The Untold Story of Banana Republic

Mel Ziegler and Patricia Ziegler, Wild Company. The Untold Story of Banana Republic

(New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012). 224 pp. $25.00. ISBN-10: 1451683480. ISBN-13: 978-1451683486

A Review by Kimberly Chrisman-Campbell

Banana Republic is one of the great American retail success stories of the past half-century. Today, the high-street fashion chain has roughly 650 stores in thirty-two countries, including a three-storey London flagship. Yet the slick purveyor of sophisticated career clothing bears no resemblance to the safari-themed vintage store Mel and Patricia Ziegler opened in San Francisco in 1978. Wild Company tells the unlikely tale of how a concept and $1,500 in savings grew into a global fashion empire.

Mel, a journalist, and Patricia an illustrator, fell in love while working at the San Francisco Chronicle - and promptly quit, with the shared fantasy of starting a business and travelling the world. A fateful freelance assignment took Mel to Australia, where he wandered into a military surplus store and emerged wearing a second-hand khaki Burma jacket. As Patricia tells it (the authors take turns narrating the book, in different fonts): ‘He looked great […] Had he acquired this new worldliness, this rather heroic nonchalance from his adventures Down Under, or was it the jacket?'

The Zieglers envisioned a store selling a carefully curated selection of jungle-ready military-issue clothing - the detritus of an imaginary ‘banana republic’. With no experience, lawyers, or plan, they created a mail-order catalogue (floridly written by Mel and illustrated by Patricia) and rented a tiny storefront. To acquire and market merchandise, they resorted to subterfuges worthy of a shady tropical dictator, passing garments off as the souvenirs of their exotic travels when, in fact, they had travelled no further than a dingy warehouse across town. On opening day, they were so unprepared that they had to improvise shelves out of fruit packing crates.

The couple quickly discovered that much of their stock was surplus for good reason. The sleeves on the ‘Spanish Paratrooper Shirts’ were too short; the ‘Italian Camouflage Jackets’ were missing their detachable hoods; the ‘Authentic British Ghurkha Shorts’ came in only one size. Undeterred, Patricia rolled up shirtsleeves, while Mel concocted an elaborate backstory explaining why the hoods had never arrived. When they could not find wearable garments, Patricia and a local seamstress recycled textiles from surplus sleeping bags and mattress covers and stitched them into ‘Irish Linen Blazers’, ‘Basque Sheepskin Vests’ and ‘Arctic Chenille Jackets’.

Although customers appreciated the quality and authenticity of vintage military surplus, the Zieglers soon realized that their business model was fatally flawed; there was a finite supply of merchandise, and it never wore out or went out of style. As they exhausted local sources, they finally did get to travel the world, buying Masai bracelets in Kenya, commissioning leather goods in Italy, and, in the East End of London, discovering a vast warehouse of exquisitely tailored leftovers from the British Empire.

Despite setbacks – break-ins, flooded stockrooms, unreliable employees - Banana Republic flourished. In 1983 the Zieglers sold the company to Gap, retaining full creative control, allowing them to realize their dream of designing clothing inspired by vintage pieces, and phasing out the military surplus. As the chain and its product line expanded, so did the concept. Banana Republic was one of the first ‘experiential’ retail stores, with traditional circular racks supplanted by a mise-en-scène reminiscent of a Hollywood movie set. The Beverly Hills branch featured a Jeep, a bush plane, and a life-sized fiberglass elephant.

The Zieglers’ breezy style suggests that launching a multinational company is as easy slipping on a banana skin; however, the book does not end happily. After five years, Gap forced the founders out, alienating loyal customers in the process; it took a decade for the brand to recover. The Zieglers went on to start a family, a gourmet tea company, and an online clothing store that imploded in the dotcom bust - an expensive failure to bookend Banana Republic’s rags-to-riches success.