Douglas Tompkins, who as reported died Tuesday in a kayaking accident in Chile at age 72, was an industry pioneer who founded not one, but two companies — The North Face and Esprit — that would become global lifestyle brands, along the way innovating new concepts in retail, packaging, graphic design, marketing and employee benefits.
A conservationist and avid outdoorsman, Tompkins was boating with five people on General Carrera Lake in the Patagonia region of southern Chile when their kayaks capsized in waters of less than 40 degrees Fahrenheit. He was flown to a hospital with severe hypothermia and died in the intensive care unit.
Tompkins was born in Ohio and grew up in New York’s Hudson Valley. He dropped out of boarding school in Connecticut to travel the world and returned to the U.S. In 1962, when he was 22, he borrowed $5,000 to start his own specialty ski and climbing shop, The North Face. It evolved into an apparel and equipment company and he later sold it for $50,000.
“Doug was a passionate advocate for the environment, and his legacy of conservation will help ensure that there are outdoor spaces to be explored for generations to come,” VF Corp. said in a statement. The North Face was acquired by VF in 2000.
“It is with deep sadness to have learnt that Douglas Tompkins, our Esprit founder, has passed away. A great man and a visionary has left us. We all appreciate and respect his pioneering work in building up Esprit in 1968 and developing a unique brand over the years. In later years, we could also love his passionate life’s work for this planet. We will always remember his inspiring drive — and his ‘Esprit de corps’ that still shines through today in our organizations and in all of us,” said Jose Manuel Martinez, Esprit Group chief executive officer.
In 1968, Tompkins and his then-wife Susie Tompkins Buell founded Esprit with Jane Tise. It became a billion-dollar brand that defined casual sportswear in the Eighties and at its peak had 690 freestanding stores and 14,500 points of sale worldwide. In 1986, Tompkins pioneered shops-in-shop as a global retail concept with Esprit in Macy’s San Francisco.
“Doug was a real stickler for design principles — everything from labels, the garments, the hangtags, bags, boxes. Everything was about controlling the brand,” Jerome Griffith, Esprit’s North America president, told WWD in 2008.
Fueled by Tompkins’ bold, lively image-making, the label took off with smaller specialty stores and department stores which created ambitious shops-in-shop for the line. They also created a splashy mail-order catalogue photographed by Oliviero Toscani and designed by John Casado. Tompkins pioneered innovative ideas in advertising, packaging, corporate culture and store design.
Describing the early days of Esprit to WWD in a 2008 interview, Tompkins said, “I had had enough of retail with The North Face and convinced Susie and Jane that I would join in and do the business side and find the start-up money, but only if it was wholesale, so we weren’t slaves to store hours and meeting the public.”
With neither Doug nor Susie Tompkins familiar with the inner workings of the garment industry, “looking back now, I see that we somehow intuitively had the idea of how to put all the pieces together,” said Tompkins.
Esprit got a foothold in the U.S. market as the Tompkinses and Tise joined forces with Allen Schwartz, founder of A.B.S. by Allen Schwartz, who marketed the company’s casual California clothes to U.S. department stores. In the late Seventies, with Esprit sales generating $120 million, Schwartz and Tise, the chief apparel designer, sold their shares of the company to Susie and Doug Tompkins. The Tompkinses were ready to branch out internationally and formed Esprit partnerships in Hong Kong and Germany that brought the brand to Europe and the Far East.
When the global business reached $825 million in sales, Tompkins sat down with WWD and explained his philosophy in a 1984 interview. “I am tough, and I am specific about what we’re going to do. Somebody’s got to have the vision about what direction we’re going in. We’re in a visual business. That takes discipline. Everything must be thought out, even the way you answer the phone. Other companies have these dragon ladies chewing gum at the front desk and giving attitude — some people don’t care about that. But I do and that’s good for business, and that’s what we’re all about. Housekeeping is the most difficult. We have to keep the work stations clean, because we’re organized, and it looks nice. People with style know that, and they notice every detail.”
The Tompkinses were known for running Esprit with an almost evangelical zeal, and the firm was often called a “benign dictatorship.” The company’s corporate culture became so pervasive that department store buyers would travel to San Francisco to place orders and spend time there. At the company’s expense, Esprit employees were offered foreign language classes, tickets to cultural events, white-water rafting trips and travel sabbaticals. Esprit boasted a subsidized gourmet café at its headquarters in a converted San Francisco winery. Doug Tompkins’ Amish quilt collection hung on the brick walls, and high heels were banned so they wouldn’t harm the softwood floors. There were also tennis courts and a running track on site.
“Esprit in those days was in a world of its own,” Corrado Federico, who served as president in 1986, told WWD in 2008. “But the success wasn’t strictly in the product. The tremendous anchor was its lifestyle concept and image. It was youthful, it was aspirational, it was captivating. There was nobody around at the time who could match us.”
Tompkins was known for spending four or five months each year white-water kayaking, in America as well as Africa, Europe and South America, windsurfing, riding, playing tennis, rock climbing and mountaineering.
While Susie Tompkins took charge of the fashion, Doug Tompkins focused on fine-tuning the back office and promoting the company’s image and lifestyle marketing. Tompkins was a devotee of design, even writing a book about his design philosophies of marketing and graphics. Used as a design reference book, “Esprit: The Comprehensive Design Principle” was published by Japanese art publisher Robundo in 1989.
One of Tompkins’ first marketing moves was to have a logo created by San Francisco graphic artist Casado, whose work included the early branding of Apple’s Macintosh computer. In 1979, Casado designed the famous Esprit stencil-effect logo, with three horizontal bars for the “E,” which became one of the most recognized in international fashion. Tompkins consulted Ettore Sottsass and his Eighties Memphis Design collective in Milan for store designs, and iconic photographers Toscani and Robert Carra for advertising campaigns and colorful catalogues that sought to raise social consciousness. To create a seamless image from advertising and packaging to store signs and hangtags, Tompkins hired graphic artist Tamotsu Yagi from Japan.
“Doug really had no interest in the clothes,” said Casado in a WWD story in 2008. “He had an interest in the business and understood it. His job was to sell, whatever it was. In some of the later catalogues, he wanted to sell TV sets and other things design-oriented. He wanted young people to have a culture.”
The clothing was downplayed in Esprit’s ads and catalogues. Employees and everyday people were used as Esprit models with captions highlighting something about them, or what they did that day. There was also an undercurrent of activism at the company with guests speakers such as consumer activist Ralph Nader and Body Shop founder Anita Roddick, who refused to sell animal-tested cosmetics.
The company also was at the forefront of social initiatives. In 1987, the Doug and Susie Tompkins sent a mailer asking the public to help confront the AIDS epidemic. Three years later, the company ran ads urging people to “buy only what you need,” which ran counter to what an apparel company does.
As the corporate culture was maturing, so was the business, which ran into trouble as competition got fiercer. It started missing fashion trends, was faced with high production costs in Asia, was slow in getting into retail and was dealing with major differences between the Tompkinses over the company’s direction. Eventually, the Tompkinses’ marriage went completely awry and they became estranged. Following a two-year battle for Esprit, Tompkins sold his stake in the U.S. Esprit business in 1990 to Tompkins Buell and a group of investors, for what industry sources estimated was $150 million. Tompkins continued to own Esprit’s operations in southern Europe and maintained his various shares in international Esprit affiliates, which he eventually sold in 1996.
Tompkins and his second wife, Kristine, a former chief executive officer at Patagonia, moved to Chile and Argentina, where they did conservation work.
Jay Margolis, who joined Esprit as ceo in 1996, said about Tompkins Wednesday: “He never thought of himself as a fashion guy.” He said that the shop-in-shop concept was Tompkins’ and the architects and photographers he’d hire were amazing. “He did all this other stuff and I thought he was brilliant. The stores he built, the imagery was brilliant, the packaging. He was so far ahead of his time. No one had done it.”
At the time of his death, Tompkins was involved in creating new parks in Patagonia and in the Iberá wetlands of northeastern Argentina.
Tompkins is survived by his wife; his mother, Faith; his brother, John, and daughters Summer Tompkins Walker and Quincey Tompkins Imhoff.