Global Retail   //   December 22, 2022

‘We’re not just a brand from the ’80s’: Esprit CEO William Pak on relaunching the nostalgic apparel brand

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Esprit was once a luxury California apparel brand, but it has had a rough couple of decades.

In its heyday in the ’80s and ’90s, it was known for its high-end clothing like sweatshirts. But most of its U.S. business dried up in the 2000s, and the company’s German and Hong Kong business began to lose their luster with shoppers. As part of a major restructuring beginning in 2021, William Pak became CEO. Earlier this year, the company posted its first profit since 2017. And now Esprit has big plans to relaunch in the U.S.

Pak joined the Modern Retail Podcast this week and spoke about his plans for the brand refresh. “What happened was prior teams or management have kind of changed Esprit from a bold, creative, high-quality product into what was prevalent at the time, which is fast fashion,” Pak said.

Esprit is the first apparel brand Pak has worked for, but he and his wife have spent much of their professional life helping businesses on the brink. “We’ve done a lot of business turnarounds, and expansionary business plans,” Pak said. “We’re quite an optimistic couple, so we like to [take on] optimistic projects.”

The first phase of the plan was a complete business restructuring, and bringing the company back to profitability. Now that’s finished, and Pak is focused on the fun part: rebranding. With that, Esprit is moving its entire business to New York City, with the plan to make it an apparel leader once again. “Whe brand will globally be created, designed, thought through, photographed all in New York City,” he said. “And it will resonate globally from there.”

Currently, Esprit has a pop-up in Soho, but it plans to open a new flagship store next year. What’s more, the company is completely refreshing its assortment, and plans to unveil all the new designs later in 2023.

In Pak’s estimation, now is the right time to relaunch such a brand. Decades like the ’80s and ’90s are in vogue these days, which gives Esprit the chance to resonate well with multiple generations.

But Pak has bigger hopes for the brand beyond regurgitating its prime from 30 year ago. “But we’re not just a brand from the ’80s, we’re now a modernized version of Esprit,” said Pak.

Here are a few highlights from the conversation, which have been lightly edited for clarity.

On Esprit’s new brand identity
“Over the 80s and 90s, it was three different aesthetics, centrally coordinated to some extent in Germany for at least the later ’90s and 2000s. I think it was around the early 2000s when the Asian entity actually purchased the German entity and the U.S. entity… so that it became headquartered there… But what we’re going to do is take the approach where the brand will globally be created, designed, thought through, photographed all in New York City. And it will resonate globally from there. This is a very important change because I can’t think of another retailer that has done this — where they actually move the corporate mind [and] creative mind to a certain place as opposed to just opening an outpost and opening stores. So this is something very momentous.”

The U.S. store strategy
“The pop-up in LA opened about a month ago, I went to the grand opening. It’s on South Robertson Boulevard, and we chose that spot because California cool was the original brand in the beginning. So we had vintage products, we had varsity-themed products, a way for the brand to really reenter and reengage with the consumer experience. We’re opening a permanent store across the street there in about the first quarter, in a couple of months. And the second pop-up in New York City. Today is going to be the soft opening of the pop-up in Soho, which is going to be for a couple of weeks with the Christmas theme — also [with] vintage [products], kind of a reintroduction of the brand. We will have a further pop-up in a couple of months in the same spot in Soho. And we’re planning a flagship store in New York City as well, hopefully to open sometime later next year.”

Capitalizing on nostalgia
“There has been this rolling wave of nostalgia, I think. A few years ago it was the ’80s. And then right now it’s the ’90s. Some people think it might be 2000s soon. But in the end, I think actually what the reason why — not the only reason but one of the reasons why nostalgia is really resonating with the current generation and consumer is that there’s been a lot of change — globalization, de-globalization — a lot of very stressful times, what we’ve just been through over the last couple of years. Things like that, which actually make people really look up towards a brand. People are starting to trust brands more than they trust other corporations without a brand or governments or things like that. They find aspirational brands to be something to look forward to. And brands that really resonated back in the day, when things were quite more open and freewheeling like the ’80s, is why nostalgia for certain things are really resonating. So that’s why we wanted to start by reconnecting the consumer with nostalgia. But we’re not just a brand from the ’80s, we’re now a modernized version of Esprit.”