Sunday, July 5, 2015

Summer Reading Book Club: "Wild Company"

A few posts ago I wondered whatever happened to Banana Republic that it went from sriracha to vanilla, from adventurous to corporate bland. In doing research I discovered the founders, Mel and Patricia Ziegler had written a book, "Wild Company: The Untold Story of Banana Republic", published in 2012. My local library came through, and I've just finished reading.

What an interesting story! First of all, a cautionary tale. Don't wish for something or you may get it. Mel and Patricia were young professionals (he a newspaper writer, she an illustrator) who were questioning "Is that all there is?" and hoping to find a way to earn a living while following their desires to travel the world and enjoy life's unscripted adventures.

Epiphany came in the form of an army surplus jacket Mel picked up on assignment in Australia. He loved it so much and was complimented so often while wearing it, he and Patricia decided to explore the world of military surplus goods and opened one small store in Mill Valley, California in 1978. They made it fun to shop— creating a faux foreign nation theme— and stocked the store with revamped or re-purposed surplus goods. They knew from the beginning they would need the exposure of mail order to stay alive, so produced smart, witty catalogs illustrated by Patricia.

Back in the GAP days
Still having adventures

Hereby lies the rub. Banana Republic grew so fast (and the supply of acceptable surplus shrunk so quickly) they found themselves run ragged trying to find and/or manufacture merchandise that met their quality standards. Staffing was always a problem, and there are some funny but sad tales of missing merchandise and mismatched deliveries— nightmares that would have upended any couple with less forgiving natures.

Without looking for it (although it was definitely needed) help in the form of corporate America came in the person of Don Fisher, founder and owner of the GAP. It was 1983, and the GAP was at the height of its success. He promised the Zieglers all the backing they needed (as long as they turned a profit) with no intervention from him. For a while the arrangement worked well, despite two of the Fisher sons being part of the now larger executive structure.

Yes, this was a store

It's here that your eyes may glaze over. I happen to love the study of the marketplace as much as the fun and frippery of fashion. I lapped up "Mr. Selfridge" and hated to finish "Style and Substance" (about America's department stores). I don't like the math part (agghh!!), but there's an adventure in retail for which "Wild Company" can be your guide.

In the end, the GAP won. Mel and Patricia realized, not that they were beaten down, but that money wasn't their aim in life. They "retired" for several years, started a family and two new ventures— one a success (Republic of Tea), one ahead of it's time. ZoZa was meant to be "performance clothes for the sport of living" (Lulemon anyone???), but it was short-lived. They came out of the jungle alive, so to speak, and have a great story to tell about retail big game hunters.

Oh, I finally learned what is a SKU, that string of numbers sales associates need when you ask for the "Dragonfly Morning Maxi Skirt". SKU stands for Stock Keeeping Units. Now you know.

That long string of numbers is the SKU


  1. I remember the Mill Valley store--who wouldn't? I bought a safari jacket there and recently donated it in my Kondo-closet purge.

  2. And I just bought a pretty authentic looking safari shirt on sale at my local Banana Republic because I'd always wanted one!

  3. I remember visiting the BR store on Polk Street in San Francisco. What a zany place but it didn't last all that long.

    1. Yes, the Polk Street store came a few years after the first store in Mill Valley, probably closer to the GAP takeover in 1983. And we all know what has happened since...

  4. No idea if you will see this, as it's now March 2016. I'm enjoying reading backwards through your blog. :)

    Thank you for this! I adored the Banana Republic store in Beverly Hills in the early 1980s (probably before and during the GAP addition, but before GAP could do any damage). As you walked in, you came face to face with an old WWII vintage Army jeep, and were surrounded by music from that era was on the sound system. I recall buying pants made of parachute material that were surplus from somewhere - olive green - and a wonderful leather bomber jacket that I still have. Always wondered what had happened - just figured the owners took the $ and sold out. Nice to know that the minds who came up with BR had other ideas.

    1. Blogspot sends its authors all comments, so I most definitely saw yours, and thank you. How wonderful that you were able to experience AND purchase some things from that late great Banana Republic. I looked and dreamed a lot and now (of course) wished I had bought more.