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Another Roadside Attraction

Who: Doug Tompkins and Susie Tompkins Buell

When: July 1962

Where: Emerald Bay, Lake Tahoe

Doug, Susie and their daughter. Photo by Suki Hill

All empires start somewhere. The 1980s fashion phenomenon of Esprit began with a raised thumb and a foot on the brake.

Twenty-year-old Susie Russell was driving up to Tahoe City to work her summer job as a keno runner at the Cal-Neva casino when she spied a guy bumming a ride near Emerald Bay. She slowed her burgundy Beetle.

She always picked up hitchhikers. Everyone did. This was the 60s. Besides, the guy by the side of the road was cute.

"He was a tree-topper, so he was kind of rugged," she recalls. "Clean but rugged."

She stopped her Bug, and Doug Tompkins jumped in. Tompkins, 20, was an Eastern preppie who had come to California hoping to make the U.S. ski team and compete in the 64 Winter Olympics. He ended up trimming trees instead.

Susie chattered away. Doug maintained his hauteur. "He was from upstate New York and had this attitude that the East was the better coast," she recalls. He told her he attended Harvard, figuring shed be impressed.

He didnt; she wasn't. Instead she was irked. Such a back-East thing, pulling rank.

"If you're too cool, you can get out now," she told him. But Doug didnt budge. Susie had a blonde ponytail, bare feet, and a way about her that made a man invent an Ivy League résumé. She dropped him in town, a bit relieved.

But he stuck in her mind.

And he kept turning up in the Tahoe social ecosystem. She saw him again at a party. And again after that. She loaned him $60. When the summer ended, she went with him on a surfing trip to Mexico. One thing led to another. The two wed that November.

In 1969 the couple started Plain Jane, a dress label that eventually evolved into Esprit. Run by Susie and Doug, Esprit grew into a global brand that, by 1986, reached $800 million in sales. The Tompkinses divorced in 1989. Esprit, undermined by its creators' split, was sold to investors in 1996.

Doug bought 700,000 acres in Chile and turned it into a nature preserve and is now a respected environmentalist. Susie married businessman Mark Buell in 1996. She is active in women's issues and Democratic politics but no longer slows down for an upturned thumb.

Andrew Nelson lives and writes in San Francisco.

Copyright 2001 - 2002 Andrew T. Nelson. All rights reserved.