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Can Esprit Stage a Comeback?

Espirit C.E.O. William Pak alongside global chief brand officer, Ana Andjelic.
Espirit C.E.O. William Pak alongside global chief brand officer, Ana Andjelic. Photo: Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images
The Editors
December 18, 2023

Earlier this month, at the Scope art show in Miami Beach, Line Sheet author Lauren Sherman sat down with Esprit’s global chief brand officer, Ana Andjelic, to discuss the art of revitalizing a dormant, once-dominant brand. Esprit, of course, was a commercial fashion fixture in the 1980s, before experiencing a dramatic decline in both mind and market share over the past two decades. But with the appointment of Andjelic in 2022, and the hiring of C.E.O. William Pak in 2021, the brand is attempting a comeback.

In this fascinating and insidery conversation, Lauren and Ana discuss how to make retail work in the modern age, Ana’s serendipitous path to Esprit, the challenges and thrills of kickstarting a known brand, and much more.

Lauren Sherman: Let’s start with your background, because, as I mentioned in Line Sheet, you have a talent for taking old brands and making them feel new, while permitting consumers to still feel the things that they used to feel about them all those years ago. I’m curious about how you got to Esprit? 

Ana Andjelic: Different but related things that got me to Esprit. The ability to recognize the brand, and see what made that brand great in the first place. That’s easier said than done, because all brands are made in a specific context. The founders recognized the need to create these imagined territories to have fun with—like what if, I don’t know, we put a Jeep in a store in the 1970s, and put palm trees… so that was sort of the springboard. 

There are things that are super relevant for a culture in a given moment, like Mickey Drexler’s metrosexual look in the ’90s. But you have to go further back and think, Oh, what was the intention behind the brand originally? Usually, you can play with it and be like, What is happening in culture right now, and what are people talking about? That brought me to Esprit, which started with a LinkedIn message to me from the C.E.O., William Pak. He was sitting in an office and there was a TV on, and there was the little tracker that said Gap stock is up thanks to the Banana Republic revival. And he thought, Who did this? So he asked in the industry, and he sent me a message saying, Hey, I’m the C.E.O. of Esprit, would you like to talk? I said sure, I liked them, and that’s how I joined.

Lauren: What about Esprit made you want to go there? What did you see in it? 

Ana: I knew Esprit because everyone knows Esprit. But my first reaction was like, Oh, Esprit is around? It’s like oxygen. It’s one of those brands that you don’t think about, just like you don’t think about oxygen. So for me, it’s like, how do I turn oxygen into gold? 

I couldn’t rely on what I knew about Esprit, because you can’t pinpoint the brands that are just around. But then I started doing research. The history of Esprit is unbelievable. I don’t say that Banana Republic history isn’t interesting, but it’s not unbelievable. Esprit history includes the fundamentals of graphic design, which graphic designers still mention. The Comprehensive Design Principle and Making of an Image are two books that the founders had written, describing how they did branding, how they built the brand—and it’s still relevant today. 

The second thing is having Oliviero Toscani as a photographer in the ’80s, who created those iconic images that we are riffing off now. We are obviously modernizing and so on, but he made fashion fun. In the ’80s, fashion was very serious—it was posing, it was models. Esprit was fashion. It was not cheap. The quality was really good.

The whole point of Esprit was that it was a creative platform. They collaborated a lot. If you think about the late ’80s, they did a campaign with American teenagers: “What would you do… if you?” There was Gwyneth Paltrow in the middle of the AIDS epidemic saying, “I will distribute condoms to every high school.” Gwyneth Paltrow was not yet Gwyneth Paltrow, of course. She was an L.A. teenager. But what people said, and how they were filmed—and we have all of that in the archives—it’s very resonant. 

Lauren: A friend of mine recently asked if you are going to reissue The Comprehensive Design Principle [first published in 1989] someday.

Ana: Oh, that’s a great idea. It’s been out of print for so long, you can find it on Amazon for like $600. It’s insane. But we have a lot of that in our archives. 

Lauren: I understand how the design element was important to the culture, but it was more than that. What do you think kind of hooked in with customers at that time?

Ana: Esprit was a part of an American generation growing up, and when you’re part of someone’s growing up, you’re with them forever. Many stories are not just, Oh, I love Esprit. Instead it’s, I love my hand-stitched Esprit that I wore on the first day of high school, or my prom, and I thought I was the coolest. Esprit had a cool factor because it was not cheap. And I think it had just enough edge that we hear people like, Oh, I was gay growing up, I didn’t like any clothes, and I would go to Esprit and I would buy womens’ jackets. You know what I mean? It was edgy. American brands are not edgy. J. Crew was never edgy. Banana was not edgy. Gap is not edgy. They didn’t have that fashion element that Esprit had, especially in the ’90s. I think it’s California cool, relaxed and very San Francisco: very oversized, masculine-feminine layering. In the ’90s they became very urban, and they were cool, and if you’re cool with teenagers, you’re good.

Lauren: So moving into the future, taking all these principles that were in place and this incredible brand, who are you targeting now? And how do you bring it into the culture where there are probably 10, 20, 30 times more brands than there were in 1987?

Ana: How do you break through? The answer is that you don’t, you just don’t. Mass media doesn’t exist and you’re just not going to break through. You can spend an arm and leg, and you’re going to be in culture for just like, one second. If you do a crazy collaboration, or a crazy fashion show, everyone is going to talk to you for one second. So we are doing the opposite.

Who are our fans? Gen X—they still buy Esprit like you wouldn’t believe. Last December we had a pop up, and they were coming in and saying I grew up on Esprit! It was personal and so deep. You know, come for the logo, stay for the shearling coat or the cashmere sweater. And then you have Gen Z. Again, the way we are approaching it is through finding those fan communities. Either in Gen X, vintage lovers, or downtown New York or LA, and then connect with them. Over time, if those signals get synchronized, the culture is going to take notice.

At the same time, we are obviously creating campaigns and buying print, because you’re right, Esprit was not here [in the U.S.] for 20 years, literally: the last store was shut down 20 years ago. So it’s a different challenge than Banana, for example, which is everywhere. It’s a different challenge to remind people and make them care again. 

Lauren: Do you think that in some ways it’s easier because of the fact that it’s been out of the culture? It’s more pristine from a perception perspective.

Ana: One thousand percent. Because we never left Europe, for example, and there the equity went down. 

Lauren: There are so many iconic brands trying for a revival. Success today usually happens through being popular on TikTok, and having super, super, super trendy clothes. I went into a big mall store last year that’s doing really well on the stock market, and every single rack had a flier on the front that said, “As seen on TikTok.” If you’re a public company, that works great—it makes people happy because your sales are up—but to me, that’s not a long-term solution. 

Ana: One of the first things I did when I joined was brand vision, which was asking, What is the aesthetic territory that we want to own? And when you do that, you can’t really go back and look. That was then, this is now. Nostalgia works for one second and then it doesn’t, you know? So you can’t build a brand on memories. 

The most important thing is to build a strategy for product assortment. People don’t think that that’s under “brand,” but it actually is. I work very closely with our chief product officer, but the point to me is like, What are the hero items? What is the collection? What is the foundation? 

I strongly believe that if you’re reviving the brand, you can’t chase trends. Everyone says you need to move at the speed of culture. Yes, but no. Yes, with content. With product, no. You need to know who you are. You need to know what your identity is. So we are closer to The Row or Brunello Cucinelli in a sense. If you like it, amazing. If you don’t like it, that’s also okay. You can still buy a t-shirt. 

Lauren: You wrote a book about luxury, and how luxury brands are built. You take a long-term approach to branding. 

Ana: Absolutely. 

Lauren: How do you do that? In this very, very fast culture, you need to generate sales quickly. Especially if you’re at a lower price point, where you do need to have a bigger volume than a luxury brand does.

Ana: It all comes down to—this is going to sound very, like, “industry talk”—but it all comes down to materials that you’re actually using. You can offer the same design in better stitching with better materials, and you’re going to have a better margin because if something costs $300 for cashmere, your margin is going to be better than if you make the same sweater in recycled wool or something like recycled cotton.

So you think about the pricing strategy. It’s unbelievably important to have a quality value-price ratio locked in. When you have an amazing image, and an amazing identity, that’s when the rubber hits the road—when you have a great price for a great product. So that is what we are really thinking about: How do I scale? The marketing strategy is basically a portfolio approach—it’s not one size fits all. Revival works for a short time, and you saturate the market, you have a lot of money to spend, but longevity happens by creating many doors in the brand and speaking to different audiences in a different way. 

Lauren: So you’re at this art fair. How does something like this fit into that entire strategy? 

Ana: This touches on what we talked about before—about fans, and also about creating many doors in the brand, also in terms of culture. This made sense for us because our Q1 theme concept is “Night at the Museum.” And the way we are approaching it, we are starting to market collections like movies. So there is a teaser, there is a trailer, there is an opening, an event… you know how collections usually start at the same time as your marketing? We are starting now. This was the perfect preview of what’s to come.  

Lauren: I hate this word, but let’s talk about storytelling. You’ve talked about community, you’ve talked about all these different places where the brand exists, and now you’re pulling people in. How are you storytelling through stores, through online marketing, things like that?

Ana: You have to start from there because unless you have a story as a brand, you need to invent one. You need to be able to say something to the culture, and to start that conversation. So our story is really, Oh, we are playful, modern, cool. Playfulness means, like, mischief and tongue-in-cheek. What is “cool” is having our own aesthetic and standing apart. And then in terms of modernity, that’s like, Who is the emerging talent that we want to support? How do we want to be present in culture in a way that uses our scale as a platform?

So it’s not a story, but that’s three pillars for storytelling. The overarching narrative is that rules don’t apply. We are really trying to do our own thing. In the first year, 2023, our audience was the industry—the buyers, the wholesalers, the retail, the real estate. Now, we are amplifying our own actions next year; so our media buy really changes. 

So with Night at the Museum, our store becomes a museum or a gallery. We start by thinking who are the curators that we want, and then we say, Shall we do a Lower East Side Gallery, and if we do that, shall we do one object and create a concept around it? One thing needs to lead to another. You know how campaigns are isolated? Everything we do is like one wave that creates a bigger wave. So that’s how we are now approaching it: everything we do needs to speak to each other, and needs to amplify what’s coming next. 

We have a big comeback tour in the United States starting in May or June, depending on which city we decide on. And then we also have an Olympic capsule. The 1984 Olympics were in Los Angeles; we found a bag in our archives from 1984. Small stories like that are part of a bigger story. So that’s what our marketing is. It’s always in the service of, What are we, and how do we participate in culture

Lauren: You mentioned that in your first year, your audience was the fashion industry, essentially. One thing I’ve thought about a lot is the idea of the “core,” that sort of really influential group of people buying into what you do. And then you need the next layer—people who follow those people. And then you need the next layer after that. Do you need to keep the people at the core engaged, even when you have that huge audience? 

Ana: Always! Because the only constant is change, as you know. So the moment you start doing the same thing, you become complacent. You need to keep evolving. That was our plan for ’24. In ’25, we are going to do something completely different, because ’24 is a transitional year for us. Our job is not to set the new aesthetic for this brand. And who knows what is going to come to me in ’25 based on what’s happening in culture? You need to stay alert. 

Lauren: There are so many brands that have had their life cycle dragged out. When you look at the big brands, the billion-dollar plus brands, so many of them struggle with mindshare even if they have a lot of market share. What do you think the solution is in American retail to kind of get these brands either back on track, or do you think a lot of them should just sunset and make room for new ideas?

Ana: Some brands are too long gone. There is such a thing as a dead brand, honestly. So that’s a fact. Second thing is, Why do all brands need to be billion-dollar brands? They can be hundred-million-dollar brands. So for some of them, it’s like, look, if you do a $100 million or $200 million, you’re good. Why do you need to be at the same scale you were at your heyday? It’s unrealistic and honestly bad math. 

Lauren: Esprit was such a global brand, even in the 1980s, when that didn’t really exist. We’ve seen luxury brands over the last 15 years or so recalibrate their marketing to be global, when it used to be really regionalized. How do you factor in that you’re marketing to people in all different areas of the world?

Ana: You do need to translate that vision into one story, into one look and feel. But how you localize it is by considering who the content creators are that you’re working with. How do you use data about information in the local markets? Like what you do in jackets is not going to be the same thing in Serbia and France, you know? You’re going to style them a little differently. It doesn’t need to be a nuclear family. You can also use the same imagery from the campaigns, but then you’ve got to know how to talk to your customer there on a more localized level. A different website homepage, emails, different calls to action… 

Lauren: In retail, everyone is too reliant on data. There are no more merchants left. There’s no one with this sense. I think you have it; I’m not just saying that. How do you balance your instinct with all of this information that’s coming in constantly in real time?

Ana: Well, number one, I’m present. And I get my hands dirty. I make an informed hypothesis. For example, I was convinced that the American customer is not price sensitive. I was like, you know what? Don’t believe me. Let’s open our pop up. Let’s use it as a test and learn. And of course they’re not. You know? I’m like, they’re not going to care. They’re going to buy $300 cashmere. But you need to test that. And then why are we sending the same merchandise to all the different stores? No, no, no. Miami is sequins. LA is more sporty. It sounds obvious, but you have to test it. And then you get the data and then you start going. But that first hypothesis needs to come from that sense.  

Lauren: Why do you think retailers believe the consumer is so price sensitive? 

Ana: Oh, they’re scared, they’re risk averse. It takes balls to tell your C.E.O., Don’t drop the price, and then be willing to be responsible. 

Lauren: If it’s not discounted during sale season, it does signal to the consumer that it’s worth it. The retailer has to be pretty confident not to put it on sale. 

Ana: Correct, correct. That’s always the thing. It’s kind of like when you’re dating someone and you’re not too thirsty. They think it’s transactional, and of course often it is transactional, but overall the relationship between consumers and brands is not transactional.

Lauren: What is the Esprit hero product? Is it still the sweatshirt? And what else has popped? 

Ana: So we went and looked at what Esprit was known for back in the day, and we said, Okay, we have a parka because Esprit was very outdoorsy. So a hero product would be a parka in shearling, or in wool, or in cashmere—a nice material, well done. Then you have a pair of jeans, because everyone does, and we rebooted our jeans and the fit is now great. Then you have a button-up. Everyone does, but ours has stripes. And then you go through it like that: we have a chunky knit that’s very Esprit.