When Banana Republic Was Cool

In the late 1970’s writer Mel Ziegler found himself facing a common problem for many men: he couldn’t find the right jacket.  Dissatisfied by the options in his local stores, Ziegler finally found a suitable jacket while on assignment in Sydney, Australia, where he purchased three British military jackets.  Back in the states Patricia, Mel’s wife, used her artistic background to transform the three jackets into one jacket that was exactly what Mel was looking for.  The couple’s friends quickly took note of Mel’s “new” jacket, and began to ask where they could find something similar.

Mel and Patricia Ziegler

Based on this demand the Ziegler’s decided to turn their restyled jacket into a business and in 1978 Banana Republic Travel and Safari Clothing Company was born.  The couple scoured the world, traveling to South America, Africa, and Spain in search of surplus.  Selling a blend of salvaged and repurposed pieces, Banana Republic carved out their own unique safari-inspired niche.  When the couple ran out of surplus they began designing their own collections using their original found and restyled pieces as inspiration.  The clothes were all strong and functional, the palette consisted of neutrals and drab colors, and the details were pulled directly from military and travel pieces, giving Banana Republic an unmistakeable look.

Yet, the brand’s memorable aesthetic did not come from the clothes alone, every aspect of the brand followed the safari attitude of the clothes.  Each store was carefully designed to reflect a specific setting, everything from a desert hut, to a hunting lodge, to an officer’s quarters.  Stores often had fully equipped Jeeps in the center, with jungle foliage, vintage furniture, animals, and even a smoke machine scattered throughout.  The company’s catalogs were hand drawn (often by Patricia herself) and came complete with fictional backstories written by well-known travel writers, bringing the safari image full circle.

In 1983 The Gap bought Banana Republic and unfortunately the brand was never the same.  Over the next few years Banana Republic used The Gap’s financial backing to open stores all across the country.  Despite early success, the demand for safari style was waning and sales could not keep pace with expansion.  In response to this The Gap began altering the brand in an attempt to boost revenue.  Mel and Patricia left Banana Republic in 1988, citing creative differences, and with their exit Gap continued to steer the brand in a more widely marketable direction.  This transformation continued over the next couple decades, which bring us to the present day Banana Republic, a company without any relation to the beloved brand that the Ziegler’s founded in 1978.  The unique aesthetic that set Banana Republic apart, the thoughtful details in not only their clothes but their catalogs and store as well, the very soul of the brand is entirely absent from the modern Banana Republic.  While the designs that made the brand so revered in the late 70’s and early 80’s are no where to be found in today’s stores, they can still occasionally be found on eBay, Etsy, and vintage stores nationwide.

All Images via The Abandoned Republic 

14 comments
  1. Yes I remember the original look of Banana before the change.. very sad it was such a cool store! and now it is like the rest:(

  2. great post! i really enjoyed the old catalogs and pictures. very cool background not many people know on a popular brand.

  3. Mr Knightly said:

    Even well into the 90s, you could at least see the original DNA in their clothes. Sadly, that’s no longer the case.

  4. love all the banana republic imagery.. proper heritage love it.x.

  5. Anna Massey said:

    I sow the fist jacket for Banana Republic in 1978 I’m their seamstress and I still have one

  6. I still come across the occasional item in my house with the old banana and star crest and exclaim, “Ah, when Banana was Banana.”

    • susanpub said:

      Oh, me too! Miss it so.

  7. Stephanie Ellison said:

    Wonderful article… I was an avid sales hunter at these stores in the late 80s when I was in college, and of course, I stopped going there once the safari stuff completely dried up. Check out http://www.scottcadams.com/bananarepublic/ and look up “Abandoned Republic” on Facebook.

    Interesting day I had today… Currently, I travel around Texas, looking for work at farms and ranches since leaving Houston and the job I had at REI at the beginning of the summer.

    I’ve got Banana Republic on my mind. Lately, I’ve been wearing my cargo shorts (Tag Safari) and tank top (Old Navy?) because it’s so hot out today. BUT, I wanted to go inside the mall to cause some political trouble at the BR store, so I brought my Tag Safari short-sleeve button shirt to wear open over the tank top, to help me stay a bit warm (the poor sales lady admitted that it was cold in the store). I’m bored, house-sitting in the city until the owner gets back from overseas. I was at a ranch for 4 months, volunteering to help build it to get it going, then I’m here for a month, and then I go onto a farm where I’ll help set up a permaculture farm growing organic produce. Anyway, the whole time in the store, I’m friendly and polite, and I look at everything for women in the top floor. They were nice to me, asking if I needed help.

    I said no but had a couple of questions I wanted to ask. Somehow, one of the managers got involved at the beginning of the question. Oh, I think it was whether the sales woman knew much about BR’s history (she’s young, and didn’t know as much as she did when I left). Being a bit older, the manager knew a bit more. The young lady was SHOCKED to see the photos of the store front and interior on the web site at http://www.scottcadams.com/bananarepublic , as well as the catalogs she can read cover to cover, like she was going to order something, and I pointed to the e-bay bar on the side where she can research vintage clothing and get an idea of what they looked like back then. I’m sure this was an interesting hour for the two today.

    The first question was this quote, “Parrot speaks, ‘A person in bush clothes is worth two in Gucci’s hand,’ ” and I asked, “Where did it come from?” Neither of them saw it coming – in the 1979 Winter catalog of BR! I had to explain to the young lady what bush clothes were, and how the safari thing played out through the 20th century, in a time of mechanical advancement of technology, especially during WWII, of exploration of unseen worlds in the post-war years. I also explained to them that in the beginning, BR got most of its clothes from military surplus stock because of the rugged quality of the clothing as well as the looks of them, which fit right in with the safari theme of the time.

    The second question was, “Do you know what the word banana republic means?” The manager kinda had an idea, but he knew that it was not “Imagining holding a banana in your hand and eating it in safari clothes on the dock of a river somewhere, though you could do that easily.” From wikipedia… “A banana republic is a political science term for a politically unstable country whose economy is largely dependent on the export of a single limited-resource product, such as bananas. It typically has stratified social classes, including a large, impoverished working class and a ruling plutocracy that comprises the elites of business, politics, and the military. This politico-economic oligarchy controls the primary-sector productions and thereby exploits the country’s economy.” I then said, “But wait a minute… The clothes you have here have nothing to do with banana republics. They’re all cosmopolitan, office clothes. Or do they have anything to do with the fact that America is well on its way to becoming a banana republic, only the main thing of export will be services rendered by the masses of yuppies, which is papers and numbers residing on a computer somewhere out there?” The manager laughed at this and agreed with my statement that the name Banana Republic really doesn’t fit the model and the business line that the company now has. My suggestion to him was to let go of the name, sell off the rights to the name and come up with something that better reflects their product line. “How about work out a deal with Tag Safari or She Safari, businesses that sell bona-fide safari clothing designed to withstand the rigors of outback use AND repeated rough washing/high heat ironing REQUIRED for regions suspected or known to have putzi fly infestations? I see people in safari forums asking the very basic question, ‘Where can I find real safari clothing? They told me not to bring clothes like Ex-Officio because they are made of synthetic fabrics, which will not withstand the heat of the ironing required to kill off the eggs of these flies?’ ”

    I thanked them for their time and went on my way. I stood outside to check messages and happened to see a woman, I’m guessing in her 60s, standing next to me. I knew she had been in the store while I was there, so I asked her if she remembered what it was like in the 80s. She didn’t… So I showed her your web site briefly. She had no idea… How short human memory is, since no one lives forever in a single body. Interesting day!

  8. Gilberto Reyes said:

    I still have my two photojournalist vest that I purchased in the 80s. It was in 2012 that I first used one on a trip to Colombia. Not sure why I waited this long to use it. Since Gab took over, I have not set foot in a BR.

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