esprit de tete?


When I worked as a designer at Ralph Lauren and Tommy Hilfiger we spent loads of time putting together “rigs,” or inspiration boards, every season. These were never simple tear sheets pinned to a wall; they were elaborate combinations of artwork, mannequins dressed in vintage and new garments, carefully selected props and furniture, and swatches of fabrics we had developed or selected specially for the group we were designing. The idea was, essentially, to express the mood or theme for the season in an unmistakable way. It wasn’t conceptual; it was nearly literal.


Now that I work for me, my inspiration boards tend to be located more in my mind than on a wall someplace. (That’s the great thing about being your own boss; I still work with a theme or inspiration every season, but I don’t really need to explain it to myself. The down side of the be-your-own-boss arrangement, however, is that the boss never leaves and lets you slack off a bit during the day.)

Lots of different things inspire me in my design: my daughter, things I see on the streets or in photos, various books and ideas, or a particular print or fabric. It’s always changing.


But one inspiration that’s stuck with me for years now is the old ads and mood of Esprit back in the 1980s. There was something so fresh and fun about that company and their clothing, and I still return to that mood when I’m designing. In a large part, the Esprit spirit (ok, that’s repetitive; Esprit is French for “spirit,” I know) has inspired the fall collection we’re preparing to show at Quilt Market in May.


I had the good fortune of doing some work for Esprit a few years ago, and part of my work involved travelling to the company headquarters in San Francisco. The building is still standing (actually it was re-built after a fire a number of years ago), but the company itself was merely a shadow of its former self when I visited; large portions of the building sat completely empty, and the beautiful Amish quilts that Suzy and Doug Tompkins collected were long gone, leaving bare walls behind.


In a way, I suppose it was better for me that the building sat nearly empty. I was able to project my own memories onto the empty structure and to imagine it in its glory days. And I suppose that keeping my inspiration boards in my head is especially appropriate when it comes to Esprit; although still a clothing company today, the old Esprit exists only in my mind now. If I tried to pin it to a wall it probably would not live up to my memories.

So I’ll just keep it conceptual. After all, the boss knows exactly what I’m talking about when I try to explain it to her.

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17 Comments

  1. brooke

    Oh Liesl, looking at those Esprit ads takes me back.. I was such a huge fan of them when I was 12 or 13, I even had them plastered all over the walls of my bedroom. They used to print them on really big paper, and I used to beg my mom to take me to the Esprit outlet in San Francisco once a year for my back to school shopping. I’d be so pleased if the fall line brings back any of the feeling of the old Esprit.. I love it so.

  2. I love Esprit. At the beginning of the school year we would go to the SF outlet too! The 80’s, good times.

  3. I remember those great esprit ads. All I ever wanted was to be in one of them. I collected all of their catalogs for a long time. I wish that I still had them. Can’t wait to see the fall line.

  4. Oh I loved Esprit’s clothes! They were so fresh and stylish. The day I met my husband for the first time I was wearing a pair of darling Esprit sailor-style flared shorts (size 3, ouch). I think they made an impression because that was 23 years ago and he’s still chasing me.

  5. Anonymous

    The new designs sound really great and I love the simply stated look. Very modern. Can’t wait for my patterns to arrive in the mail– LOVE this blog!

  6. So funny that you mention the Esprit Kids ads from the 80’s! We “found” our second daughter’s name in an ad shortly before she was born. I wish I had saved it. The girl pictured was Nina Jessica; our girl became Nina Elizabeth.

  7. I am so there with everyone. I loved those Esprit ads! In high school I would do just like Brooke and tape them all over my bedroom walls.
    Thanks for the memories. :o)

  8. TRS

    Oh… I loved Esprit as a teenager. I had a number of too cute items from their line… usually purchased at Vanity or ,OMG I can’t remember the name of the department store that was the parent company of Target! it was the best Department store in Sioux Falls, SD!

    Now you have me thinking of clothing companies I loved back then.
    Anyone know whatever happened to Tweeds? I
    recently noticed some items with Tweeds labeling in my local TJMaxx’s but when I search for them online they say they’re currently unavailable.

    I hope this means they are testing some styles and planning a triumphant return!!

  9. TRS

    Daytons… it was Dayton’s department store. A midwest thing I think.

  10. Those ads also take me back. I had them covering my closet door. They really symbolize the best of 80’s fashion to me.

  11. I got to model in an ESPRIT fashion show and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I loved every single thing––it was 1984, I think. Wow, that takes me back.

  12. I well remember the Esprit ads from the late 80s! My favorite series were the black and white double-page spreads of “real” women answering the question, “How would you change the world?” I am a teacher, and I actually use these ads every year for a writing assignment. I have them all laminated and hang them around the classroom!

  13. Oh my gosh I have searched and searched all over the internet to look at the old Esprit catalogs from the 80’s. My sister had put up all over her walls.Early in life I became more and more interested to become a designer. Unfortunately that still has not happened. But someday hopefully I will get motivated enough to become one. I love the bright and bold colors and I also agree with everyone else that Esprit will bring back that Bright layered look! Benetton was also a fave!~brendy

  14. Due to the present economic upheavel and the loss of yet another long established brand retailer-Mervyns; ESPRIT just came to my mind and so I cam across some business data from 1998 and this blog. I had always been impressed with their fashions and especially with their marketing. The Tompkins were certainly a dynamic duo and it was unfortunate that they let their own individual creative talent and energy be their downfall. The company and its employees took the brunt of it; but obviously from this blog the memories have not been forgotten.

  15. Anonymous

    I would love to collect the old catalogs, they we my favortie! I talk about them still! I used to decorate my bedroom walls with the large pages of the catalogs….anyone know where I can find them?

    1. Aishe

      where can you get the catalogs .where can I buy then.

  16. lakshmi

    I am a fan as well. I loved the large ads/catalogs that came in the mail, with the girls all lined up in a row, arm in arm, walking on the beach maybe, each in one of the beautiful colored pants. Oh, to have one of those ads again would be heaven! Too bad none of us saved one!!!

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