Byline: Janet Ozzard

NEW YORK--The ever-changing Esprit de Corp. is looking for more change--and this time it could be a change in worldwide ownership.
Esprit Group, the worldwide holding company for Esprit de Corp., said Tuesday it has hired investment firm Goldman, Sachs & Co. as financial adviser. The firm will explore strategic alternatives for the junior sportswear and accessory brand, including a possible sale of the company.
At present, Esprit worldwide is made up of three separate entities, in Europe, the Far East and the U.S. A sale would consolidate the three, said Donald La Vigne, a member of the board of directors and spokesman for the board.
The principal shareholders are Susie Tompkins for the U.S. company, Michael Ying for the Asian concern and Jƒrgen Friedrich for Europe. Doug Tompkins also holds shares in Esprit Group.
"Currently, the businesses are independently owned and operated, although they are affiliated under a common ownership," said La Vigne. "If an acquirer were to come in and buy the group, it would bring the companies together and have them focused under one global strategy. The strengths and efficiencies of the companies might be able to be realized."
Worldwide retail sales for the Esprit Group last year were $1.5 billion. Esprit U.S. does about $300 million in total wholesale sales, with about $120 million in apparel and the rest in accessories and licenses.
Despite troubles in the U.S. market, the brand maintains high consumer awareness, coming in at 28 in the 1995 Fairchild 100 survey of best-known brands.
La Vigne said hiring Goldman, Sachs and seeking a possible buyer are not connected to Esprit's U.S. struggles.
He also asserted that the shareholders aren't running away from the business. Rather, he said, "some of the people involved with Esprit have been around for over 20 years. Their interests have broadened, and they have other areas they'd like to pursue."
Esprit was the dominant name in the junior market in the Eighties, rising to about $500 million in wholesale sales. But in the early Nineties, the company began to lose its whimsical and youthful direction. Some point to the bitter 1989 divorce of co-founders Doug and Susie Tompkins as the beginning of Esprit U.S.'s troubles.
Susie Tompkins and an investor group bought out her ex-husband's stake in the U.S. business in June 1990. Since then the San Francisco-based company has had half a dozen top executives come and go, including Corrado Federico, Isaac Stein, Fritz Ammann and David Folkman. The company now is headed by Jay Margolis as chairman and chief executive officer.
At the same time, it seemed to announce a new direction or business strategy every season. The Susie Tompkins bridge line, introduced in 1992, became a contemporary line and then closed last year. The design direction became more trendy and then less trendy.
Tompkins declined to be interviewed for this article.
At the same time, its European and Asian businesses have been thriving, according to La Vigne. Esprit in Europe remodeled the London flagship store earlier this year and announced it would target younger consumers--the below-25 age group--rather than the 26-to-35 age range it had been going after.
The move to hire Goldman, Sachs comes only months after Margolis joined Esprit de Corp. as ceo in January, reportedly with some equity in the company.

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