HomeBanana Republic HistoryBanana Republic Memories from Staff Artist Kevin Sarkki
Sarkki Business Card
Banana Republic Catalog #12 1983 by Kevin Sarkki

This is clearly a still life set up in the BR warehouse/studio just as Kevin describes. The bale of surplus trousers almost smells musty from here. Livingstone doesn't seem to mind.

Scanning catalogs, as I do on an almost daily basis these days, I noticed that the Holiday 1985 Catalog credited  the cover art to a 25 year old staff artist named “Kevin Sarkki.”  A quick Internet search led to an email exchange with Kevin, who was indeed a Banana Republic staff illustrator from 1982-85. In fact, he was the first artist to work for BR besides Patricia Ziegler herself! I couldn’t have been more excited and he couldn’t have been more gracious answering questions, sharing his experiences and scanning some incredibly rare early Banana Republic material.

Hired by Patricia Ziegler at a starting wage of $5 an hour, Kevin was witness to the explosive growth of a mom-and-pop operation that would soon have over a million catalog subscribers and stores across the country and world.

 

Kevin’s remembrances include a detailed account of how the catalogs came together-with so much hand drawn illustration rendered in printing techniques that are practically forgotten today.

Here is Kevin’s story in his own words:


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Banana Republic 1982 Catalog#11 by Kevin Sarkki

This 1982 product-focused cover is the first one done by BR's first staff artist Kevin Sarkki.For a young illustrator and designer it must have been a dream job. Here is Kevin's story in his own words:

After graduating from the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale (a serious party school) I worked in the Office of Communication of Miami, FL. Moved to Atlanta, GA and drew caricatures at Six Flags Over Georgia, then to the advertising dept at the Atlanta Journal Constitution.

I came to San Francisco in February 1982. On the advisement of a friend/student at the Academy of Art I responded to an ad placed on the bulletin board there. I showed my portfolio to Patricia Ziegler, drew some clothing she had arranged, and was hired on the spot in April 1982.

It was a small operation. Officially, Mel was the writer and Patricia the artist. They also hired well-known writers to comment on the clothing and the travel lifestyle. To my knowledge I was the first art department staffer. There could have been earlier contractors unbeknownst to me, but Patricia was the primary artist before I arrived.

Sarkki Business Card

How awesome is this?

As far as the hired staff onsite, I knew of only a female accountant, a male stockman in the warehouse and Patricia’s mother, who managed the inventory, etc. There had to have been others working behind the scene, I just did not see them in the tight space located at 410 Bluxome, SF.

Patricia and I shared the loft space above the warehouse; that way she had a close eye on the drawings and ads I was creating. Everyone did many things: I was purchasing ad space in the New Yorker, and dealing with those supporting us in the printing trade, in addition to my illustration and design duties.

The clothing drawings from 1982-83 were mostly of me wearing the clothes and standing in front of a mirror-or setting up a still life, ex. Pith helmet.

Early on Patricia coached me on what mattered in the representation of the clothing. Her illustration style was pleasing to the eyes. I tried to maintain the soft, well-worn qualities that spoke comfort. Realize this vintage merchandise was the antithesis of the stiff department store merchandise.

The look and feel of the early catalogs was decidedly funky. After all, much of what was being sold was pure military surplus. “In Surplus We Trust” was a catchy motto that, for me, summed up what BR stood for in the early days.

People would pay to wear cast offs… a formula that was bound to profit the Zieglers. Later as they began to sell more of their original designs it became necessary to skew the aesthetic toward a more upscale market.

Prior to 1984 Banana Republic Catalogs were duotones. The two-color product illustrations were pencil drawings, applied to the mechanical boards as halftone screened camera-ready art, with the second color defined by cutting a mask on rubylith or parapaque on an acetate overlay. So the whole catalog was printed as black and a Pantone color. This was a super low budget operation-I was paid between $5 and $8.50 per hour. During my lunch break I’d walk the drawings over the photostat business to have print-ready screened images made.

Banana Republic Catalog 1983 Holiday by Kevin Sarkki

Catalog 15 features a beautiful pencil illustration of the Banana Republic Army Air Corps plane, the first appearance of this iconic BR symbol that would find it's way to many a catalog cover and become a gift box as well.

The Gap transition in 1983 was loud and swift. Gap leader Donald Fisher, Mel, Patricia, and others entered the room near my drafting table. Tensions were high as the walls vibrated to the sound of heated negotiations. Soon the tone of the office shifted from a family-run to a corporate-owned operation.

The Gap brought in a huge cash infusion.

The catalogs shifted to full-color and the pencil drawings were reproduced by an outside repro service onto a paper that had a “tooth” similar to watercolor paper, then color was introduced using Dr. Martin dyes, etc.

Banana Republic Catalog  #16 1983 Holiday by Kevin Sarkki

This is the last duo-tone catalog before they went to color. It features Kevin Sarkki's wonderful illustration of an African Bush train delivering the comforts of home for the holidays.

Later, watercolor pencils were used.

Business growth required a move down the block to a much larger space. The second art department staffer was brought in from the San Francisco Newspaper Agency. Mel Ziegler had worked for the paper prior to forming BR. The guy was much older and experienced than I so he became the senior art dept staffer-though he did not draw the clothing. Later, Rob Stein became the second staff illustrator.

They retained the services of internationally acclaimed designer Primo Angeli to create a logo/masthead for all ephemera. The earliest appearance I am aware of is the Summer 1983 catalog cover.

The Gap stores demanded an upscale, urban look and feel-slicker and slicker-until the original concept of anti-fashion was superseded by fashion. Scores of talent from all quarters were clamoring to have their portfolios reviewed for inclusion. The office became unbearably political.

I never worked on the store design. However, one day Patricia sent me to the Hillsdale Mall with the intention of painting a mural in the soon-to-open-store. I was repelled by a team of interior designers who were hostile towards me.

I was beginning to feel helpless under the crush of the Gap’s industrial-military complex (pardon the analogy). Gone were those days of me toiling beside musty old sacks of surplus clothing under the spell of Patricia. By that time I rarely saw Mel & Patricia. While I am sure they had at least ceremonial creative control, there was plenty of pressure from the legions of hired guns to do things the Gap way. The department expanded quickly with specialists controlling every aspect. I recall an upper management bean counter, one of D. Fisher’s sons, hovering over my drawing board. After watching me work on a stipple drawing (a technique also known as pointillism) he asked me, “How many dots is that?” Then he laughed and walked away.

Only 3-1/2 years at BR and I’d had enough and resigned.

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I’m tremendously grateful to Kevin for sharing his catalogs and memories and for the contributions he made towards the Banana Republic we all remember so fondly.

Below is the 1985 Holiday Catalog (No. 26), which was the last cover Kevin did before leaving Banana Republic. It is a collage illustration that mixes Banana Republic employees with historical adventure personalities and other found images. As it was his final piece, it was of great significance to him, and he says “I was very humbled to have been chosen to portray my BR colleagues in their favorite theme.”

For a key to identifying the faces on the cover, click here. If you are a BR fan please leave a comment below, we’d love to hear your memories and thoughts.

Banana Republic Catalog 26 Holiday 1985

The 1985 BR Holiday Catalog (No. 26), Kevin Sarkki's final catalog cover before he left BR.

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Banana Republic Memories from Staff Artist Kevin Sarkki — 7 Comments

  1. Thanks, Scott, for posting this–and thank you, Kevin, for sharing your story! It was the military surplus side of BR that attracted me at first, as well as the great catalogs. These were the clothes I wore through college and grad school. I still have the wool Bundeswehr jacket that I got back in the day — my son is wearing it now, though.

  2. Yes, I remember quite clearly as a student at the Academy of Art the day I passes along a posting from the student center to my friend and room mate Kevin regarding the search for an illustrator. I knew from the get go that he was perfect for this gig and always looked forward to the first peek of the catalogs. I always implored him to keep the originals. Several years later I would be Kevin’s best man at his wedding and he would return the favor at mine just down the road of the original Banana Republic store in Mill Valley.
    Yes, those where glory days.

  3. Very interesting to read a little about what it was like working for the original Banana Republic. I grew up in an actual “banana republic”, Panama, and loved flipping through the old Banana Republic catalogs my parents would receive in the mail, in the late 70’s/early 80’s. The stories and illustrations inspired my dreams of traveling–I couldn’t wait to grow up and explore the world, wearing a photographer/safari vest and pith helmet! Thank you, Kevin, for your wonderful illustrations!

  4. I worked with Kevin at Six Flags when he was in Atlanta, airbrushing t-shirts, but haven’t seen him since (that was 30 years ago). I didn’t know it at the time, but he went on to work with my Dad, Ken Newton, in the Advertising Art Dept. of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, before leaving Atlanta. I always wondered what happened to Kevin, I could tell that he was destined for bigger and better things – fascinating to learn of his involvement with the early days of Banana Republic. Kevin, your parties are still legendary amongst the old airbrush crowd, we still fondly recall the classic “Sarkki parties”…those were some great times. I salute you, amigo!

  5. Wonderful! Thanks so much for sharing your unique experience during a moment in history that so many of us look back on with yearning. To my recollection, BR and Cockpit (which became Avirex and went bling) were the two catalogs I couldn’t wait to get. My dad would place them on the kitchen table and I’d hungrily pore over them, living through the adventures implied so ingeniously by artists like you, Kevin. Thanks again. Bill, is your son Jim? Because he mentioned this site on FB after I had posted the question of why Banana Republic changed. At that time, and like many, I guess, a search came up with their website followed by much disappointment in what became of the once great and original idea.

    Robbie

  6. Pingback: Banana Republic: A Look Back | Lancer Creative Services

  7. Hello, Scott, I found this site a few months ago while searching for “oldie” BR catalogs, i.e., starting w/ the earliest issues. I’d just finished reading Wild Company, the Zieglers’ amazing story behind BR, and wondered if some of the late 70s/early 80s issues were still floating about. Thanks for posting the images from Kevin Sarkki’s collection; it’s an interesting study in how the catalog evolved over time.

    I was on BR’s mailing list during the mid- to late-80s, and still have catalogs from that time period. (Some years back, when Baby No. 2 was on the way, I had to clear out the spare bedroom….and put a stack of duplicate catalogs in the recycle bin…*cringe*) My collection spans summer ’84 to fall ’88. I also have issues 1 thru 4 of the wonderful Travel Bookstore catalogs (were there more issues?), and the first issue of Trips. Finally, I have a modest collection of BR items, mostly purchased while I was in college and hence had a limited budget for discretionary spending. The clothes are so well made they’ve lasted far longer than any other items in my wardrobe. Of course there are certain iconic items I’m so glad I purchased back then, including the pith helmet and the genuine Aussie boomerang. Never could afford an aviator’s jacket, oh well.

    Very disappointing when BR underwent the “great change” in ’88. I knew something was amiss when an apologetic letter arrived, stating that the Trips magazine had ceased publication. That was probably about the same time I learned the Zieglers had left the company. And the catalogs were decidedly different — still a pleasure to read, vs. so many others and their slick, super-glossy style — but the style was no longer Banana. The very last catalog I received was the fall update edition; any others after that, just to finish out the year?

    This is a wonderful site you’ve created, and I look forward to checking-in periodically. I have a comment to post re. the Israeli paratrooper’s briefcase, so that’s where I’m headed next. Cheers!

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