1987 was a big year. I had left high school and had taken up correspondence studies. I had a full-time job in the design department of a trend-setting skiwear company where I learned about proper pattern-making, grading, and developed CAD skills on big desktop computers, the screens black with green type. In the summer I would turn 17.
With my new found earnings I saved for a trip to California. Two brothers I was close to had moved there the year before when their mother married a man from San Francisco. I would travel on my own for the first time, in January, when flights were cheap and the sales were on. I had a place to stay and arrived with a near-empty suitcase. One of my most anticipated stops was the Esprit outlet store.
I had read about the outlet somewhere and the boys and I set out to shop. We took a bus through one of the then-sketchier parts of town to Esprit in Mission Bay, not far from the Embarcadaro; a route one of the boys recently told me has since been discontinued. The outlet closed in 2001 and a quick Internet search tells me that the building now houses a University of California San Francisco endocrinology research unit. It’s only a few blocks walk from Esprit Park, which marks the legacy of the brand in the city it was born in, even though the company’s once-sprawling headquarters is long gone, having relocated to Hong Kong and Germany.
I was already an Esprit girl by the time 16-year-old me touched down in San Francisco. I was 12 when I discovered the brand and distinctly remember the simple, two-tone, cotton canvas drawstring logo bag every girl (well, me and at least three or four others at my school) had to have as part of their eighth grade back-to-school wardrobe in the fall of 1983. Mine was hot pink and acid green. It’s one of those pieces I wish I had kept and I still keep an eye out for a vintage one on Etsy and eBay.
Back then, you could find smattering of Esprit clothes at the mall, but you could also send away for giant quarterly catalogues from ads found in the back of magazines like Seventeen. Today, the ’80s-era catalogues rarely surface on the market and fetch upwards of $50-75 apiece when they do. Designers (both graphic and fashion types) covet and keep them. I have a handful, and like those of many of my contemporaries, they are absolutely not for sale. Their size makes them prohibitive to scan images from on a lowly standard consumer flatbed, but trust me when I say they are spectacular, ideal representations of the best of their time.
The Esprit image, so carefully cultivated by brand founders Susie and Doug Tompkins and key collaborators like graphic designer Roberto Carra and photographer Oliviero Toscani, was one I could relate to. It was fun, colourful, infused with youth and personality. The line was huge and much of it mix-and-match. The quality was good for the price point; much of it was cotton and easy to care for. I had quickly deserted logo-ed merchandise after my brief dabbling in eighth grade, and thankfully, fewer pieces than you may think had huge ESPRITs splashed across them.
That first visit to the mammoth Esprit outlet to this day stands out as one of the best and most memorable shopping experiences I’ve had. There were rows of $5 racks filled with madras plaid shirts and $10 ankle-height leather cowboy boots. I bought a yoked-waist puffy red-and-black plaid mini-skirt I would wear for years that day and a pair of straight-legged, cuffed cashmere trousers in a houndstooth check from the upscale Esprit Collection label. I think I paid $25. Even the boys found things for themselves in the menswear section.
I still have a few Esprit pieces in my closet. Not vintage, just basics like skinny black tops with three-quarter length sleeves and striped cotton sweaters. And every time I pull on a piece and catch a glimpse of that red-and-white label, I can’t help but think back to the iconic ads, my drawstring canvas bag and that first of what would become many solo trips to San Francisco, trips that would — in the 1980s and into the 1990s — always include a stop at the Esprit outlet.
1. Esprit Sport, Glamour, September 1983.
2. Esprit de Corps, Seventeen, September 1985. Designed by Roberto Carra.
3. Esprit Sport, Seventeen, April 1985. Photograph by Oliviero Toscani.
4. Esprit, ‘Teen, May 1983.
5. Esprit Sport, Seventeen, December 1986.
6. Esprit, American Vogue, September 1989.
7. Esprit, Harper’s Bazaar, August 1984.
8. Esprit Jeans, Elle, November 1987.
9. Oliviero Toscani for Mademoiselle, August 1986; clothing by Esprit.