SUSIE TOMPKINS BUELL, CO-FOUNDER
“Be informed — be involved — make a difference.“ That is and was my mission statement. I hope that Esprit still has that vision as well.
1968 was a busy year. Doug and I had two baby daughters, Quincey and Summer and we had just sold The North Face shop. I was looking for something to do to balance motherhood while Doug was making plans to go on some climbing expeditions.
Our friend Jane Tise was looking for a job, and I suggested we start a business making clothes for our peers as there wasn’t much around in California at the time. Jane and I decided to make little snug dresses and call the collection Plain Jane. We showed them to the Joseph Magnin store in San Francisco and their first order was the beginning.
I remember we never had gas money. I had to scramble to get everything made, but that was all part of the fun and magic. Doug was gone a lot but we figured things out and step by step we started the business. It was a lot of “winging it“. We never had a big plan, we were just kids trying things out.
It was a lot of doing the right thing at the right time, with a few little connections and a lot of energy. We borrowed money, got the samples made, sold, produced, shipped and everything in between. We had little competition then and there was a steadily growing need for trendy easy styles.
Jane and I would pop over to London for inspiration and come home full of ideas. Eventually we needed a new space, and Doug had a great time building. Everything we did was addressed creatively, quite like an art form, very process driven, very open.
We built a “factory“ complete with a kitchen full of healthy, great food. The building and business were like an extension of our family, little kids everywhere. We started to truly be guided by our corporate name “Esprit de Corp“, or the “spirit of the group“ which we had taken up.
A fire burned the entire building to the ground in the late 70s which was a devastating moment. By this time we had branched out in Europe and Asia and were responsible for many jobs. I think this was when we all grew up and recognized what we had, fully focused and came back better than ever. We were very appreciative of the loyalty of our people and returned the commitment and respect.
Doug and I incorporated our outside interests into the company: language lessons, a culture club, river rafting trips, disco classes, a gym, better kitchen and food. We used the business to create awareness in our employees and customers. We were probably the first company to have an active AIDS campaign.
When we became aware of the environmental degradation we tried to install responsible practices wherever we could in our offices and factories. This is very difficult, particularly in Asia. We set up an Eco desk to monitor things best we could.
The Eco desk led us to see that we needed to try to make a product that was as environmentally responsible as possible, and out of this, the “Ecollection“ was conceived. It was launched in 1992 after years of research. We bought the first lots of organic cotton and found many ways to be more responsible with the whole process, shipping included.
The Ecollection was the first of its kind and a very worthwhile endeavour. Lynda Gross, a very devoted designer, was running it and Dan Imhoff, the head of the Eco desk, was very involved on the communication side. We wanted to inform our consumer how destructive production could be.
In the meantime I had set up a foundation in the company focusing on the environment and women. Now it is called the Susie Tompkins Buell Foundation (www.susietompkinsbuell.org) and its focus is quite the same. Doug is doing critical work from his base in Chile (www.deepecology.org) so both of us have the passion and good fortune to make a difference.
I feel that we need to learn and teach to live with less and to walk gently and consciously so that others will have a chance. To live artfully, simply and passionately is more satisfying than being a conspicuous consumer. We need to know global situations, be passionate within our community; and know that in every place in our life we can make a difference.