Doug and Susie Tompkins can't be found in Who's Who in America. They don't fly first-class. And when Forbes magazine dropped the couple from its list of the "Four Hundred Richest People in America" (last year's estimated worth, $350 million), Doug says he was relieved. "I hate the whole idea of that damn thing," he says. "It's a drag."

The Tompkinses are a part of a new generation of entrepreneurs who have synergized their counterculture ideals with their corporate identities. They say their product -- suitably sloppy clothes for the MTV generation -- is not simply fashion, it's a way of life.

They not only have esprit, they are Esprit.

"Esprit is so much more than anyone thinks it is," says Susie, 45, who started the business 20 years ago out of her cramped San Francisco kitchen. "It's a life style, a culture, a society."

"Whatever is unique to Esprit is the effort to put a comprehensive show together," says Doug, 44, CEO and administrator of the architectural department. "It's your clothing, your image and the aura that you spin around the clothing, the form of advertising and promotions, the catalogues, the use of photography, store architecture, the interiors."

It's High Concept. Just as Ralph Lauren sells WASP nostalgia or Banana Republic markets the allure of exotic travel, Esprit trades on Northern California hip. It successfully sells an image the way its competition -- the Gap, the Limited, Benetton -- sells a product. Fresh, casual and just a little funky, the Esprit clothes often make less of an impression than the Esprit ethos.

"It's like, it's no big deal," says Susie. "They're just clothes." But her designs have accomplished the impossible: They straddle the line between what a teen-ager wants to wear and what a parent is willing to buy.

The Esprit corp. has invaded Europe, the Far East and the Middle East as well as America, with worldwide sales estimated at $800 million a year. Sixty-five percent of sales are international -- the clothes are sold in 25 countries. Twelve new stores will open in Italy this year. Next month an Esprit Superstore opens on Sloane Street in London.

The Tompkinses were both in Washington last month for the opening of the new East Coast flagship store in Georgetown, 11,000 square feet of white walls, soaring ceilings and streamlined polished steel. Airy, modern, a little hollow, it is a timeless backdrop for the changing moods of adolescence.

But they were together only in esprit. More like business partners than partners in marriage, Doug and Susie rarely see each other. They share a house on the curvy part of Lombard Street on San Francisco's Russian Hill, but Doug spends half the year outside Milan, and Susie spends many months at their place in Hong Kong.

"There's a conflict between us, but there's a dynamic that can create a lot of positive energy," she explains.

Susie has never dressed for success. Her sunny blond bob is tousled and her Esprit suit needs ironing. She wears no makeup and only two pieces of jewelry -- a plain gold wedding band and a man's stainless steel Rolex. As design director, she's here to check on the clothing displays and the supply of short skirts. Sitting in the new Esprit store, she is constantly turning over a thought and checking her feelings.

When she bought herself a "little Mercedes" recently, she says, Doug thought it was "vulgar." But "it doesn't mean that I've copped out," she says. "I don't think it's vulgar."

And Doug, still stewing about his childhood spent with rich kids, doesn't believe in inheritance. Their daughters Quincey, 21, and Summer, 20, will have to survive on Susie's half of Esprit. "You sit around waiting for the money to come in and it retards your personal growth," he says.

"I don't agree with him," says Susie, "but that's the way he is."

Three days after his wife leaves town, Doug arrives. Cruising around the new store, he's got on his corporate uniform -- pressed cotton shirt, belted jeans and Timberland shoes. Speaking softly, just louder than the be-bop piped in over his head, he doesn't sound like an aggressive, ambitious teenwear tycoon. He seems more like a man on vacation.

"I see all sorts of slapdash stuff up and down this street," he says of Wisconsin Avenue as he settles back in a black, high-tech office chair. Considering himself an architect without a license, he's here attending to what he loves most -- the Esprit environment.

"First of all, the tapes around here now are not my favorites," he says, referring to the be-bop. He prefers more profound shopping music -- instrumentals like "Celestial Sodapop" off Ray Lynch's "Deep Breakfast" album. It's wistful, space-age jazz, the kind of sound track you'd imagine for a California condor on its final flight.

Doug, like Susie, is kid-size, inquisitive and esthetically preoccupied. They have designed everything for Esprit, from dressing rooms reminiscent of black port-a-johns and postmodern sales receipts to management style and advertising.

Real people have been used in the Esprit ads since the beginning. At first they were employes, photographed in do-your-own-thing combinations of Esprit clothes. Now the customers have taken over. Found at rock concerts, on campuses and more often in the Esprit stores, they appear in close-ups, always accompanied by a pithy identification penned by Doug.

Cara Schanche, Berkeley, California. Age: 23. English Literature Student, Part-time Waitress, Anti-Racism Activist, Beginning Windsurfer, Friend of the Dalai Lama.

Schanche is a very young blond. Her teeth are a blinding white. Her eyes are as blue as denim. She stares straight at you, as if in a languid trance.

"Who says the Esprit customer is not sexy?" says Doug, who refuses to run the ads in Cosmopolitan magazine -- even after Editor-in-Chief Helen Gurley Brown made a personal appearance in his office, pleading for pages.

"I find them {Cosmo cover girls} sex-object types ... flaunting their cleavages, and they've got these phony-looking hairdos, and they've got a lot of makeup. That's not the kind of image that I'd like to portray, so I don't think that so many of our customers are reading that magazine."

Susie says: "It's the wrong kind of sexy. We would really like to inspire customers to be sexy in a different way. Being secure and clear about who they are."

And no Seventh Avenue mannequin has ever been wholesome enough for Esprit. "Anybody can hire Brooke Shields," Doug shrugs.

Doug and Susie Tompkins met 25 years ago on a road outside Lake Tahoe. Susie, then 20, was running keno bets at a casino for the summer. Doug, 19 and trying to make the U.S. Olympic ski team, was hitching a ride. She picked him up in her '57 VW bug and they were married a year later, in 1963, after moving to San Francisco.

They never went to college -- prep schools are their only academic claim. Susie, born to an old-line San Francisco family, was sent to boarding school when she was 3 1/2 and a score of schools followed. "I was too energetic," she says. "I was a handful, I know." Doug must have been, too. The son of antique dealers in Millbrook, N.Y., he dropped out at 17, he says, when he was kicked out of the Pomfret School in Connecticut.

With only their taste and intuition to guide them, the Tompkinses backed into the rag trade. If he had had his way, Doug, who is a world-class expert in rock climbing and white-water kayaking, would still be selling outerwear, as does his closest friend, Yvon Chouinard, the owner of Patagonia. In 1964 Doug started a mountaineering store in North Beach called North Face.

San Franciscans still remember the store for its slick, modern design. Filled with Kelty packs, ice clamps and other climbing gear, it was one of the most beautiful stores in the city at the time. And on the walls for inspiration -- not unlike the large glossy faces in the Esprit store in Georgetown -- were huge black-and-white photographs of guys hanging from slings and pitons doing Class VI climbs.

Doug sold North Face, the shop and the label, in 1969 for $50,000. It's now a $40 million business. "No regrets," he says.

The same year, Susie, at home with two toddlers, started a dress business with her childhood friend Jane Tise. It was an immediate hit. In no time there were four different lines -- Plain Jane, Sweet Baby Jane, Jasmine Teas and Rose Hips -- all geared to young women. "Teen-agers spend a lot of money on clothes, and I think it's normal," she says, leaning in closer to talk with the understanding voice of the therapist you've always wanted. "That's when you are finding out who you are. What you are wearing is an expression of who you are."

As she says today, "If I had to design a collection for Palm Beach socialites, I just couldn't do it."

Doug, who admits to having dropped his "share of acid in the '60s," helped them handle both success and a Haight-Ashbury life style. "Today, sharp people aren't taking drugs," he says, "but in the '60s there was a willingness to take adventures with yourself to discover things." He had shoulder-length hair at the time and would take off for months on "out of contact" trips to South America.

Nonetheless, he became hooked on the business. "I'm still not very interested in clothing. I'm interested in things that build and creating an organization." In 1969 he named the organization Esprit de Corp., he says, because of his antiwar sentiments. "It's from the Marines. We were trying to make fun of them."

The corporate headquarters in San Francisco is a perceived step into the future, a modern, well-designed place that is visually inspiring. A huge quilt collection hangs on the walls and employes pad about in socks or flat shoes, provided by the company, to protect the soft wood floors. Next door they graze on individual pizzas, fresh pasta and free-range chicken at the Caffe Esprit -- a Japanese/California version of an Italian espresso bar.

It is the kind of place where Doug and Susie would want to work. And it is filled with the kind of people they like to have around, people like themselves -- hip, artistic and outgoing.

"We just want people who come naturally with the right point of view," says Doug. "You don't want to send an Esprit-type person over to Alcott & Andrews and reprogram them to wear those little ties and silk shirts and jackets and briefcases."

Hiring for type and taste is not unusual in the fashion business. Perry Ellis employes are often described as "Very Perry." The people at Ralph Lauren, likewise, have a certain tweedy way about them. But Esprit people have had to fight a reputation of being clones of Doug and Susie.

"I always worry when no one in a company will gripe," says entrepreneur expert Tom Peters, author of the book and PBS series "The Search for Excellence." "One would hope that a business could do as well as Esprit without all the cult aspects."

"Oh, I know," says Susie. "People say that we're Moonies. But the people at Esprit just relate to the product. And there is a lot of respect. We hire people who respect respect."

Prospective Esprit people are carefully screened and courted. If you were applying for a job, Doug might not want to see your re'sume', and he hasn't hired an MBA from Harvard or Stanford yet. But he might try to wrangle an invitation to your house. "I'd want to know what your taste is," he says. "What you do and how you lead your life. What your life style is. I'd like to meet your boyfriend, your parents.

"I'd like to go to your house and see what it looks like. It's very easy," he says, "because you see their bookshelves, their record collection, you see their taste in how they fixed their house. You can tell something about someone's personal style from how they're dressed, but when you go to their house it extends into a lot of other things."

"It's like hiring hearts and not minds," he says.

Doug tells a story about a management meeting at headquarters. "Everybody started asking each other how many speeding tickets they had," he says. "Finally one person said, 'Yeah, can you imagine somebody who just drives 55 miles an hour?' "

He says he thought about checking the driving records of prospective Esprit managers. "In this business you need to have a sense of urgency," he says. "Obeying the speed rules? Ha! ... The type of person who conforms to that is somewhat -- undynamic. So if we found out people had speeding tickets ...

"I tell you," he says, "I have a terrible driving record."

There are exercise bikes and aerobics classes at the headquarters. A grass tennis court and a running course stand by for lunch-time use. Windsurfing boards can be checked out for the weekend. There are clinics in tennis and scuba diving, skiing, kayaking and rock climbing.

"My feeling about fitness is that it has to do with your self-esteem," Doug says. "Being overweight almost always spells something out of balance ... Inevitably they confess somewhere along the line that they are not happy with something in their life. It's not that I dislike fat people, per se, but I do dislike the fact that they are fat, which is exactly what they feel."

So many of the Esprit staff at the California headquarters are from Europe and the Far East that English language classes are taught in-house, along with Japanese and Italian, the languages of Tokyo and Milan -- sympathetic design capitals.

Stimulating travel is strongly endorsed. And the company will often help out with the bills. "Frankly, I don't want to underwrite anything that's just a vacation," says Doug, who takes off three or four months a year to go on extensive trips. "I consider myself a citizen of the world," he says. This year he was on expedition in Africa and fly fishing in Tierra del Fuego. Next summer he'll go kayaking in Siberia. "Everybody can take a vacation lying on the beach in Hawaii or wherever, but how many people will really go rafting in the Himalayas? That, I feel, is something that we should subsidize ...

"It's a win/win situation," he says. "The individual will heighten their sensibilities about being alive, and if they are alive and more dynamic, the byproduct goes to their organization."

And he likes having these people around. "Makes life more interesting."

Susie admits that she doesn't have the time to exercise much anymore. Her adventures are more internal. "Sometimes the word 'sporty' gets a little too carried away. They don't have to be running out and playing racquetball every day," she says, "but involved and interested in life."

She describes herself as the "mother figure" at Esprit, and has spearheaded a heightened social awareness within the company. Recently she organized an Esprit Cares Day, focusing on AIDS awareness. She is thrilled with the results -- an accessories designer left the company to work with AIDS patients.

"Esprit used to be nurturing visual," Susie says. "Now it's going to be nurturing in a very humanistic way."

Doug is writing a book about the management style at Esprit -- a little California, a dash of Tokyo, with H. Ross Perot, one of his idols, thrown in. He calls it a "counterculture management philosophy" and believes it will someday sweep the world. He emphasizes the openness within the company and the soft reins he uses on his creative people. But to keep up with the toughest game in fashion -- juniors -- it's puppy eat puppy.

"The degree of competitiveness at the Limited, the Gap and Esprit makes General Motors look like a sick joke," says Tom Peters.

Last year Esprit had a shake-up -- a bad sales year, with losses in one quarter. It wasn't the first flop -- the catalogue division folded a few years ago. Doug blames the 1986 losses on Susie's design team, which continued to create brightly colored, spunky clothes when the fashion world was turning to more somber neutrals. Susie has a slightly different theory: "What took over was projections and sales and growth instead of turning back and looking at ourselves."

The Esprit staff was cut by 10 percent, and several new designers have since been hired. Jeans, Bed and Bath, and Eyewear lines have been introduced this year, and there are plans for Menswear. More than that, though, the overall esprit changed -- to something less trendy. To broaden the appeal of the label and age the image, the Esprit Collection, a line of higher-quality, more serious clothes, has been added for working women.

And cashmere, which Doug used to consider ostentatious, has made its way into the culture.

What's next for Esprit? As usual, the Tompkinses have different answers.

"I don't imagine retiring," Susie says. "I don't really want to. As long as I can be motivated and get this kind of exhilaration -- just becoming a stronger person and getting myself ready for another phase of my life -- I don't think there is ever a reason to retire. This business inspires me."

As for Doug, "I don't mean to be a doomsday-sayer," he says, "but I think there's going to be a massive financial collapse. Well, personally I know it would be a big mess, but I have no problems doing something else with my life.

"Happiness comes in a lot of different forms. Money's not really important. You don't need it to go kayaking.