Sunday, May 15, 2011

Banana Republic Summer 1985

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.

37 comments:

The Aly Way said...

Extremely well done. I enjoyed this post very much, and will be passing it on.

CashmereLibrarian said...

In college in the 80's, there was a BR leather jacket I died for. Sadly, I didn't have the cash, and when I tried to put it on my credit card, my limit was too low! Still a heartbreaking memory: the perfect leather jacket that got away.

Flo said...

And how did you know I needed a touch of your particular genius this morning, and yes I too had the ghurka shorts. And yes, is there any doubt that those Z kids gave rise to J. Peterman's style [how has JP kept it rolling as long as he has, not a photograph in sight, just textual travel romance and great drawings]. I have a clip from an early BR catalogue, stuck it in my permanent file and it never fails me when I'm bewildered with Real Life, it goes: "Look around you, this may be the best part of the journey."

ilovelimegreen said...

I have vivid memories of going to the Banana Republic at the Shops at National Place - I think it opened there in 1985. I remember the faux palm trees, the atmosphere and - of course - those catalogues. I have no idea what I bought - an accessory of some sorts but I couldn't wait to go back to that store.

Belle de Ville said...

Thank you for this post about the origins of Banana Republic. I had forgotten about those illustrated catalogs and gurkha shorts.

Whatever happened to EST? I never did the program but I knew others that did. It was all the rage back in the late 1970s.

LPC said...

I remember these catalogues so well. J. Peterman took over the I-lived-it-dear-reader style of retailing, eventually. Now, of course, we've got Max to tell us tall tales of limbo and burned jackets in no name bars in no name towns:).

Sir Fopling Flutter said...

Wonderful stuff. And none of it looks dated. Perhaps there's room in the market for someone to revive it.

Next up . . . Abercrombie & Fitch

Chuck Hatt said...

One of you all-time best posts ADG, (IMHO). I remember the catalogues fondly. Always wanted the Safari Jacket and last winter found a vintage LL Bean version at the local thriftery.

Pigtown-Design said...

Loved the Ghurka shorts. When I was doing a bird study on the islands by Smith Island, I loved to wear the long shorts with tall wellie-style boots and a long sleeve t-shirt. Perfect outfit for birding.

Anonymous said...

Great post. I remember buying an Israeli air force scarf as gift once and on top of how cool it was, at the time they had a gift box shaped as a plane. Seeing what has happened to the makes you realize bigger is very often not better except in delivering a cheaply made, bland, homogenous product at a sometimes reasonable price.

As to EST, BDV, it is alive and well depending on whom you believe as the Landmark Forum or Scientology.

DocP said...

They were masters in evoking the romance of bygone exploration/travel. Difficult to believe how far the travel experience has fallen.

Anonymous said...

WHAT HAPPENED?

what always happens. For some, it's bigger and stronger doses. For others, it's plain old continuity of supply. And then there's that guy in Marketing who insists they won't buy it today if they know it will be available tomorrow. And sooner or later, the prices go up. And the original point of it all is lost.

I find the best source for this stuff is the back of the closet of That Guy Who Put On 20 Pounds...

Anybody know where I can find an Authentic Heritage Tapeworm?

Hugo Gros deVentre

T said...

I still have my Israeli Paratrooper briefcase purchased from the catalogue back in 1980-something that I used in high school...still has the Mill Valley tag inside and has only suffered one small rip on the back. Thanks for this entry, D.

J. Peterman next?

Anonymous said...

Good Lord, and i thought i was the only one who recalled BR's origins, back when the merchandise was honest-to-God (two references to the Almighty on a single sabbath, and in a single sentence) overseas military surplus, top quality (at least what i bought), durable as hell and, to my thinking, devilishly stylish (two satanic references in the same sentence for balance, in deference to Chris Hitchens). My fondest purchase was billed as a Swedish army officer's shirt, tan twill, with red, blue and gold (as i recall) ribbon stripes from collarband to the edges of its (short) sleeves. Thanx for the walk down memory lane. sb, lr.

Anonymous said...

Great post. As a young kid in the 70s, I can remember seeing original Gurka Trousers in old army surplus shops like Lawrence Corner(long gone,now). They would have been stained, smelly and left over from Suez or Aden.

Ofcourse, the drawing and the highly aspirational copy, creates the romance and appeal of the product. Ordinary photos and plain prose wouldn't have been sexy. Was the old BR stuff well made or did they get with floging schmutters?

Keep up the fight ADG

Claire M. Johnson said...

As many people have pointed out, J. Peterman picked up that baton to a certain extent. I was a poor college student during BR's heyday, but I would go into the original store in S.F. and drool over what I couldn't possibly afford. Among retailers at the time it was unique because it not only sold clothes, but the scent of adventure as well. I don't think Travelsmith quite conveys the same sense of wondering if your passport is current because there are places to go, which BR ALWAYS did the second your foot crossed the threshold.

NCJack said...

I was already "grown" (sorta) when BR came to the East Coast, so didn't actually buy much, but I do recall the disappointments when I'd stick my head in the door and see (and smell) less solid old surplus, and more generic inexpensive cotton stuff. I think at one time BR, Gap, American Eagle, Am. Outfitter, and about ten other mall stores all used the same one buyer. One ticket to Indonesia, and "gimme 50000 doz. of that that, and that, Thanx, bye-bye" and home the same day.

James said...

Happy days indeed.

Laguna Beach Fogey said...

I well remember the days just before they sold to The Gap. A bit too tourist-y for my tastes. I mean, in Africa only tourists wear that khaki crap, then and now.

For an occasional dose of Safari Style (1920s-1930s era) I have only to watch 'Out of Africa'. Much cheaper. And more elegant.

As far as Lost Brands go I miss Huntington Clothiers much more than I do BR 1.0.

ADG, if you had a sartorial business idea in mind and decided to spend every penny you had on an initial order, what item would it be?

ADG said...

Thanks all. It always amazes me to see how some of these stories resonate and some…not so much. I had a Banana Republic bomber jacket that I wore for years. I still have my Gurkha shorts from the early 1980’s. And yes, J. Peterman did pick up the story telling wrap-around to product offerings but he crashed and burned amidst expansion a decade ago. And what’s back is an attenuated, back to basics, catalogue.

LimeGreen…I remember the faux palm trees and the jeep in the BR on the UES in Gotham.

LPC...I named the town of my scorched earth antics (Philly) and not to flog a dead horse but…the scorching wasn’t my fault. I was awash in various cravings and caught in the tentacles of circumstance.

Megtown...sounds like a stunning rig.

Hugo Gros deVentre…Authentic Heritage Tapeworm? Divorce did it for me.

T-Bone...I doubt I’ll do a J. Peterman post. I’ve never found their stuff very inspiring and I don’t really have a connection to them.

Sb Pine Bluff…loving the single sentence duo-references…seems like all them twill treatments wouldn’t go down too well out there!

Anon…Lawrence Corner…the surplus stuff I got had Vietnam kaka all over it. Also re flogging schmutters…the BR stuff was decent for the money so the inevitable schmutter-esque-ness peri expansion was, at least to me, balanced by a fair price. Unlike the absurd rip-off shit that goes down now under the banner of vintage/heritage/artisanal with an insulting price point.

Claire M. Johnson...I think it was the writing…the Ziegler journalistic juju that made it all special.

NCJack...You ain’t grown now bossman. And that same guy is flying somewhere and doing the same thing on even a larger scale. I might ask him to bring me back a wife from one of those places.

James….these are the good old days. Right now. At least our young’uns will claim them to be someday.

ADG said...

LagunaTradMon...your point about people in the Colonies not wearing all the romantic gear so attributed to them is the very reason I don't wear cowboy boots in Texas-Oklahoma etc. Your question re roll the dice on a sartorial investment all-in is compelling. I'll have to think about it.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Laguna Beach about Huntington. I still have some of their furnishings, but I bought my clothing from them in the pre-expansion size range. They were 3 button when 3 button wasn't cool, which may explain why they are no more. Their best item was the "Uncle Tootie" OCBD- in a pop-over, short sleeved model. It may not be the greatest dress shirt, but it rocks as a summer casual unit.

Peterman sometimes gets a bad rap, but sometimes they may deserve it. You can't get much fuzzier than their golden age Pinstripe Velvet suit separates, but I could live the rest of my life without a collarless Grandpa- Gatsby shirt.

In honor of your redneck cousin who keeps making up names, you can just call me
Guy de Wheresmepaunts

Toad said...

Do you remember when they had the travel book store? Their book store catalogs are still my first go to when planning an exotic vacation. Don't forget the 1/2 jeeps staring out the windows of the stores.

ADG said...

Toad...I vaguely recall it but never visited one. Are the catalogues packed with illustrative stories?

AnonTootieWheresmaPaunts...I forgot to mention in my response to LagunaTrad that I too, remember Huntington. And your OCBD Popover reminds me of a couple of things. One is blog post worthy so thanks for the reminder. I worked after school in an old haberdashery that had been in the same spot since 1927. It was so small that the possibility of finding mass volumes of old stock was impossible. I know because I was the guy who had to Windex and Pledge the whole joint top to bottom. So I'd already looked in every box under every counter. Until one day. I opened a box and found, in my size, a Gant bleeding madras pop-over from the 1960's. Incredible find....especially since I didn't know what a pop-over was! Damn, I think I just did a blog post. And the second thing...ties should NEVER be worn with a pop-over. The only thing worse would be trying to wear a tie with a knit shirt.

megoscott said...

What a fantastic post, I really enjoyed it, especially the anecdotes from the early days. Why they don't write a book I can't imagine. I also can't believe your post came up just now, I've been working just this week on a web archive of my Banana Republic Catalog collection. Please check it out at http://www.scottcadams.com/bananarepublic The Well Dressed Time Traveller....

ADG said...

megoscott...thanks. Three catalogues made their way to me and it's been a treat reminiscing with them. I just checked out your site and I think it's brilliant. I'll highlight it in a post later this week and please....continue populating it. The site will become epic.

Anonymous said...

I used to love the old rotting canvas smell and big band music and the old jeeps in the middle of the store.

Sorry it became yuppy-wear. Sorrier still that my GAP stock went in the toilet and has stayed there.

Oh well. Is Colonel Bubbie's still in Galveston?

Brohammas said...

You my good man have just displayed what I have not been able to visualize in my self and why I see things the way I do... Its Banana Republic.
(OBTW, I think someone called my adopted hometown a no-name city... we are used to it).
I originally hail from a place that is culturally "outdoorsy" but I refused to go granola. we, none of us, had WASPY roots or East Coast cultural attachements or easthetics. I was lost.
Enter BR.
purported class without as much pretention. A nod to utilitarian needs while wanting to look good.
Alas, by the time my wallet caught up with my desires... BR had changed. (head hangs low in nostalgic sadness)

CeceliaMc said...

Was the popularity of BR in the eighties because it was a self-made world-traveled counter to the Reagan-era preppy American provincial?

Sorta of the cool 60's/70's counter-culture and political idealism grown into a cooler worldly relevance (but still bougie enough to keep you from being mistaken for blue collar).

ADG said...

Anon...I've never been to Galveston so I can't provide an update on Colonel Bubbies.

CeceliaMcMuffin...yeah...I'd say you've probably nailed the rationale and genesis of the whole BR thang. It would be cool if the Zieglers would write a book about it.

yoga teacher said...

OK, way late, but Colonel Bubbies is still in Galveston. I'd say it's still 50% real army surplus from around the world, but some of the stuff looks suspiciously and lately "made in China" to me.

njglenn said...

A thousand thank you's for this post. Made my day. I wish I had held onto those old catalogues. Think I'll head on over to ebay and take a look.

Anonymous said...

Well done, ADG. So nice to know that you & your peeps have fond memories of BR. I was a manager for them from the summer of 85 until the fall of 86. An unmitigated, living hell. Exponential growth, inconsistent direction from corporate (Zieglers v Fishers) and a vile district manager who redefined the word shrew every day she drew breath.

Glad to know the misery of the players wasn't apparent to the audience. That is as it should be. We were nothing if not resilient.

On the plus side, I loved my Irish linen pullover!

Scott Adams said...

http://scottcadams.com/bananarepublic/?p=367

ADG--I just posted an interview with BR's first catalog staff artist. Lots of rare early catalog stuff and behind the scenes information. A fun read.

Anonymous----I would love to talk with yu about your time working in a BR store! Please get in touch if you like!

MySkinConcierge Ava said...

I loved these reading these growing up and traveling along with the clothes! Those trousers were the original Traveling Pants!

Calvin Lai said...

Great read. I miss those early catalogs and animal-themed t-shirts!

Anonymous said...

Hello there. Has anyone heard the Steve Goodman song Banana Republic? Jimmy Buffett recorded a version perhaps that song a beautiful melody ...

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