Review by Eric Renderking Fisk | February 22nd, 2016 [Reformated January 2019]
“Wild Company: The Untold Story of Banana Republic,” by Mel Ziegler (Author), Patricia Ziegler (Author)
With $1,500 and no business experience, Mel and Patricia Ziegler turned a wild idea into a company that would become the international retail colossus Banana Republic. Re-imagining military surplus as safari and expedition wear, the former journalist and artist created a world that captured the zeitgeist for a generation and spoke to the creativity, adventure, and independence in everyone.
In a book that’s honest, funny, and charming, Mel and Patricia tell in alternating voices how they upended business conventions and survived on their wits and imagination. Many retail and fashion merchants still consider Banana Republic’s early heyday to be one of the most remarkable stories in fashion and business history. The couple detail how, as “professional amateurs,” they developed the wildly original merchandise and marketing innovations that broke all retail records and produced what has been acclaimed by industry professionals to be “the best catalogue of all time.”
A love story wrapped in a business adventure, Wild Company is a soulful, inspiring tale for readers determined to create their own destiny with a passion for life and work and fun.
©2016 Mel and Patricia Ziegler (P)2016 Blackstone Audio, Inc.
It’s hard to believe that I must explain to a lot of The Fedora Chronicles readers who were born after 1990 that there was a “BANANA REPUBLIC” before there was a “Banana Republic.”
Once upon a time in the more retrocentric/dieselpunk friendly world – specifically back in the 1980’s - there was a chain of stores called “BANANA REPUBLIC” that featured everything you could ever want if you were a retrocentric since It catered to those of us who favored the style and fashions of the first half of the 20th Century. It was the most incredible franchise chain we could ever imagine, it was the rustic supply store where you buy the right style of clothes before heading out on an adventure in the jungle, desert, or any wild destination.
ADWEEK: "Before Banana Republic Was Mainstream Fashion, It Was a Weirdly Wonderful Safari Brand Revisiting the pith helmets, Jeeps and life-size giraffes," By Robert Klara|March 16, 2016
The pictures I’ve borrowed from around the internet don’t do the original stores justice; "BR" wasn't this awesome, it was more. It was the ultimate combination of traditional style, Army Navy surplus stores, and our social mecca. It was no just a clothing store, it was a lifestyle store with amazing accessories, traveler essentials that even featured it's on travel book section.
“Wild Company: The Untold Story of Banana Republic” shares with us the authors Mel and Patricia Ziegler created the original stores with the idea that there are a whole bunch of people like them (and us) would enjoy shopping at a store with a rustic theme that sold unique “safari style” clothes that they found around the globe. These items included contemporary clothes made with "the safari vibe," to military surplus. "Wild Company" reads like an adventure novel about how they were able to find what they were looking for before the internet and how they uncovered incredible finds such as large warehouses full of unused items from military branches from all over the world.
Many of these collections had items were from The Spanish Civil War, World War 2, The Korean War, Vietnam... and from all sides of these conflicts. It wasn't unusual to find Soviet era fatigues or African made bush shirts in the same treasure haul.
Catalog image from "Abandoned Republic: A Jouney Through The Vintage Banana Republic Catalog
Thanks to their partnership with The Gap and the owner Don Fisher and his wife, BANANA REPUBLIC also offered reproductions of originals and created new products under their own line, many of these items with the original BANNANA REPUBLIC logo are coveted today via Etsy and eBay. This partnership with “The Gap” and how it eventually played out is important to mention now, since it was that relationship that was partly responsible for BANANA REPUBLIC’S incredible growth but it’s eventual corruption, decline and the inevitable “Rebranding and Reimaging” later.
The story of this book also focused on the stores themselves and how they use everything they could get their hands on original military surplus items they found like tent frame or mosquito netting that they used to display their wares, again utilizing the concept of using old surplus items to enhance that rustic adventurers’ vibe. The BANANA REPUBLIC stores themselves were destinations since no two outlets were alike. Often times the BANANA REPUBLIC shops were the destination of many of my trips since you could find something at one store that might not be available at another.
Then there were their catalogs that were essential reading for everyone in The Fedora Chronicles demographic with images and graphics that were all hand drawn that continued the rustic, vintage adventurer vibe. The catalog was a huge part of THE BANANA REPUBLIC experience, and the catalog itself won and earned many awards from groups in the industry.
It’s thought by a few that BANANA REPUBLIC was just merely riding the “safari craze” during the 1980’s. Then there are those that believe that it was the Ziegler’s who created it in the first place and they were carried along with the Indiana Jones flicks and the resurgence in interest in the World War 2 years. Yet there are other’s like myself believe that it was it was BANANA REPUBLIC that played a huge part in making that style popular again and it was mere synchronicity and divine intervention that brought these events together. I really don’t know or care which came first because I’m just grateful that I was there when it happened and it reflected a great part of my life.
For a short few years after The Ziegler’s partnered or actually sold BANANA REPUBLIC to The Gap for access to their manufacturing and other resources, the couple continued to enjoy their autonomy and ran their business the way they saw fit. Not only did “BR “continue to see excellent growth but often carried The Gap though some of their lean years during the early to mid-1980’s. Were it not for The Ziegler's and BANANA REPUBLIC's with growth that outpaced their parent company throughout the decade an argument could be made that it was their company that kept “The Gap” afloat during the hard periods in The Eighties, and were it not for “BR,” their parent company wouldn’t be around today.
Sadly, around October 1987 around the time of a decline in the economy and a troubling Mel and Patricia started to see their company’s brand and identity become compromised their brand identity and individuality while under the new leadership of The Gap’s CEO around October 1987. It was The Gap’s new cheif executive Mickey Drexler who was hired by The Gap’s owner Don Fisher who took The BANANA REPUBLIC franchise and turned it from the Safari Inspired themed chain to the “Luxury Upscale Brand” it’s known for today.
In chapters 24 and 25 of “Wild Company” document how The Ziegler’s lost their autonomy in their company that they built and how Mickey Drexler gutted everything that made our favorite chain of stores unique. Drexler decimated the catalogs that had a cult following all their own, demolished the stores unique look and style, and poisoned the customer loyalty that made the franchise a cultural phenomenon in the first place.
I'll be blunt and come right out and say that the genuine monster in this story about the demise of BANANA REPUBLIC is clearly Mickey Drexler and it should be known what he did to the retrocentric community. The reason why BANANA REPUBLIC became the bland copy of the other mere clothing stores and became simply ‘Banana Republic’ was petty and short sighted – Mickey Drexler simply hated the vintage adventurer safari style.
The Mickey Drexler simply hated what made this chain unique and made the unilateral decision to change the entire theme of BANANA REPUBLIC. Once again, I’ll reference chapter 24 of the book; The Ziegler’s share the anecdote of the now infamous Wall Street Analysts meeting when they shared their vision of their company’s future, new products that were coming down the production pipeline, and their new magazine “Trips” that was about to publish it’s inaugural issue. The two of them demonstrated several times during this meeting that the “Safari-Inspired” theme of The BANANA REPUBLIC chain was not a mere fad or fashion that was about to go out of style but continued to have a strong following despite the stalling economy.
There was a myth perpetrated by someone within The Gap that the “Safari-Inspired” phenomenon was over because that individual wanted it to be over with none of his person’s opinions based on any facts. There was no evidence that BANANA REPUBLIC shoppers were done with that theme, there was a mountain of evidence that proved the opposite was true. Becasue Drexler wanted to believe it, he decemated the brand identity. As noted by Patricia in this book, There are countless other stores that had a genuinely unique theme for literally generations that are still going on strong, BANANA REPUBLIC was obviously one of them. Or would have been were it not for Mickey Drexler.
All the passion everyone had for the ‘BANANA REPUBLIC’ brand suffered the concequense of his decision. The commitment from the employees, the catalog devotes, the devoted customers with our cult like following, were lost the minute it’s brand identity was literally thrown out and put in a landfill as a part of Antichrist Drexler crusade to make "Banana Republic" look just like every other clothing store.
It’s important to read how "The Gap" leadership betrayed the original deal Don Fisher and his wife had with Mel and Patricia Ziegler, and how abrupt and mean spirited Mickey Drexler was after being put “in charge” and made a ridiculous demand on the BANANA REPUBLIC founders which caused them to abruptly quit in April of 1988. It should also be noted and admired of how the Ziegler’s made the conscious decision to move on with their lives with a very Zen attitude despite how they were treated by building security mere weeks after Patricia gave birth to their first child.
The Gap founder – Don Fisher eventually fired Mickey Drexler for his callous mistakes, but the firing was far to late since the damage was already done. In an epilog to this, Mr. Fisher did try to make amends with The Ziegler’s and lamented that letting Drexler do what he did was one of the biggest mistake of his career.
This is the perfect book for anyone who has a vision but doesn't know how to accomplish their goals and realize their dreams. If there’s anything to learn from The Ziegler’s, is that there’s always a way to get things done if you surround yourself with quality people with talent. Nobody will read this book and finish it without a better understanding of what an incredible thing The Ziegler’s did and how they made an entire decade better for those of us in our demographic. They’re heroes and champions of people like us who believe “no” isn’t an answer and to believe in the concept of the word “Jeito” – a Brazilian word for “There’s always a way.”
Mel and Patricia Ziegler's story is just incredible and is a testament to their wonderful character. I have no idea how I would react if The Fedora Chronicles was taken away from me the way BANANA REPUBLIC was stolen from them. They handled the situation far better than I ever could have behaved.
If you have not checked out "Abandoned Republic" by Robyn Adams, don't delay! She's done a wonderfult job capturing the essence and spirit of what used to be the greatest chain to ever exist in our lifetime.