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.
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