In the 1980s, wearing Esprit transported you into an imagined global, fashionable community, whether you were in Topeka, Kansas or New York City. Shopping for Esprit at the department store was special. Shopping at an actual Esprit store was next level. Fashion designer Maryam Nassir Zadeh captures the joy of Esprit:
“My earliest fashion memory dates back to the Esprit de Corp days in the ’80s. I remember opening my closet at age seven and being mesmerized by the beauty of plaid and staring at the pattern. Years later I remember begging my parents to take me shopping at the Esprit outlet in San Francisco. It was the most exciting experience.”http://www.anyonegirl.com/in-conversation-with-maryam-nassir-zadeh-and-skye-parrott/
Growing up in the 80s, Esprit was our first taste of fashion. It shaped our style and created a community centered around a specific fashion “taste.” Shout out to the 1980s “Esprit Club” in Sun Prairie, Wisconsin! Taste, while seemingly an individual proclivity, is, for sociologists, a way to signal social position, group norms, and identity. Esprit products brought together kids, teens, and adults and allowed them to signal their affinities to fashion. Today, we find the spirit of Esprit in contemporary, independent women’s fashion designers. We also see similar taste communities emerge around such designers. One of our favorite designers, Rachel Comey, embodies all that 80s Esprit was: a play with structure, color, pattern and freedom of movement. Comey also showcases the importance of art and design in her work, from her clothing, to her stores, and in her fashion shows. Finally, Comey purposefully designs clothing for, and shapes the tastes of, the “creative class”.
From Esprit to Comey
If you are old enough to have lived through the heyday of Esprit, or better yet, experienced an Esprit store, then a similar retail experience can be found at Rachel Comey’s store, and it’s not only because both fashion lines include oversized blazers with rolled up sleeves. Esprit pioneered the use of diverse models, in age, body type, skin color. Esprit elevated the retail experience by bringing high art into the 1980s mall spaces. Esprit also layered and played with proportion and movement in new ways. Rachel Comey does all of the above too.
Esprit and Rachel Comey both conjure unexpectedness, artiness, and confidence; they ask us to imagine new combinations, shapes, and purpose. They teach the wearer to look at garments in new ways, and they do this without being too avant garde for comprehension.
Branding, then and now
Separated by decades, and operating in vastly different technological and retail milieus, both companies’ successes come from strong branding. One of the only ways for companies to survive today is to have a strong aesthetic, a distinct point of view, and relatable but aspirational narrative or, in digital marketing speak, a strong “brand.” Gaining influence online happens through branding and helps avoid, at least in fashion, the ultimate danger of being labeled “basic,” or falling into the undifferentiated space of the “instagram aesthetic.”
In the endless discussions around branding, we find a connection to 1980s retail and mall culture. Part of the current nostalgia for mall culture was the strong branding each store/company offered. Banana Republic was a different look than Benetton, which was different from the Limited Express. Entering each store was entering a new world, curated with items that told a different story, and consumers could move through each of them in one enclosed space, the mall. The mall held spaces of fantasy.
The importance of brand identity was briefly lost in the 90s and early aughts. Fast fashion promised luxury fashion looks at low cost to consumers, and the identity of such stores was inherently shape-shifting to the mood of luxury fashion. If Gucci showed a bohemian line, so would Forever 21.
The Store as Gallery
Back at the mall, however, brands like Esprit stood out for their unique aesthetic. Esprit stores commissioned the Italian architect, Ettore Sottsass to design its interiors and fixtures. Sottsass founded the Memphis Group, a design collective that played with convention and the boundaries of taste using plastic and “the geometric figures of Art Deco, the color palette of Pop Art, and 1950s kitsch inspired their unusual aesthetic” (https://mymodernmet.com/what-is-memphis-design/). Shoppers in malls across America could experience art and design from across the globe.
Walking into one of Comey’s retail locations offers a similarly elevated experience. Her stores are designed with texture and light and she regularly features artists’ work and openings. The Rachel Comey website now features information for the “Soft Network” art collective. Her fashion shows are works of performance art from dinners and performances by Vivian Bond, to dance by choreographer Beth Gill.
The Esprit logo itself remains an iconic design in the world of graphics and branding. The stencil design was created by John Casado who suggested that a stencil offered the ultimate flexibility for Esprit products. The logo adorned items from t-shirts to sweatshirts to the ubiquitous tote bag. Esprit clothing was more than its logo, however. The patterns, colors, and silhouettes were relatively genderless, endlessly adaptable. It wasn’t just the logo, however. Esprit was committed to its aesthetic in all details:
“Be it the shoe box or the shop display, packaging or price tag – every detail is presented in an inspiring, colorful and upbeat design. A unique appearance that every customer recognises immediately – and really makes the vibrant, creative image of the brand tangible, in the truest sense of the word.”https://www.esprit.com/en/company/corporate/history
Much like the stenciled Esprit logo, the 2015 Rachel Comey legion jeans and the Mars boot cemented the brand among consumers. The jeans popularized the crop length, perfect to show off her boots. Comey’s aesthetic had been slowly spreading through Brooklyn and similar style communities, a deliberate choice by Comey–to market towards “creative class types” (https://www.businessoffashion.com/articles/finance/rachel-comey-goes-west).
Comey just celebrated her 20th year, on the 20th anniversary of September 11th no less. Her show was a choreographed performance featuring dancers of all ages and genders who conveyed the feeling of living in the world, comfortably and purposely. Comey draws inspiration from her customers who “have a diverse range of career paths” and she focuses on “thoughtful and thinking women” (https://fashionista.com/2021/09/rachel-comey-spring-2022-interview). Or, as numerous others have noted, Comey is “shorthand for people with taste and intellect” (https://fashionista.com/2021/09/rachel-comey-spring-2022-interview). This imagined community reaches back to the days of Esprit, when wearing the stenciled logo was a way to imagine being part of an arty, diverse scene, even from your middle school in Topeka, KS or Sun Prairie, WI.