opening ceremony's founders on how esprit changed fashion (and the world)
One bright sweater at a time.
In 1987, as Cindy Crawford and Elle MacPherson ushered in the supermodel era, counterculture mall brand Esprit ran an ad starring Cara Schanche, a 23-year-old student from Berkeley, California. "Anti-Racism Activist, Beginning Windsurfer, Friend of the Dalai Lama," read the caption, as chilled-out as her layered denim look. The message was clear, if paradoxical: simple clothes can make you unique.
Today, vintage sportswear is back in the cultural limelight, for better (Fila x Gosha Rubchinskiy) and worse (the Juicy Tracksuit 2.0). But these 90s and 00s brands might not have become cultural touchstones had Esprit not first paved the way. Founded in 1969 by a San Francisco couple who originally sold their creations from the back of a VW van, Esprit came to signify youth and global diversity in its 80s and 90s heyday. The clothes featured vivid colors and prints. The stores were maximalist funhouses, designed by stars of the Memphis design movement. And the ads were provocative, raising awareness about AIDS and using real people for models. "Anybody can hire Brooke Shields," founder Doug Tompkins, also a founder of Northface, once quipped.
At once aspirational and democratic, Esprit is not so different from Opening Ceremony, the label and retailer with which it will release a collaboration this month. Esprit by Opening Ceremony is less a rehash of golden-era Esprit design than a modern collection inspired by the brand's—yes—spirit. "The clothing was very pure," OC's co-founder Humberto Leon told me the other day. While Esprit is often remembered for its colors and patterns, a look back reveals that "there was ease to the silhouettes. It's the way people wore them which made them colorful and fun."
On a recent afternoon at their headquarters in NYC's Chinatown, Leon and co-founder Carol Lim talked mall culture, young Gwyneth Paltrow, and changing the world through fashion.
When did you guys first discover Esprit?
Humberto Leon: In 5th or 6th grade. I was just a kid shopping in the adult section, but I remember really, really loving the prints.
Carol Lim: There was a moment when girls at my private school were wearing Esprit. I thought of them as the fun girls. I'd come home and tell my mom I needed to go to the mall and get the matching top and bottoms, in fuchsia or maybe cherry print. Later, I had the oversized sweatshirt with the mock collar. Ask anyone from our age bracket and they're going to go off on their Esprit stories.
You guys met at UC Berkeley. Esprit is from San Francisco. Do you think the brand channels the ethos of that city?
HL: A lot of people call San Francisco the Europe of America. I do think Esprit had a very European vibe. They worked with Olivier Toscani to shoot the ads. Ettore Sottsass [the architect and founder of Milan's Memphis design group] designed the stores.
CL:There were two stages with the store design. When we met at Berkeley, like freshman year, in 93, we'd go to the Esprit store by its headquarters in San Francisco and it had this industrial vibe, which was very new. No one was doing that. So for a brand to have done a collaboration with Memphis and then to move to this—
HL: It stood out from everything that was happening in mainstream American fashion.
What was happening in mainstream American fashion back then?
HL: There were brands like the Limited, Oak Tree, Structure, Wet Seal. Each one had its own vibe. Miller's Outpost was like, western-wear and plaid shirts.
CL: And bandana prints.
HL: Contempo Casual was more... Pretty Woman-ish.
CL: Like, maybe if you wanted to look like a Patrick Nagel poster.
HL: And the Gap was Americana.
I love that you guys have like, a map of a 1989 mall just sitting in your brains.
CL: Yeah! It was so good!
And so Esprit in that context was a mass brand, but also at the cultural vanguard?
CL: We didn't call them mass brands then. Now you make that distinction.
HL: They were just brands you could afford that had a point of view. That rich people and people with not much money could buy.
CL: It wasn't a luxury price point but you were excited to be part of it, to carry the Esprit tote. They spoke to a large demographic.
I'd love to talk about the retail environments. From what I understand every single aspect of the store was considered, from this rainbow-geometric receipt paper to these crazy marbleized and chrome interiors with these abstract, two-dimensional mannequins... Did that ever influence you in developing Opening Ceremony?
HL: There was definitely a sense of fun that we aspire to. Not everything has to be sterile and white and clean and classically beautiful. We've always wanted to experiment with colors and prints and give spaces flavor.
CL: The catalogs were a really big deal too. When you'd get them you'd keep them. Esprit thought through every element. When you find a tag, a piece of packaging, an object from the café—it all worked together. That stands out.
HL: And they felt so global. Which is something we considered even when we started 15 years ago. Not in the sense of everyone knowing us across the world, but in the sense of welcoming different people from walks of life.
Diversity was a huge part of the Esprit ads.
HL: They had real people!
CL: It was revolutionary at the time.
HL: And they had, you know, two men in ads or two women in ads. And nobody ever said they were brothers or lovers or anything. It was the norm. The ads were very joyful.
I'm sure you've seen the very famous ad campaign from 1991. They asked thousands of real people, "What would you do to change the world?" One of them was a young Gwyneth Paltrow, who said, "I would distribute condoms in every high school in America."
HL: This was really relevant. I'm sure this ad came out at the height of AIDS. But it makes sense for our time, too. Real people, real messages, and having something other than clothing to talk about.
Can I ask you the same question Esprit asked Gwyneth? What would you do to change the world?
HL: I would figure out how to make healthcare free in America. I'd figure out how to end non-organic farming practices. I'd force countries to use their own natural resources.
CL: I'd end world hunger.
HL: That's very 80s!
CL: Well, it's crazy because it's still an issue. Food gets burned and there are subsidies to control financial markets. We could feed everyone but we don't. And it all comes down to politics.
HL: Esprit has a point of view, and that's something we have in common. Sometimes it's PC and sometimes it's not, but it's important to stand for something.
Text Alice Hines
Photography Eric Chakeen
Styling Ian Bradley
Hair Peter Mattelliano
Styling assistant Dara Allen
Phoenix, Leeandra, Kabrina, Sabrina, and John wear Esprit by Opening Ceremony and their own clothing.