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Before Banana Republic Was Mainstream Fashion, It Was a Weirdly Wonderful Safari Brand

Revisiting the pith helmets, Jeeps and life-size giraffes

The 'Safari' era of Banana Republic was wild and woolly—and over by 1990. Store photos courtesy of Mel and Patricia Ziegler

Mel Ziegler still recalls the day in the early 1980s when he and his wife, Patricia, opened the most unusual clothing store Beverly Hills, Calif., had ever seen. 

With its jungle expedition theme, the store featured live tropical foliage, a Quonset hut to house the shoe department and an actual stream gurgling down the center of the sales floor. Life-size model giraffes and elephants stood amid old leather suitcases and wooden-crate racks piled with khaki "safari" clothing—Ghurka shorts, pith helmets and chamois shirts with deep cargo pockets.

To complete the effect, Ziegler balanced a World War II Army Jeep atop boulders in the front window. Above the sales floor, he suspended a salvaged bush plane on wires from the ceiling painted to resemble a blue Zimbabwean sky.

"We had to close the whole street just to bring the bush plane in," Ziegler recalls. "But that was part of the fun of it. We were kind of anarchistic. If we could find a rule to break, we broke it."

And what was the name of this exotic, equatorial clothing outpost, this store that broke all the rules?

Believe it or not, you know it already: It was Banana Republic.

Emphasis on the "was," of course. That's because today's shoppers browsing Banana Republic's 700-plus locations are in a store without a memory. Gone are the palm fronds, tusks and tin shacks, supplanted now by stark white walls and glossy parquet floors. Gone are the cartridge belts, Burma pants and Bombay shirts—all of it replaced by pricey casual wear that's more Nashville than Nairobi. Nor will today's Banana Republic customers find the brand's once-legendary catalogs—hand-illustrated periodicals that featured travel essays, funny and fictitious stories behind the clothing and (unpaid) celebrity contributions from the likes of Anne Rice, Pierre Salinger and Paul Theroux.

Banana Republic's "safari" era lasted fewer than 10 years, and with the possible exception of khaki pants hanging from the racks today, not a trace of the original concept remains. As Ziegler puts it: "It's not even a ghost of what we created."

So what did happen to the original Banana Republic, anyway?

The 'safari craze'

Ziegler met his future wife at the San Francisco Chronicle, where he worked as a reporter and she as an illustrator. Restless and creatively restricted, they quit on the same day in 1979. During a freelance press trip to Australia, Ziegler bought an old British Burma jacket from a surplus store in Sydney and wore it back home. The Zieglers liked the utilitarian swagger of the jacket so much that they decided to start a business dedicated to reselling surplus military clothing, which Patricia often customized with civilian touches like suede elbow patches, belts and wood buttons.

With only $1,500 in working capital, the Zieglers started Banana Republic, a term O. Henry coined in 1904 as slang for a corrupt, politically unstable Latin country. Americans, for whom "surplus" meant only camouflage U.S. Army T-shirts, fell in love with the exotic military leftovers the Zieglers scrounged on their international buying trips. "In England, we found Melton wool overcoats made for the British army selling for 25 bucks," Ziegler recalls. Banana Republic marketed the clothing as rare and marked it up. "We weren't losing money," he says.

By 1983, the couple had a thriving catalog business and two stores in the Bay Area. That's when Don Fisher, who co-founded the Gap with his wife, offered to buy Banana Republic outright. Gap would fund an expansion while leaving creative control to the founding couple. It was the sort of offer you couldn't refuse—and the Zieglers didn't.

The Gap's capital opened the door to a golden age for Banana Republic. Mall stores decorated with Jeeps and jungle foliage sprouted up across the country. The Zieglers began using surplus as a template for manufacturing their own clothing. By 1984, Banana Republic was producing 54-page catalogs eight times a year.

"A lot of people forget that there was a big safari craze in the mid 1980s," recalls Mike Madrid, Banana Republic's production manager in those years. Having flocked to movies like Out of Africa, Romancing the Stone and especially the Indiana Jones films, Americans were nuts about khaki twill and far-flung, steamy destinations. For those who couldn't afford a ticket to Sri Lanka, Banana Republic's mall stores offered a substitute of sorts.

"Today there's this whole idea of 'shoppertainment,'" Madrid said, "but Banana Republic was doing that before there was a term for it."

Bungle in the jungle

Gap was a publicly traded company. That put Banana Republic under the humorless gaze of Wall Street analysts, who by the mid-1980s began to fear the safari trend would tap out, leaving Gap with an albatross. Then, in October 1987, the stock market took a 22 percent nosedive. In a panic, Fisher brought in Mickey Drexler, who'd end up turning the Gap around but did not think very highly of pith helmets. When Drexler decided to take Banana Republic in a more mainstream direction, the Zieglers walked.

Dan Schawbel, an author and business consultant, explains that Banana Republic's parent company was maximizing an asset. "Gap was looking to expand its product line with a luxury brand and saw the appeal of Banana Republic to fit this new line," he said. "The Zieglers had evolved the brand to focus on classic, high-quality clothing, which is what the Gap was looking for."

Gap was also looking for a break with the past, and, by 1990, an entirely new Banana Republic had emerged—minimal and modern, having turned its back completely on its wild years. (Asked to comment for this story, Banana Republic did not respond by press time.)

Years later, Ziegler relates, he ran into Fisher at a cocktail party and recalls that the Gap founder was penitent. "He came up to me and said he really regretted what he had done [to Banana Republic]," Ziegler said. "If we could wind back the clock, the challenge would have been for us to keep it fresh year after year. But they felt that we had taken a metaphor and gotten as much as we were going to get out of it."

 

Banana Republic circa 1984 (l.) and today. Except for the name, not a trace of the original brand remains. [Photos: left, courtesy of Mel Ziegler; right, Getty Images]

 

Nostalgia for the old republic

These days, Banana Republic bills itself as "True outfitters of modern American style" by offering a "fresh twist on classic apparel." But don't look for Jeeps or giraffes in its stores now; they were heaved into the trash 30 years ago. Madrid considers it "puzzling" that present-day shoppers don't question why the name Banana Republic has nothing to do with what the store sells. "Most people shopping there now," he says, "have no idea of their early incarnation."

Most—but not all.

Scott Adams is an Oakland, Calif.-based graphic designer and the creator and host of Abandoned Republic, a site devoted to preserving the wares and atmosphere of the original stores. Adams' site features high-resolution scans of nearly every Banana Republic catalog, along with photos of his extensive collection of store relics. (The resin elephant-tusk door handles are the pride of his holdings.)

"I get tons of traffic on that site," Adams says. "There are a lot of people who remember Banana Republic fondly, who remember getting the catalog. There are definitely fans."

Don't believe him? Check eBay, where the retailer's vintage safari jackets and photographers' vests are still part of a brisk business. "A lot of these clothes still hold up," Adams said. "They were of exceptional quality and really well designed."

Three decades after leaving the company he created, Ziegler says, "We still get letters all the time from people, especially since the book came out." In 2012, Ziegler and his wife co-authored Wild Company, the "untold story" of how two people with no prior business experience created the concept that changed the apparel business. By the 1990s, Ziegler said, retailers finally "went back and rediscovered us." Look around in other retail stores today, he says, "and the seed of what we did is in all of them."

The seed, perhaps—but not the Yukon shirts and Sahara smocks. It does make you wonder: Would Banana Republic's safari-style clothing work today? If the Gap hadn't changed the store's personality, would the original still be valid?

Adams isn't so sure. "I don't know how many people are really itching to wear the clothes again," he says. "I've collected a bunch of that stuff and, even now and then I go out with it. But I feel a little bit like I'm in costume."

That's not the case with Andy Gilchrist, who runs the popular blog Ask Andy About Clothes. Gilchrist vividly recalls the old Banana Republic stores and catalogs—and he misses them both.

"I still have an Israeli paratroopers messenger bag and maybe a safari jacket and a small travel pouch," says Gilchrist. If the old Banana Republic were ever to come back, "it would be successful," he says. "I'd be there every week."

         

   In 2012, Mel Ziegler authored a memoir to "correct the story" of Banana Republic [Photos: Mel Ziegler]

         

   Patricia Ziegler stands in front of the first Banana Republic store, which opened in Mill Valley, Calif., in 1979. [Photo: Mel Ziegler]

         

   Fake rocks and footwear in the Beverly Hills, Calif., store. [Photo: Mel Ziegler]

         

   For a brief time, Banana Republic operated a travel bookstore on Grant Avenue in San Francisco [Photo: Mel Ziegler]

         

  Banana Republic opened its second location on San Francisco's Polk Street, with painted zebra stripes to attraction attention [Photo: Mel Ziegler]

         

   Once Banana Republic had Gap money behind it, store interiors came complete with life-size model giraffes and, above, even elephants. [Photo: John Vaughan]

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