Sunday, April 30, 2017

Book Review: Wild Company, The Untold Story of Banana Republic


I worked for Banana Republic for over a year and always loved the safari and travel clothing heritage even if it was barely to be seen in the modern incarnation of the store. When I saw a book by the founders of the company Mel and Patrica Ziegler, I knew I had to pick it up and discover the Banana Republic that had disappeared long before I was a part time sales associate for the company, or indeed before I was even born. 

Wild Company details the origins of the company and the ethos behind the founders choices that made Banana what it was in their own words. Written by both Mel and Patrica, the married founders who decided to leave journalism and illustration for business in order to try and fund their own adventures, the book is a delightful read. Who can say how much of this rather fairy-tale (if not a bit of a tragedy in the end, but I'll get to that) story is embellished or made rosy by either design or the haze of hindsight, but in any case it sounds like the Zieglers set out in business as complete armatures in order to eventually fund the travels they dreamed of and they ended up doing just that. 


With just 1500 hundred in capital and a great early sense of brand identity and integrity the Ziegler's bought their first batch of military surplus clothing in the late 1970's and set up shop in a tiny location in San Francisco. They ended up washing every one of those first products (Spanish paratrooper shirts with defective too-short sleeves) in their own home washing machine. The first products were entirely well made but discarded military surplus from various countries and campaigns. They noticed how much care had been put into these pieces of clothing that would have to withstand constant rough use, usually being made from fine natural fiber materials. They bought sleeping bags for the sheepskin linings, re-purposed belts into hat bands, and made entirely new items from the fine fabrics they could find amongst the piles of otherwise useless surplus. This was recycling at its best, but they new eventually there would be a big problem, the surplus would run out. So they began seeking out the old factories, the smaller places barely holding on thin the "modern" 1970's world of polyester. They worked to find the best of the old factories to essentially create more brand new surplus-like items.

It was only when Gap offered to buy the company and leave the founders in control in 1983 that the company could finally access the capital needed to fully flesh out an in house label of clothing. A five year period of growth and great clothing and collaborations with factories and artisans followed the acquisition, but in reality it was the beginning of the end for what had made Banana Republic special. The Gap people began to get antsy, untrusting of the Ziegler's unconventional methods of ignoring trends and focus groups, buying and stocking what they liked and believed in rather than what was trendy. Gap was opening new locations of Banana stores weekly, diluting the brand image and the carefully planned uniqueness of each original location. They had failed to recognize what had made Banana Republic successful, too afraid of the safari trend dying out and taking their profits with it. The Zieglers decided with all the interference not to sign another contract and left the brand they build to it's new business minded owners. How disgusted they must really be with what Gap have since done to their original concept. The story of the Ziegler's is inspiring, but the story of the brand is rather tragic.

Banana Republic, like Gap itself, now finds itself struggling to survive. After abandoning every bit of what made the store experience special, stocking basics in polyester that set few hearts aflame and fall apart within a year, every part of the original Banana Republic has vanished into memory alone. Authentic charm replaced by inconsistent sales and clothing often as bland as the clean store designs that were swapped in for the antique WWII jeeps and weathered wood long ago.


Not to mention the discontinued hand drawn and zine-like catalogs that had helped Banana Republic grow to be noticed by Gap in the first place. While a fiber glass zebra and astro turf flooring would look incredibly kitsch and tired today, the idea of themed stores certainly has continued and evolved with stores like Anthroplogie now at the top of the store experience game. Who's to say a modernized version of what the old Banana Republic had going on wouldn't do well? A chicer version of the safari style they had in the 1980's, perhaps some campaign furniture, canvas upholstery, bamboo, and authentic imported pieces (even the odd piece of elegant taxidermy) could go a long way in giving the store some long lost charm. Bring back some of the unique travel inspired styling, the devotion to natural fibers and clothing made well enough to actually earn it's price tag. Gap failed to realize what had made Banana Republic so successful, they had a strong authentic brand image and passionate founders who wouldn't compromise their vision until corporate got so annoying they had to leave. The key to successful business isn't appealing to the most people possible, it is finding your niche and your customer, and then staying loyal to that customer and that niche!

I promise I'm not just bitter because I really selfishly still wish there were still such a shop as a safari outfitter...except that I kind of am. It also is just sad any time a big corporation crushes creativity out until nothing unique remains and then wonders why their customer flock somewhere else. Isn't it obvious?

Wild Company may end on a bit of a sour note for safari style fans, but the Ziegler's don't seem to be that bothered. They went on to start a specialty tea company and have other ventures, but more importantly they accomplished their original goal of making enough money to travel. They could have never known just how successful their little surplus store would become before they had to leave it behind, but they seem to have come out on top in the end.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of the old Banana Republic, or just wants to learn about creating a consistent and well loved brand. My biggest take always were unintended business tips, curate your brand, stay loyal to your customer, don't grow too fast, and make and sell only what you yourself love. As a former fashion student who still harbors a dream of having their own brand of clothing or accessories someday, I found the story of Banana Republic both inspiring and cautionary.

Have any of you ever read Wild Company? Do you have any memories of the old Banana Republic? I know I will continue to keep an eye out always for some of their older pieces online or in thrift shops!


5 comments:

  1. Oh I'm going to get this one. I love business stories, especially niche businesses. Even if they ended or went in another direction away from the original, inspiring concept, there is so much to be learned from the journey.

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    1. I can imagine why these sorts of stories would interest you ;) It was definitely inspiring and made me think about what kind of brand I would build if I were in a place to do so, which hopefully I will be someday. Then again they started with just 1,500 dollars so perhaps I just need to be more creative and leap into something big <3

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  2. This is very interesting, I had no idea about the history behind Banana Republic, or that it's now considered a bit cheap (I remember it from years ago on a visit to London, and it was kind of pricey). What a shame. Surely there are other safari clothing companies out there now though? In some tiny pocket of the world!

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    1. You are correct in that the clothes are still expensive, but they are now cheaply made compared to their clothing in the past. Having worked there I can tell you they have a lot of sad polyester and what silk or linen there is is still too expensive for the quality. It's sad! I should research to see what other safari companies still exist, that sounds like a fun project!

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  3. What an interesting- and sad story! That's too bad that the original vision was lost. And I would totally want to shop in a themed safari store too :)

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