Opening Ceremony x Esprit and the Collectivist Ideal of Mall Culture

Conceived in 1968, a year of left-wing rebellion, Esprit was pivotal in defining the pastel optimism of the contemporary mainstream. Its method was centered around distilling joie de vivre into clothing, a model guided by inclusivity. Its founders Susie Tompkins Buell and Doug Tompkins began the brand by selling dresses out of the back of their station wagon, and further developed the label under its original name “Esprit de Corp.” Much like the military ideal, the Tompkins’s sartorial system embraced uniformity as a form of pride, freeing fashion from its neurotic relationship to mass production.

This mass-market vision picked up a riotous energy in the 1980s, a period shaped by economic prosperity. At the time, photographer Oliviero Toscani created campaigns that spelled out the brand’s DNA, replacing mega-celebrities like Brooke Shields with real people. “I would see Toscani’s work in Elle magazine and I thought it was exactly what we needed,” Susie Tompkins Buell once said about this collaboration. Together, they popularized the now-ubiquitous brand message: Be yourself.

Esprit’s superstores from the period became the bellwether of today’s concept stores. They were rigorous in their detail and obsessively researched, allowing the brand’s identity to spill onto everything from the store’s receipts to its café menus. This was a big bang moment for the concept of lifestyle branding – a universe in which every square inch is both desirable and consumable. Collaborations with Ettore Sottsass’s Memphis Group and Michele De Lucchi turned shoe shopping into an educational experience. Their printed matter reflected this sense of exploratory image-making. Books like Esprit’s Graphic Work 1984–1986, Esprit: The Comprehensive Design Principle, and Esprit: The Making of an Image serve as compasses for navigating an era of postmodern color-blocking.

The company’s headquarters in San Francisco was also foundational to the Silicon Valley aesthetic. It was one of the first major corporations to use an open office concept, along with in situ amenities such as yoga, organic lunches, and motivational lectures by the likes of Gloria Steinem. Concerned with the ecological impact of the fashion industry, they set up an “eco desk” to figure out how to integrate recycled materials into their packaging. In 1990, Doug Tompkins published an open letter titled “A Plea for Responsible Consumption” and signed off the essay with “A Company That Is Trying” – a brutally honest statement by the head of a major retailer.

“We’ve always said that Esprit was the must-have brand when we were in high school hanging out at the mall,” Opening Ceremony founders Humberto Leon and Carol Lim recall on the occasion of their second collaboration with Esprit. Photo: Matt Jones

The 90s offered much less vivaciousness in the world of pop, sending Esprit into cultural hibernation during the grunge and heroin chic eras. However, after this minor detour, the brand has resurfaced in full effect, fitting the bill for the millennial era’s skepticism toward subculture. Esprit has proven to be the Drake of clothing brands: smooth, vibrant, and available to everyone. “Esprit’s original vision is still today as relevant as ever,” the label’s chief brand marketing officer Arnd Müller explains. It pre-saged the notion that there can be something avant-garde about normalcy, that pure exuberance has something going for it. This concept has its own mirrors in art history, from Christopher Williams’s commercial-inspired photography to Art Club 2000’s re-staging of Gap commercials. When applied to fashion, Susie Tompkins Buell believes it is a matter of adhering to straightforwardness: “It was comfortable and not precious. It wasn’t mysterious. When people start putting on zippers the wrong way and this and that, it’s very contrived. I always thought that you don’t want to have to work too hard wondering what to wear or what to buy. Just get stuff that works well together, that’s kind of coordinated a little bit, that you feel confident in.”

Esprit’s second collection with Opening Ceremony not only provides a welcome invitation to the world’s comfiest brand, it is a case study in the power of the mall aesthetic. “We’ve always said Esprit was the must-have brand when we were in high school hanging out at the mall. So many of our friends feel the same way and wish they still had their original pieces,” Opening Ceremony founders Humberto Leon and Carol Lim recall. Esprit’s is a fashion somehow unpoisoned by aspiration, one that embraces the textures of commerce in all their glory: sherbet pastel sweats and bucket hats, rainbow fonts, flowered polka dots sprinkled on loose mens shirts, and last but not least, big smiles.


Photography: MATT JONES