Banana Republic History

Banana Republic 101:

The company was the brainchild of Mel Ziegler, a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, and his wife Patricia Gwilliam Ziegler who worked as a courtroom artist for the same paper. Inspired by a surplus Bush jacket Mel brought back from a work trip to Australia, the couple eventually left their jobs and began buying bulk surplus vintage clothing–often altering it with new buttons or elbow patches and the like–and selling them at the Marin County Flea Market. When a large purchase of Spanish military shirts turned out to have unnaturally short arms they turned disaster into fortune by concocting the fictitious story of Generalissimo Franco’s “Short Armed Paratrooper Shirts”.  A catalogue soon followed with similarly creative copy written by Mel and illustrations of the clothing by Patricia.

Opening in 1978, a shop in their hometown of Mill Valley, California prospered thanks to their hard work and creative energy; but there were limits to how far they could grow: In 1983 they sold BR to Donald Fisher of the Gap who wisely insisted they remain as the heads of the company with a “hands off” agreement that promised total creative freedom. The infusion of money and manufacturing power of the Gap led to explosive growth: Lavishly decorated safari stores opened across the country, a team of writers and artists were hired to produce full color illustrated catalogues, and a flood of original clothing was designed and produced in factories across the world.

After five years of success, the fading safari trend, a stock market crash, and new upper management conspired to push the Zieglers out of their beloved company. After they left in 1988 the illustrated catalogues were discontinued, the safari look of the stores were phased out and BR became more of an American sportswear company.

It took many years of rebranding efforts to arrive at what Banana Republic is today, which is about as far from its plucky, artistic, entrepreneurial origins as possible. I highly recommend reading “Wild Company”, the inspiring memoir the Zieglers wrote in 2012 that tells their remarkable story. Photo from a 1985 San Francisco Examiner Magazine article showing Patricia and Mel at their offices on Bluxhome Street in San Francisco. 

Explore the Empire: Banana Republic History

Book: The Banana Republic Guide to Safari and Travel Clothes

This 1986 book from BR features a lot of photos of BR Stores as well as the Zieglers themselves. We have scans and video walkthrough of the book. 


In Their Heyday: The Zieglers at Home and Office (more press below)



The Zieglers At Home and at the Office, January 1985

A fantastic look at the founders of Banana Republic in their prime. Metropolitan Home Magazine.



Staff Interviews: Kevin Sarkki, Catalog Illustrator


Sarkki Business Card

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.

Banana Republic Memories from Staff Artist Kevin Sarkki

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 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, […]

Memos to Kevin re: Banana Republic

“Hi Abandoned Republic! I’ve the day off so wanted to get these treasures to you ASAP. They sort of tell a story of a starving artist (me) negotiating the perilous deep waters of the business world in the big city of  San Francisco during the early 80s. “ –Kevin From the archives of staff artist Kevin Sarkki we […]

Staff Interviews: Mike Madrid, Catalog Production Artist

Banana Republic Memories: Mike Madrid, Production Artist, Part 1

Several months ago I sent a note to Ward Shumaker, the San-Francisco-based illustrator who did a lot of work for Banana Republic in the catalog days. He in turn put me in contact with catalog Production Artist, Mike Madrid. Mike got his start at Banana, and stayed on through the end of the catalog era, […]

Mike Madrid Interview Part 2: Creating The Banana Republic Catalog Before The Digital Age

When I started, the process was a little piecemeal. The illustrators weren’t given that much direction, and we would have to try to make the pages work with what we got from them. Also, the merchandisers weren’t actually working on the catalog and they’d have unreasonable expectations of how much can fit on a page. […]

Mike Madrid Interview Part 3: The End Of An Era

In this last part of the interview Mike talks about the end of the catalog era at Banana Republic and life at BR after the departure of the Zieglers. We all look forward to hearing much more about this time in the Ziegler’s upcoming memoir Wild Company. See also the History section for a selection […]

Press Clippings from the Ages

Wikipedia’s Banana Republic entry:

Here’s a video clip from a Mel Zeigler speaking engagement in which he shares some great anecdotes from Banana Republic’s early days. Wish they’d have panned to the screen to show the photos!

Here’s a fantastic blog post that appeared the same week that I launched this site. Banana Republic Summer 1985

1987: Adventurous Shoppers Find Niche at Specialty Stores : The Experience Is Like an E-Ticket Ride at Disneyland

This article from the San Francisco Chronicle‘s SFGate website features a number of wonderful photos from the newspaper’s archives. 

These two tell a story, eh? La Times, March 1988: BR Launches Travel Magazine One month later: LA Times, April 1988: BR Founder’s Resign

Adweek:  Before Banana Republic Was Mainstream Fashion, It Was a Weirdly Wonderful Safari Brand


Mel and Patricia Ziegler
Life has been a grand safari for the founders of Banana Republic

Reveries Magazine

New York Times: AT HOME WITH/MEL AND PATRICIA ZIEGLER; About to Hatch Their Third Republic

Oprah has this: Amazing but True


Wild Company Articles

Some of the more interesting articles about Wild Company, the Ziegler’s memoir about Banana Republic. Follow their latest news via Twitter or Facebook

SF Chronicle Banana Republic founders’ ‘Wild’ memoir


Seamwork Article on Banana Republic

A very nice article was published in March 2018 on Seamwork by Betsey Blodgett. It includes a few photos from the eras of Mel and Patricia that we haven’t seen before. Particularly the photo of the store with an airplane in it! Check it out!   


  • Nancy Zizic on April 21, 2016

    I think I remember Banana Republic multi level store, one floor dedicated to travel books, in San Francisco (maybe Union Square)….best store ever…cannot remember year but I think this was my first exposure to Banana Republic. I still have a BR Travel vest… travel investment ever.

  • Nigel McKeone on May 4, 2018

    I used to see adverts for BR in Road & Track magazine whilst living in England and Australia. A holiday in the USA gave me the opportunity to visit the Beverly Hills store where I bought the travel vest and my son bought the Navy equivalent. They still hang in my wardrobe today. The concept of the store was brilliant, all the styles were classic. Great to be able to see what they used to stock in the catalogues. Regards Nigel

  • kris morelock on August 5, 2018

    So glad that this legacy is being honored here with due reverence.
    I stumbled into BRs San Diego (Horton Plaza) store as a dopey teen round about 1984 and was immediately entranced. All my senses came alive there. Will never forget the screaching monkey/tribal rhythm soundscape, the classic old world feel carved out of a trendy new mall space. I left with a t shirt, a catalogue and a head full of new possibilities. I patronized their Santa Monica store a few times, and bemoaned to my friends when I heard that the company had been bought by The Gap and that the place was going to change. My friends didn’t get it though. Not for everyone I suppose.
    Thank you for the memories!

  • Peggy Magovern on September 4, 2018

    I remember working with Mike and my Art Director, Terry. I was the Senior Illustrator for the Banana Republic Catalog in the pre-digital age. I worked at the Bluxome location first, then to Grant. In the old brick building on 5th and Bluxome, I walked across a nearly empty room to my drawing table. Many exciting times were to come. I loved rendering the leather jackets the most. I took a dull-tipped Xacto knife and scraped the under-color for the jacket, and then applied various earth-tone shades on top using Derwent colored pencils. Still working in colored pencils!

  • Sidhe on July 1, 2019

    I so miss this store! Simply cannot find clothes like this anymore and the catalogs were so much fun. It was a big treat to go to the San Diego store and buy myself something.

  • Steve on July 25, 2019

    I wonder what happened to all the “artifacts” (props?) from the stores. I’m sure some were “liberated,” but what about, for instance, the faux elephant? I can’t believe that it would go to the dump 🙁

  • Bill Haugland III on April 26, 2020

    I miss the original Banana Republic. The stores were fun and the catalogs were a great read.
    I still have my distressed leather bomber jacket and one pair of safari pants.
    Thanks for the great memories.

  • Meg on June 19, 2020

    Oh! I got here as I got nostalgic of that BananaRepublic khaki skirt I got as a gift from my uncle. It was the best ever! It was durable and stylish… never went out of style. I wore it for years! I sooo miss that Banana Republic😢

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