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.

opening ceremony
humberto leon
carol lim
susie tompkins buell

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Issue #32 — Summer 2017"US vs. THEM"

How do you find truth in an age without facts? The answer: wake up and stick together. In this issue’s dossier “US vs. THEM,” creative director RICHARD TURLEY explores how the Global Right Wing’s blatant disregard for reality has given us all a license to become Nonsense Warriors. Turning away from “them” and towards “us,” CATHERINE OPIE, NICOLAS GHESQUIÈRE, and STEFANO PILATI take us into their inner circles of friends, while COLLIER SCHORR turns BELLA HADID into Lisa Lyon. We revisit the work of MICHAEL SCHMIDT, and how his community workshops turned Berlin into a cauldron of contemporary photography. JACKIE NICKERSON shows us what Robert Longo looks like with a faster Internet connection, while CARSTEN HÖLLER takes us into his kitchen to explore the post-digital nature of food. We speak with VIRGIL ABLOH as he plots a fashion industry coup d’état and follow JASON DILL on a skate odyssey to hell and back to Fucking Awesome. And, last but not least, we make a pilgrimage to Santo Sospir, the villa on the Riviera where JEAN COCTEAU created his greatest Gesamtkunstwerk.

Also included with the issue, our “HEAT UP HADID” TRANSFER KIT which allows you to create your own t-shirt emblazoned with this issue’s BELLA HADID cover.

Learn more about the issue below:

Nothing makes sense. Nothing ever will again. The year 2016 marked a total rupture in the theater of politics. Even if the damaging effects of Donald Trump’s election somehow prove to be short-lived, his rise indicates a crisis wherein digital acceleration has led to political regression. In our dossier “US vs. THEM,” creative director RICHARD TURLEY creates a handbook for our new political paradigm. Its central hypothesis: Only within the chaos of this media overload will we discover what is real again.

“I am not sure if the sculptures were even subjects for her photographs …” For her first ever magazine editorial, “Heroines: Paris/Los Angeles,” artist CATHERINE OPIEteamed up with artistic director NICOLAS GHESQUIÈRE to create a study on the power of classicism and ambiguity. The exploration begins on the beige stone of the Louvre’s sculpture garden and continues to Opie’s studio in Los Angeles, documenting a sprawling circle of friends and acquaintances.

On a surrealist journey into the past, Martin Mosebach visits the summer retreat of JEAN COCTEAU. At the Villa Santo Sospir, the artist spent a decade’s worth of summers smoking opium and creating his largest total artwork.

Back with a vengeance for her third 032c cover story, COLLIER SCHORR teams up with fashion director Mel Ottenberg for “Smith & Wesson Blues,” a shoot with BELLA HADID, inspired by the body builder and Robert Mapplethorpe muse Lisa Lyon.

“Duchamp is my lawyer.” From his fortress of irony, designer VIRGIL ABLOH is set on turning fashion into the industrial arm of the art world. In conversation with 032c’s managing editor Thom Bettridge, he explains how streetwear is not just a fad, but a logic inspired by Dada and destined to dominate the digital age.

Accompanied by a re-print of MICHAEL SCHMIDT’s 2002 story for 032c, Kolja Reichert explores how the photographer’s community workshops from 1976 to 1986 create a style born out of the “Gray Island” of Berlin.

For the story “Energy Crisis,” photographer LUKAS WASSMANN and designer STEFANO PILATI shoot an editorial inside Michael Sailstorfer’s exhibition “Hitzefrei” at St. Agnes. As his first for a magazine editorial, Pilati’s styling includes garments from his own personal wardrobe.

“It’s an exhausting reality,” laughs JASON DILL. In an odyssey documented with drawings and pictures from his personal archive, the skate legend takes us to hell and back to Fucking Awesome.

In “Push Me Shove You Oh Yeah Says Who,” photographer JACKIE NICKERSON, along with fashion editor Marc Goehring and 032c apparel creative director Maria Koch, presents a yogic meditation on a white collar dystopia.

“I’m very bad at killing, in general.” As an antidote to postmodern culinary mediocrity, artist CARSTEN HÖLLER takes us to his concrete perch on the seaside of Ghana and guides us through the 11 points of his “Brutalist Kitchen Manifesto.”

In the “SSENSE Files,” we bring you scenes of cross-platform madness, including interviews with RICARDO BOFILL, PLAYBOI CARTI, CHITOSE ABE, CHRIS KRAUS, HENRY STAMBLER, AMINA BLUE, and 69.

In our second-ever “BERLIN REVIEW” section, we speak with JEFF KOONS about Plato, retrace MARTIN MARGIELA’s reign at Hermès, dive to the underwater tombs of PHARAOHS, and explore our favorite books of the season.

All this and more on 296 pages!