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Esprit de Court 

How Susie Tompkins Buell built, wrecked, and sued San Francisco's legendary Esprit de Corp. clothing company, and why she still gets to sit next to President Clinton

Wednesday, Oct 8 1997
The dashing blonde in the loose-fitting, autumn-colored leisure ensemble has been having a stressful week.

First, there was the visit from the FBI investigators; "I can't remember, it was either Monday or Tuesday," she says, seated abstractly on the pale leather couch that anchors her luxuriantly spare Pacific Heights living room.

Then there were the wedding plans. Her daughter's nuptials were less than a month away, and much still needed to be done.

"Fletcher, how many people do you think we can get around that table?" she calls out to a neatly coiffed, middle-aged employee who has been arranging steel and leather chairs in her dining room for a small dinner party, before heading to the Bolinas country home to tend to wedding preparations. "Maybe I can serve. That might make things easier," she muses.

And then there was the disagreeable new CEO of what used to be her fashion house.

"They're saying I'm greedy because I just want what's owed to me according to their own books," she says. "I think this shows just what kind of people they really are."

The blonde is Susie Tompkins Buell, the 55-year-old occasional friend and lavish campaign contributor to Bill Clinton, scion of San Francisco high society, icon to West Coast fashion, and, once, perhaps the most-heralded female entrepreneur of her generation.

The fashion house is Esprit de Corp., the stylish clothier she founded and helped build into an $800 million-a-year clothing juggernaut -- before she helped it plummet into insolvency.

The CEO is Jay Margolis, the corporate-turnaround specialist who just banned Tompkins Buell and all members of her family from entering Esprit de Corp.'s Minnesota Street headquarters.

Oh, and the FBI: The bureau has been investigating White House campaign solicitations, and Tompkins Buell's number turned up on the president's phone logs. She says it was nothing more than a message Clinton left recently on her answering machine.

"He was just thanking me for having him over," she says indignantly. "Can you imagine?

In some way, all of Susie Tompkins Buell's current travails are lingering vestiges of the 30-year orgy of incompatible conceits that was Esprit de Corp. For an awfully long time, the look and feel of Esprit and the public image of Susie Tompkins were all but inseparable. Esprit was the bouncy, youthful, fresh, trendsetting clothier that led a wave of environmentally sensitive "green marketing." Esprit was the brand that mixed high-spirited fashion photography with social awareness. It was the purveyor of an internationalist, progressive, casual-high-style sensibility that, for some people, defined a certain time period, and a certain type of Californian.

It was the company built around the ideals of Susie and Doug Tompkins, the pair of San Francisco hippie merchants who sold clothing over a North Beach massage parlor. It was the company that took its employees on raft trips to listen to lectures from members of Earth First!, the firm that had progressive minister Cecil Williams preach at fashion shows, the venture that invited Gloria Steinem to speak at employee meetings.

"I feel so deeply that it is about -- and I'm not saying it's up to the private sector as a, you know, a Republican would say; I'm a very devoted Democrat -- but I think that there's a balance between what has to come out of the private sector and what the companies have to do and what the individuals have to do to really involve themselves in community problems and do more to deal with the solution than of the reason the problems happen," is how Tompkins Buell describes her business philosophy today.

But Esprit de Corp. also ultimately came to epitomize the worst side of another decade, the me decade, the 1980s and its junk-bond daddies and S&L pirates and slick-suited sharpies. After helping manage the company with her then-husband, Doug Tompkins, for 22 years, Susie Tompkins led a 1990 leveraged buyout that gained her control of the company, and netted her an estimated $150 million.

Esprit emerged from the buyout so deeply in debt -- and Tompkins Buell's subsequent helmsmanship left the company in such desperate financial straits -- that it went into technical default on its outstanding loans within less than two years. Esprit then spent five years shriveling to a morsel of its former self before Tompkins Buell relinquished all ownership of and involvement in the company in December.

And now, the once-grand saga that was Esprit, the corporate fairy tale that made Tompkins a spokeswoman for progressive feminine achievement, has descended into a petty, multimillion-dollar spitting match that centers on allegations and counterallegations related to income tax indemnities.

This March Tompkins Buell filed a lawsuit demanding nearly $3 million in reimbursements from Esprit for tax payments she made after selling much of her stake in the company to investors in 1990 for about $62 million. The case's merits are questionable, some people familiar with the situation say.

Her former husband, whose situation parallels Tompkins Buell's, says the lawsuit is a stretch. (Lawyers for Doug Tompkins and Susie Tompkins Buell are now engaged in a separate battle over tax reimbursements Doug says Susie owes him.)

"On the principle of it, we didn't think it was right to go sue Esprit for that money," says Doug Tompkins, who, like his former wife and partner, cashed out of the company under a 1990 stock purchase agreement. The agreement puts him in exactly the same legal posture as Tompkins Buell. But, he says, "we elected not to sue. We didn't feel that this suit had merit."

Esprit de Corp., now owned by a consortium of "vulture capital" investors that bought the troubled firm at discount, immediately banned Tompkins Buell from the premises upon learning of her lawsuit. The company lashed back at Tompkins Buell with court filings accusing her of financial double-dealing and cynical corporate malfeasance. Esprit issued a veiled threat in legal filings that it would scour the world for evidence against her -- unless she backed off.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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