit’s ads communicated, predating Benetton in its social-conscious rhetoric and even Gap in its use of “ordinary people” (sometimes staff, sometimes models made to look un-model-like). This marketing smarts in time came at the expense of the quickly-turning-lacklustre merchandise. Visual communication often enjoys the advantage of styling, which could project an aesthetical advantage not necessarily seen on the products of the selling floor. Clothes, conversely, have to stand on their own, on the strength of good design. Director of image Doug Tompkins was not quite moving in tandem with director of design Susie Tompkins, with reports of discord on the domestic front. By the time Esprit opened its striking flagship in Orchard Road in 1985, the Thompkins were living apart. The marriage formally broke down in 1988.

Esprit X OCThe Esprit X Opening Ceremony collaboration in 2017. Photo: Esprit/Opening Ceremony

As fast fashion gathered momentum in the late ’90s and dominated most of the ’00s, Esprit found itself lagging behind. In the US, where the two founders held sway over the company, corporate troubles were brewing even after their divorce, and it was in the courts that the disputes were sorted out. In Asia, Esprit USA’s problems hardly registered among shoppers. In Europe, where the business was far more buoyant, bothered not with the American unit was the dominant attitude. By 2012, Esprit closed all its stateside stores. In 2018, all Australian and New Zealand outposts shuttered too. The clothes’ persistent latching on to its past UPI of lively optimism, pseudo-retro looks and snatches of Americana made the output even until now look decidedly dated. Inside Retail Asia, in a 2018 report, wrote, “The product assortment was—politely put—dull”.

To be sure, Esprit did rejig its product assortment. It was at one time broaden into three groups, each—we do not remember—to be different from the other. There was Collection, which the brand described as “a distinctive concept with an urban and contemporary fashion and quality profile”, the young edc (abbreviation of the French phrase that inspired their name and spelled in lower case), which was “positioned closer to the ‘rule breaker’ and ‘restless individualist’ segment to reinforce the youthful Esprit image”, and the clearly unimaginative Casual, a line “injected with more emotional elements and higher quality perception”. The distinction may be obvious to the categories’ creators, but the shoppers’ “perception” did not change: Esprit was uninspired jumble.

At its height in the ’90s, Esprit in Hong Kong was unlike any local fashion retail outfit. Many stores were large-format, buzzy hubs that served the respective shopping districts in which they held court. In 1997, one megastore even housed an Esprit hair salon, conceived with Kim Robinson, the city’s hairdresser to the stars. It was superfluous enhancement and, as some still say, too little too late. Regardless, it tried to pull itself up to what might be considered current—fashion as lifestyle offering. In 2012, it inexplicably used high fashion, likely very expensive, Brazilian model Gisèle Bündchen in their campaigns, which we thought at the time to be like asking Queen Elisabeth to shop at Topshop. Catching up with the collaboration game, Esprit paired with the also-dipping Opening Ceremony in 2017 for a capsule that attempted to revive the former’s cheery casualness. It is hard to stoke lost cool. The most glorious of fruits, no matter how attractively arranged, when uneaten or untouched, simply go off.