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. 

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

 

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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 […]

Abandoned Republic Posts about Stores and History

Trips Magazine Advertorial

It’s unusual, of course, to see photography paired with Banana Republic clothing. The March 1988 Trips Magazine however, had a 16 page spread of artfully treated photographs of models wearing BR clothes from the Spring/Summer 1988 line. The photos are taken in San Francisco (including one shot in front of the Polk Street store) and […]

Banana Republic Bookstore and Catalogs

Tara Sendelback of GPF in the Travel Books section of Banana Republic (March, 1988) – Photo by Richard Lee, Detroit Free Press. Photo Courtesy Neal Moore Collection. Banana Republic launched the Bookstore Catalogue in 1986, and there were five editions in total, the last coming in 1988. At the same time, bookstores were opened in […]

Trips Magazine: An Ode To The Ambitious Traveler

This article is a guest post by writer and Banana Republic fan Neal Moore. Our deepest thanks to Neal for allowing us to republish this article and the photos from his collection. Follow Neal’s adventures at 22 Rivers. I picked up my first copy of TRIPS magazine at a “safari & travel” Banana Republic store […]

In Store Music

This picture of the original music tapes in the early BR stores came in from former BR executive John Mavrakis, who writes: “Patricia had one of our employees create music cassettes to be played during store hours.  As we began to grow our store base, it was no longer practical to go this route.  As […]

Animals!

Banana Republic stores often had large fiberglass (or resin) animals on display. I have been told they were produced by artisans that usually worked for the San Francisco Academy of Sciences, although the quality is a little less realistic. Presumably there are examples of this scattered across the country as store fixtures were sold off […]

Original Artwork

I was given these two colored pencil illustrations from the catalogs drawn by artist Nick Backes that show the marvelous detail and large size (7″x10″ and 6″x14″). Thanks for the donation from Mike Madrid! These are both from the Summer 1985 catalogue. From Holiday 1985, these incredible colored pencil illustrations of the Kashmir Sweater by […]

Employee Name Badge-UPDATE!

Confirmed: This is an employee name badge! I was given this employee badge by Mike Madrid in BR’s design office. It’s a laminated badge with a clip on the back of it, he didn’t recall it’s origin. I found this article in the employee newsletter (below) about a January 1986 Manager’s Conference meeting (In the […]

Knock-Off BR “Uniforms”

I found this shirt was found on eBay in February 2021, and the jacket was found several years earlier by Wendy Joffe, also on eBay. They have been identified as fakes by Patricia Ziegler and another BR executive, John Mavrakis. The same result as the Banana Pocket shirt I found. For what it’s worth, however, […]

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!! This festive cover of the Banana Republic employee newsletter Communiqué features a celebrating Livingstone Zebra in 1986, how cool is that? Thanks for following Abandoned Republic this year. Keeping up the blog has been a VERY welcome distraction from the tedium and misery of 2020, and engaging with other BR Fanatics makes […]

Merry Christmas

This is not an official BRT&SCo Holiday card, but it’s the next best thing. Our friend Gary Pinkerton shares with us this Christmas card from photographer Robert Castellano who took a lovely winter wonderland photo of the Banana Republic at the Pearl Street Mall in Boulder, CO. The card is dated 1999 but it was […]

Employee New Hire Kit

I found these images on Worthpoint, which archives old eBay auctions. Here’s one I really wish I had known about! A new-employee orientation package along with the original advertisement for the open positions at the new La Jolla, CA store.

Banana Republic Store Photos

First, a small collection of photos of Banana Republic Travel & Safari stores I’ve purchased online from news archives.  This is not an official BRT&SCo Holiday card, but it’s the next best thing. Our friend Gary Pinkerton shares with us this Christmas card from photographer Robert Castellano who took a lovely winter wonderland photo of […]

Advertisements

Early on, advertising in magazines like the New Yorker played an important part in getting the word out about the company, and attracting catalogue subscribers. Usually, the artwork used was repurposed black and white drawings from the catalogues, but sometimes the art was unique. Banana Republic print ads are collectible, there are a great number […]

Transitional Pieces

This blog is dedicated to the travel and safari era of Banana Republic as defined by the 1978-1988 catalogues. However, the name Banana Republic Travel and Safari Company continued for some period of time after the Zieglers departed. The company moved in a more upscale direction with the branding, but attempted to retain some of […]

There was a FLAG!?

An official store flag???? According to the eBay archive website Worthpoint, this printed nylon flag sold in 2016. I would kill to have it, fair warning. I’ve never seen it before but it’s pretty clearly the real deal. I absolutely love it!! If you are the owner of such a flag, please get in touch.

A Letter about a Flight Jacket

I jumped at the chance to buy a 1986 Mel Ziegler letter on BR letterhead and I’m really glad I did. First, it’s just a great look at what a classy company they were and how Mel’s gift for language never fails to charm. It’s so warm and witty. Secondly, this particular letter points directly […]

Shopping bags and boxes

Collecting the shopping bags, boxes and other store ephemera is great fun. They put so much creativity into this branding, each one is keepsake in it’s own right.   

A Post about Posters

Sold in the 1984 catalogs, these posters showcasing catalogue covers are really wonderful collectibles that appear now and then on eBay. Advertised were catalogs 17, 18, 19, 20 and 21, but I also came across one from catalog #22, presumably sold in stores.   My copy of the African Safari poster was signed by Patrica […]

Banana Republic Store Artifacts

Banana Republic stores were each lavishly decorated with authentic vintage items as well as custom made items that reflected colonial safari and travel themes. Each store famously had a surplus Army Willy Jeep in the window, and often large museum quality animals such as elephants. The shoplifting detectors were disguised in large tusks framing the […]

Shopping Safari! “Banana Republic Guide” Employee Vests and Shirts

One of the more fun items to collection are store employee "guide" vests and shirts. These are either hooded bush vests or Expedition shirts with a silk-screened stars and bananas emblem labeled Banana Republic Guide. Probably one of the coolest and highest quality retail "uniforms" ever!      I first heard about these when I [...]

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

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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!   

13 Comments

  • 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…..best 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😢

  • Shari King on March 24, 2021

    The best clothes I ever owned!! It’s nothing like it use to be. Too bad someone doesn’t recreate the clothes.

  • Anita on May 27, 2021

    Oh my goodness! I’ve just landed here from Pinterest. So excited to find this site. I lived three blocks from the Polk Street store (with the Zebra exterior). Broke but plagued with chronic wanderlust I saved my pennies for a shirt, bag, whatever I could afford. I do remember a khaki wrap skirt I wore for years. Loved loved LOVED the stores. The catalogs were so much fun and IMO copied by J. Peterman. Forget today’s BR…(yawn)… boring!! Now I am going to read every page 😁

    • Robyn Adams on May 27, 2021

      Welcome and please enjoy your travels through the site! I used to work on Polk Street right down the street from that BR. I had to save my pennies as well. They had good sales sometimes!

  • Thomas on July 10, 2021

    I was a young man during the 80’s working at least one job and often two while attempting to complete high school and then through college. I spent almost every cent I made at the Banana republic store in Beverly Hills off of Little Santa Monica Blvsd if I remember correctly, until the store opened in Sherman Oaks and in order to save money on petrol to BH, I shopped there. My tastes in clothing have not change one bit since those days but because of the abandonment of the Banana Republic Safari Styles by GAP stores for “Whatever” reason, I have NOT shopped with any store owned/operated/connected to GAP stores since. If they wanted my busiiness back they should return Banana Republic store to the styles of the 80’s and they once again will probably get most of my income, which is far more substantial now than it was 40 years ago, =/- 7 years….. Naturalists Shirts, Bush Shirts, Ghurka Shorts, etc,….. How I miss those times…

    • Robyn Adams on July 13, 2021

      Thanks for sharing your wonderful memories!

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