George Esquivel outlines plans for Tumi at Global Citizens event

A keen sense of style and a little get-up-and-go brought George Esquivel from a troubled childhood to the top of the fashion world, writes Abid Rahman

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 June, 2014, 10:15am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 June, 2014, 10:15am

George Esquivel is a difficult interview. It's not that the noted shoe designer and creative director of luggage company Tumi is uncooperative - on the contrary, he's the epitome of southern California positivity and couldn't be further from the diva cliché of many in fashion.

Rather, Esquivel's life and career is so rich and veers from so many lows to dizzying highs that it's difficult to capture his story fully in the time we have together. "This could go on for hours," says Esquivel, looking over at a nervous press manager, "so you're going to have to be very specific".

Best to start with the present and work backwards. In his role as creative director of Tumi, Esquivel is making a flying visit to Hong Kong to be at the announcement of two new Tumi Global Citizens and the first from Asia - award-winning Chinese industrial designer Jamy Yang and Hong Kong-born television and radio personality Dominic Lau.

Really, the only thing I learned from my dad was hustling 

Yang and Lau join the likes of Alexandra Cousteau, Amanda Sudano and Eric Whitacre as the official faces of the Global Citizen campaign, but Esquivel sees the concept as something much broader and encompassing a more diverse group of people.

"Global Citizens are people that travel the world for work and play; it's about a travel lifestyle," says Esquivel adding that his first choice for Global Citizen on joining the company was singer Sudano, daughter of Donna Summer.

"Take Amanda Sudano. I met her in Paris doing a show about 2½ years ago, and after the show they were going to India to work in an orphanage. Now this is not a girl who travels by private jet … she and her husband, they rough it, they stay on friends' couches when they play gigs, but yet she's glamorous, she models. She is someone who inspires people, and she is a true global citizen."

Essentially a shoe designer, Esquivel's rise to the role of creative director at Tumi, a New York Stock Exchange-listed corporation, is at odds with his unorthodox upbringing. But Esquivel laughs at the notion that he is the epitome of the American dream.

"The short version of the story? I was the oldest of five children and my dad was a drug addict and always in and out of jail. At 19 we kicked my father out of the house, so I was the head of the house and life sucked," he says.

Esquivel tried to make the best of things. "I had given up my life to help my mum raise my siblings. I was just doing whatever, driving a truck, working construction. My only escape was music," Esquivel says, explaining how, in the late 1980s, he immersed himself in the Orange County punk scene that had given life to bands such as Black Flag and Social Distortion, and also spawned a fashion movement.

"At the time everyone was into Doc Martens. So I would buy vintage shoes and kind of burnish them or if I were to buy vintage clothes my mum would rework them for me." Esquivel's eye for refashioning classics and dress sense began to mark him out in a scene noted for its extroverts. But it was a fateful trip to Mexico that changed everything.

"I was still driving a truck for a living and I happened to be on a trip to Mexico with my girlfriend, who's now my wife. On the way, I saw a sign that said bootmaker. I walked in and gave them a quick sketch of what I wanted, went back in a couple of months to pick them up and that was it, I was hooked."

Realising that he could fashion the shoes that he wanted, Esquivel set off on an odyssey around southern California looking for shoemakers to create '50s and '60s-inspired winklepickers or "cockroach killers", as they were known in Orange County.

Inevitably, Esquivel's custom-made shoes attracted a lot of attention and this led him to make shoes for others, after a long arduous process finding a shoemaker.

"They were my designs, but this retired shoemaker would knock up shoes using scrap leather. We were making Oxfords, brogues, all kinds of things. I would just wear them out and people were like 'What are those things?' I would hand out the card and people would come over and order some," says Esquivel.

"Really, the only thing I learned from my dad was hustling, but he was hustling drugs, whereas I was hustling shoes," Esquivel says.

His fledgling shoe business then started attracting celebrity attention. "The guys from 311 bought 20 pairs at a time, Guns N' Roses bought another 20 pairs, Tommy Stinson from The Replacements, I mean everybody was buying them, it just took off."

Esquivel's talent for selling and raising the profile of his shoes meant that demand was outstripping supply - so much so that his shoemaker called it quits, forcing Esquivel to learn shoemaking himself. "I was driving these shoemakers nuts, so they just told me to do it myself," says Esquivel.

Slowly but steadily the brand gained a wider audience outside southern California, and before long the fashion establishment took notice. Spotted by the west coast editor of Vogue, Esquivel was put forward for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund - an endowment to help up-and-coming designers. "The Vogue editor told me to apply. I go from the top 250 to 100 and then to the top 50 and then I make the final 10. Then my life changes, completely, it's now on a whole different level."

Esquivel isn't being hyperbolic - previous winners and runners-up of the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund award include Billy Reid, Alexander Wang, Thom Browne and Phillip Lim. With his fashion credentials rubber stamped, no less a figure than Anna Wintour recommended Esquivel to Fratelli Rossetti, when the Italian shoe brand was in need of a creative reboot.

Esquivel spent three years flying between California and Italy as he attempted to take Fratelli Rossetti from dependable quality shoemaker to cutting-edge, must-have fashion. "When I first went in there, they're looking at me like 'Who is this American guy?' I was putting these shoes in the washing machine just to see what they would look like. But over time they got it that I understood what I was talking about," says Esquivel, modestly downplaying the success he had bringing a new audience to Fratelli Rossetti, as well as the distressed brogue trend that's been copied the world over.

From Fratelli Rossetti, full-circle back to Tumi and Esquivel smiles at the suggestion that he's been brought in to inject a bit of "cool" into another established and practical brand.

"Look, the black-on-black ballistic stuff that Tumi did will never go away, I'm not about changing things that work," he says of Tumi's core business.

Since he became creative director, Tumi has introduced more desirable leather luggage with greater scope for personalisation.

"What I'm doing is what I did at Rossetti. I'm infusing freshness, colours, a different attitude. There's a whole new generation who don't just want indestructible black bags and accessories."

Despite his continued success, Esquivel's upbringing is a constant reminder to keep himself grounded.

"I'm blessed and I understand the lows in life. I mean, growing up and you're going to high school with fake shoes like I did. And you're homeless and living in a motel, your dad's in jail and you're going to get evicted. OK, that's all pretty crap. So thinking back to that and looking at my life now, I have no complaints."