North Face Co-Founder Douglas Tompkins, 72, Dies in Kayaking Accident

Tompkins also co-founded Esprit, but turned his back on the business world in the 1990s to focus on his conservation efforts.

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By Laura Entis

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Douglas Tompkins, the co-founder of clothing brands North Face and Esprit, died of hypothermia yesterday after his kayak capsized in rough water on the General Carrera Lake in southern Chile. He was 72.

He was flown by helicopter to Coyhaique Regional Hospital but stopped breathing on arrival, the BBC reports.

Tompkins co-founded not one but two multibillion-dollar retail businesses. First, came the outwear company North Face – today, perhaps best known for its extensive range of fleece -- that he launched in 1966 as a "small ski and backpacking retail and mail order operation in San Francisco's North Beach neighborhood," according to the company.

Next came Esprit, which he started with this then wife Susie Tompkins Buell. In the company's early days, the couple sold "plain Jane" dresses from the back of their station wagon, reports The New York Times.

Related: Remembering Chuck Williams, Founder of Williams-Sonoma

Both businesses found success in the 1980s, but by 1990, Tompkins had grown disillusioned with the corporate world. He remarried and, according to the Times, sold his considerable stake in Esprit, retired to South America and channeled his energy and wealth into conservation projects.

Along with his second wife Kristin, the former CEO of the outdoor clothing retailer Patagonia, he purchased an estimated two million acres of lands to preserve as parks and protected reserves in Chile and Argentina.

Tompkins' daughter Summer grappled with the knowledge that her father had died doing what he loved: exploring the outdoors.

"He flew airplanes, he climbed to the top of mountains all over the world," she told the Times. "To have lost his life in a lake and have nature just sort of gobble him up is just shocking."

In a memorial post on Instagram, North Face said it will continue to be inspired by Tompkins, who last visited the company's California headquarters in 2013. "Doug was special to many of us…He was a passionate advocate for the environment, and his legacy of conservation is one that we hope to help continue in the work we do every day."

Related: Holiday Cheer or Clever Marketing? REI Not So Suddenly Opts Out of Black Friday.

Laura Entis
Laura Entis is a reporter for's Venture section.

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