COLIN HENRY, CHIEF PRODUCT OFFICER
Uscha Pohl: Esprit has a history of social and ecological engagement. What was the spirit and strength of ‘Esprit de Corp’? What were the roles of Susie and Doug Tompkins, respectively?
Colin Henry: You always need to look at Esprit in the social context of where and when it was formed. The ‘60s in San Francisco were the heady days of flower power and free love.
Susie and Doug were children of that era and so Esprit was formed by two people who had a fashionable product and wanted to make a difference.
The story is well documented how Susie met Doug, her selling T shirts out the back of her camper van and him chopping trees. But Doug was a climber and started The North Face and Susie loved fashion and founded Esprit.
[CH...] It was a North California phenomenon which became the first global lifestyle brand. It’s interesting that John Casado who designed the Esprit label in 1979 was also involved in the original branding of Apple.
When you talk to Susie and Doug, it almost happened by default, as opposed to by business plan. Doug was the marketing and brand man and dealt with the business side.
Susie was the creative – the ideas person, design person, product person. Susie was and is not ruled by fashion; her passion is seeing and changing things, taking unlikely sources of inspiration and turning them into commercial success.
Colour was huge. They were the very first to offer T-shirts and chinos in a multitude of colours, always with very strong quality. But with everything there was a social point, it had to mean something.
UP: Esprit launched the Ecollection in 1992 very much ahead of their times.
CH: It is fascinating this is now 20 years ago. The Ecollection was the first major brand’s ethically sourced sustainable collection on the market. And it was fashion of course, not ‘treehugger’. At the time it was big fashion news. I was then at Marks & Spencer in London working with Sheilagh Brown (Executive Head of Women’s Wear Design and Product Development). We got a Ḁight to San Francisco to try and have an audience with Susie and Doug.
UP: What happened?
CH: Back then this was truly groundbreaking - but expensive in terms of the costs of finding and developing the sources. This manifested itself in the price charged to the consumer, which dug into profitability. I think the day Susie sold the company in 1993, the day she left, they shut the collection down. From a business perspective perhaps that seemed the right thing to do, but from a sustainability position of the brand, it was a big mistake. But today it gives us an incredible, authentic heritage.
UP: Which key ethical projects and ecological processes is Esprit involved in or developing today?
CH: We are in the process of developing a long term sustainability agenda as a company and as a brand, but from a product perspective we have six areas that we are working on - wool, organic cotton, community projects in China and India, organic denim, water and recycling.
The first one is the Royal College of Art / sustainable wool project through Gostwyck Merino in Australia. Organic denim is another big one as we are a strong casual brand, and denim is a huge part of our business.
Water is a huge huge issue. Waste and squander is an enormous issue for the fashion industry. We are looking at all sorts of things in terms of waterless, water reduction in the manufacturing processes, and following up with post purchase wash/care, educating the customer.
Recycling is the final process. We are looking at all the surplus fabrics in factories, working to recycle the waste into new products, and then interfacing with our consumer, once they have worn our clothes.
[CH...] So it’s really quite a holistic approach in terms, as we are always asking:How and where do we make things? What we do with them before we sell them, what to do with them after they’ve been sold and worn?
What I love about it is that it’s the right thing to do, and we are bringing back to light something that we as an organization started about 20 years ago, continuing the thread, but with the founder involved.
UP: Can you tell us more about your relationship with Gostwyck Merino Wool?
CH: A spinner I knew from my time at M & S showed us the Gostwyck yarn - a merino wool with the handle of cashmere. When we examined it under the microscope you could see that the fibre was the same as cashmere and even finer at times.
Then I met Philip, the owner of Gostwyck and within 30 minutes of meeting, I had guaranteed his entire output for the next five years. It was just the perfect fit. Gostwyck is an amazing place. There’s just grass, the sky’s huge, everything’s huge, and in the midst of this, Phillip has 19 000 sheep.
[CH...] He says that if you don’t farm organically what happens is that the sheep all congregate at the same place - the highest piece of land - every night. Then all the feces, pests and ticks infest the sheep.
So if instead, you put water and protection around different parts of your farm and set up a rotation system, the sheep get the freshest grass and water. As the sheep keep moving, the nutrients in the land have a chance to come back into the soil. You create a harmonious cycle with no pesticides or insecticides.
Therefore the Gostwyck sheep are quite literally the happiest sheep in the world! The result, and this is nature for you, manifests itself in the garments, and their wool is just amazing.
We are now talking to other sheep stations who want to get on board and therefore they are actively looking at non-mulesing of sheep, rotational grazing etc. We are potentially in a position where we are converting more and more farms into this process. The wool from Australia then goes by ship into Hong Kong where we knit the sweaters.
UP: Tell us about the Esprit/RCA Limited Edition Eco Collection.
CH: My first encounter with the Royal College of Art was with Sheilagh Brown when I was at M&S, and have worked with them subsequently over the years in other roles. The Esprit/RCA Limited Edition is an annual competition with a bursary prize.
The students present us with a sustainable design pitch with samples of materials to work with. The students then do their runway show with the final products. We take the winner’s garments to do our ‘inspired by’ collections, using all organic and sustainable fabrics. This year’s winners, Victoria Hill, Katie Hildebrand and Amélie Marciasini stood out through their ability to bring their concepts into reality, to actually make it happen.
UP: How do you see the project’s impact on Esprit?
CH: The project gives our designers the freedom to be more adventurous, to think outside the box. Creative design comes from the most unlikely places so it is good for our designers to see something different, to consider a different perspective. Going forward we’ll also change from the 12 monthly collection cycle so that we’re still developing monthly units but 6 times a year. The intention is to free up time more time for the design teams.
UP: What for you is the most exciting prospect of the project?
CH: Esprit giving something back, and working with and nurturing up and coming talent. In turn we can be inspired by the product. The eco sustainable agenda is very serious so the more impulses, the more input we can get, the better.
UP: You are in transition. When do you anticipate the ‘new Esprit’ ?
CH: The pilot stores for our new global retail concept are happening now. The new product is starting to arrive. You see a distinct shift in terms of sensibility. The more relaxed advertising campaign with Gisele is up already so it’s ongoing from now. It takes time to change a big brand of this size.