Thursday, June 18, 2015

When "Banana Republic" Was a Destination

Once upon a time there was a banana republic as near as your local mall. A visit took you to another country, albeit a very tongue-in-cheek one, where khaki and olive reigned supreme and the further you were from your last safari, the closer you were to the next. No dictators or produce were harmed.

Inside a Banana Republic outpost

Whatever possessed the founders Mel and Patricia Ziegler (he a writer and she an artist) to think Americans would go for full-blown safari gear? Perhaps the term "urban jungle" had just been coined.  They began by finding, cleaning up and selling "vintage military surplus clothing in a new context". Like a few lucky geniuses before them, they had no retail experience and just plowed ahead into unknown territory. They "reinvented stores as theater and catalogs as must-read literary adventure journals" and soon began producing new safari-centric goods for both men and women. They were a hit from the start. Banana Republic was one of the first themed retailers and set a new bar for in-store merchandising. The Zieglers sold to the GAP in 1983 and the rest is a journey into the bland BR we know today. They wrote a book chronicling their adventures in 2012. "Wild Company" seems like a good read.  

Mel and Patricia and their wild ride

Today the bastion of acceptably cool corporate chic "Banana Republic" is a bit of a misnomer.  The offerings— and the stores— bear no resemblance to the glory safari days. That look is still so classic anything in the old catalogs could be trotted out and worn without irony today. Ralph and Michael, of course, will hopefully be a little safari forever.

Today's Banana Republic is the go-to for young men's and women's work wear, from buttoned up to button-down. You can depend on decent quality and fabrication at a lower tier but still on the corporate ladder. They've never been big on date looks or super casual weekend gear. If you run into your boss in the Hamptons, and you are wearing Banana Republic, you will pass muster.

In the country of 9 to 5


  1. I remember the old Banana Republic catalogs. They were wonderful! Wish I still had some. The new stuff I don't like as much, but I'm not corporate so it doesn't usually work with my lifestyle.

  2. Used to love the BR catalog and visiting the BR store on Polk Street in San Francisco.