Mel Ziegler…the pride of Scranton, Pennsylvania. (home also of course, to Dunder Mifflin) and his wife Patricia, had an idea. Both were employees of the San Francisco Chronicle when they met in 1972. Mel the journalist-reporter and Patricia the illustrator, married three years later.
Their journalistic wanderlust saw them all over the world and from time to time, they would buy vintage sartorialia including military leftovers.
Author Herb Gold shares an anecdote about the incubatorial genesis of the Ziegler idea…"While at the Chronicle, Mel's profiles of Werner Erhard, the controversial "king of personal transformation" and founder of EST (Erhard Sensitivity Training), captured the attention of novelist Herb Gold, who wrote a letter praising the ambitious journalist's work.” I was a fan," he says. Mel's EST stories were "very funny, shrewd and sharp. He had this tremendous vitality and energy."
Gold claims to have witnessed the epiphany that led to the birth of Banana Republic. Once while visiting the Zieglers for dinner, an unusual aroma bothered Gold. Mel led the curious writer to the odor: a stash of moldy Spanish air force shirts the Zieglers had acquired on a trip. As he presented one of the smelly garments as a gift, "I could see the light bulb go on above Mel's head," says Gold.”
Eventually they began bringing home loads of cool finds from around the world. The stuff sold like hotcakes and Mel noticed that one item in particular blew out in a nanosecond. The item? … Gurkha Shorts. MelPat then decided to literally spend every penny they had on an order of over a thousand pairs of Gurkha togs. They had no choice but to get really serious about turning this thing into a real business.
So out of their idea and a thousand pairs of shorts, Banana Republic was born. One store and soon thereafter, if you weren’t in the Mill Valley area, catalogue-only for the rest of us.
Their tracts were richly illustrated and for me, reminiscent of the old Brooks Brothers catalogues that were sans photos but robustly explained through drawn and coloured characterizations of all things Brethren. Butcept the Brethren catalogues were East Coast Regatta and the Zieglers published something akin to Out of Africa and Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The Ziegler catalogue images were more romantic and painterly, further accelerated through what I’ll call product bylines…every product had a bit of a story and the flourish with which their offerings were illustrated and the complementary annotations became part of the Banana Republic Catalogue oeuvre.
Early on the catalogue would offer a sprinkle of actual military surplus…much more esoteric and intriguing than the stuff that at the height of the Vietnam fiasco, my mom would take me to buy at Mangum’s Army-Navy Store on Dargan Street. I’d get a ton of real stuff for ten bucks back then. But esoterica wasn’t yet part of my buying criteria and for an imaginative kid in Florence South Carolina, a steel pot helmet liner and a trenching tool was mind blowing enough (pre-cannabis of course). The Banana Republic Authentic Bandolier was Ossobuco to Mangum’s chipped beef on toast.
Banana Republic…even the name was a Ziegleresque entendre. MelPat were story tellers…in the written and illustrative sense. They weren’t business people and probably the farthest thing from their collective mind was the founding of a retail powerhouse. North Carolinian and author O. Henry was the first to use term Banana Republic and I like how Christopher Hitchens characterizes such an ersatz, propped up boondoggle… “a money class fleeces the banking system, while the very trunk of the national tree is permitted to rot and crash.” Sounds a bit like the current business model of the vintage-legacy-heritage work clothes con artists.
I’m not surprised that the Zieglers cashed out a few years after selling Banana Republic to The Gap. The circumstances are textbook. Promised some level of creative control while witnessing the homogenization of their concept, they burned out and then dragged their well-worn, cash laden travel trunks home. Their original Banana Republic went the way of all things one-off, homegrown and independent. Poof.
And the rest as they say, is history. Banana Republic today, regardless of how profitable they might be, holds no evidence of the MelPat antecedent. There’s no humidity or gnat swarmed piles of colonial kit to be found therein anymore.
Their main purveyance these days seems to be Eurotrash Starter Kits. But if you swing by the CasaMinimus Tent, we’ll sit on Adirondacks or a cane bottomed chaise, outside on tribal carpets, sporting our Gurkha Shorts…Gin and Tonic in one hand and an old MelPat catalogue in the other. And please, wear your Ivory Coast dress from page seventeen but would you, for me...leave the top and bottom two buttons undone? I can manage the rest.
Onward. Gnat swatting. With my head wrapped in Kikoi cloth...ADG II.