How Banana Republic Moved From Skinny Models to Gay Guys

Couple keeps the brand beautiful—and authentic

This 1992 ad marked the beginning of Banana Republic

advertising’s black-and-white period, which would continue

nearly to the end of the decade. While the hunky (and

sometimes shirtless) male models tiptoed up to the border of

gay, they didn’t cross it. Meanwhile, Kate Moss’ hollow-eyed

stare and waif-like frame would soon earn her accusations of

promoting “heroin chic.”

With its 700 stores the world over, Banana Republic has become so ubiquitous that it’s easy to forget what a pioneer the retailer has been. Founded in 1978, the brand proved that surplus military garb could be refashioned into must-have clothes. It showed how a company’s “heritage” could be crafted by catalog copy. It made wearing khaki cool again. And last year it made $2.8 billion.

What’s more, as the ads here show, Banana Republic has proven itself adept at something else: keeping its casually classic persona intact even as it adjusts its marketing to reflect the wider world. In this case, that adjustment is as dramatic as the pace of social change itself. Banana Republic has long enjoyed the patronage of gay men, and a few months ago, it finally put them in its advertising. 

Such a move would have been unthinkable two decades ago when this 1992 ad typified the mood of midscale fashion: black and white, mildly abstract, reassuringly heterosexual. “Twenty-one years ago, no major brand ran gay ads in general market magazines where ‘straight eyes’ could catch a glimpse,” said Thomas Roth, president of San Francisco-based Community Marketing & Insights. “Now, gay-inclusive imagery is seen across mainstream media.”

'Twenty-one years ago, no major brand ran gay ads in general market magazines where ‘straight eyes’ could catch a glimpse.’-Thomas Roth, president, Community Marketing & Insights

Roth added that while companies like Target and JCPenney reached out to the LGBT demo before Banana Republic did, this 2014 ad is still “pioneering in its own way”—not simply for showing gay men but for showing actual gay men. Designers Nate Berkus and Jeremiah Brent were engaged when this ad was shot; today they’re married.

In a recent interview with The New York Times, Trey Laird—chief creative officer at Laird & Partners, the shop behind the ad—admitted that fashion “create[s] messages that sometimes are clever, but often there’s not a lot of reality to them. They feel set up.” He wasn’t referring specifically to the earlier ad shown here, but he might as well have been. With all due respect to photographer Bruce Weber, how exactly did model Michael Francoeur’s head resting on a pouty Kate Moss’ bony shoulder motivate people to run out and buy a ribbed turtleneck? By contrast, the 2014 ad features an image one might actually see—a gay couple, just casually hanging out.

Roth believes the brand’s choice of a real-life couple wasn’t just shrewd—it was necessary. LGBT consumers, he said, “can sense through their ‘gaydar’ if the models are genuine or not. Authentic attraction and affection are noticed and appreciated far more than ads featuring professional models trying to appear gay.” 

Obviously, these guys don’t have to work at that. They probably came cheaper than Kate Moss, too.

 At 29, Jeremiah Brent looks like the sort of male model who Banana Republic might have hired for a shoot like this anyway. “This ad is a great start,” Roth said, “but I hope Banana Republic continues the initiative. Lesbians are half of ‘gay and lesbian,’ yet rarely featured in marketing.”

 This ad’s creator has said that it “reflect[s] our world and how we live in a true, genuine way.” A nice sentiment, but it’s worth pointing out that Nate Berkus is a world-famous designer who hosts a show on Oprah’s network. Such wealth and privilege doesn’t reflect everyone’s version of “our world.”

 As part of its effort to gain authority with a new generation of customers, the brand has brought its heritage into its marketing. The website now features an “Our Journey” timeline that shows a photo of the original store, and the founding year and city appear on ads.