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Surplus Ideas Led to Their Success : Banana Republic Traveling to Some New Markets

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Artist Patricia Ziegler and her writer husband, Mel, have pooled their love of travel to build one of the most successful retail and mail-order clothing operations in America.

“We’re a unique beacon,” says Mel of the 8-year-old Banana Republic firm. “This is hardly an age where the individual is celebrated. People are fad- and trend-crazed. But we say, ‘Listen to yourself. Believe in yourself. Ours are clothes you buy one at a time, then put together yourself.’ We say, ‘See beyond the shirt to the character of the person who is wearing it.’ ”

Philosophy Pays Off

Such a philosophy has paid off for the Zieglers. Banana Republic has 65 stores in the United States, including four in the Los Angeles area (Beverly Hills, Pasadena, Santa Monica, South Coast Plaza) and an estimated $115 million gross sales in 1986.

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Banana Republic, now part of the Gap Inc. retail chain, is to the tropics what L. L. Bean is to the North Woods. The company specializes in the military surplus look, travel and safari clothes: Bush jackets, safari shirts, Gurkha shorts, bomber jackets--that sort of thing. Prices are moderate (from $26 for a Carioca shirt to $115 for a safari jacket), and items are sold through a free quarterly catalogue that is mailed to 14 million people, or through stores theatrically decorated in late ‘50s “Mogambo” style--with rusting jeeps, palm trees, plastic elephant tusks and wooden-crate display racks to create ambiance.

This, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. The Zieglers now include a range of travel and guidebooks in bookstore areas set up in some of their stores. And they recently instituted a Climate Desk service, enabling people to call a toll-free number for weather information around the world.

It’s all part of a grand scheme to transform Banana Republic into what Mel terms “A total travel resource company.” He explains: “The analogy would be American Express, but more soulful, earthier. Amex came to travel through the financial services window. We’re coming in through the apparel door.”

This year, the couple kicked off the publishing stage of their venture with their first book, “The Banana Republic Guide to Travel and Safari Clothing” (Ballantine, $24.95).

Embellished with whimsical watercolor sketches, archival photographs of Africa, plus a foreword by the Zieglers, it features smartly written essays on such themes as the origins of the safari jacket and “Should Khakis Match?”

A 155-page hardcover spinoff of their popular catalogue, to be sold at major bookstores, the guide was launched recently with the Zieglers’ whirlwind 12-city promotional tour, which brought them to their Beverly Hills store for a book-signing spree.

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“The book,” says Patricia, “is a compendium of Banana Republic’s philosophy, attitude and style. It’s not slick, not full of photographs--unless, of course, the photographs have soul.”

Traveler’s Magazine

Coming up in the next few years will be a traveler’s magazine, followed by Banana Republic travel guidebooks and eventually trips--all geared to help the traveler “experience a place as a journalist or a foreign service officer,” says Mel. “Most travel is tourist-oriented. We try to break the bubble that insulates the traveler, tell how to get inside.”

Appealing to the wanderlust of today’s upscale American seems right on mark, considering the predictions of many business pundits that adventure travel will boom in the next decade.

But when Mel, 40, and Patricia, 36, declare that “Travel will be the rock ‘n’ roll of the ‘90s,” they are not basing their prediction on market or demographic studies, they say, but purely on their own personal interests, which guide them in all things.

“Before we do anything in business, we just ask ‘Would we want to do this? Would we wear it? Would we read it?’ We’re our first two customers. That’s the extent of our market research.”

The pair’s own retail odyssey started in the mid-’70s when Pennsylvania-born Mel, a former New York free-lance writer, was living in San Francisco, where he had just quit his job as features writer at the San Francisco Chronicle. Earlier, he had met Patricia Gwilliam, a free-lance artist and the illustrator who had done the Patty Hearst trial courtroom sketches for the Chronicle.

Always a maven of surplus and used clothing, Patricia had been happily sewing similar outfits together for Mel to wear. Mel, who was a devotee of the radical/hippie ‘60s Army surplus look, began rummaging around stores. When his British Burma jacket, refurbished by Patricia, began to catch the eye of friends who wanted similar ones, the couple began to see the glimmerings of a business. “It was just an idea that grew organically. Very California,” he says.

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Paratrooper Shirts

Convinced that surplus might be a way to “put a bottom under our free-lance incomes,” they journeyed to Madrid in 1978, where they bought a shipment of old Spanish paratrooper shirts. When the shipment arrived in San Francisco, the sleeves were too short. Mel was dismayed, but Patricia rose to the occasion and simply suggested they roll up the sleeves.

At $6.95 each, the rolled-sleeve shirts, which they sold from their Mill Valley living room, were an instant sellout. They opened their first store in 1978 in Mill Valley, and began a life of expeditionary jaunts around the world, buying gear.

Their business dealings often involved them with shady characters, and Mel, who by now had turned his writing talent to creating the store’s ad copy, conveyed his findings via an early BR headline. “Never,” he warned, “buy anything by the pound in a dark alley in a damp country.”

Originally the Zieglers offered only authentic military surplus, but over the years, as sources dried up (“Let’s face it,” Patricia says: “No wars, no surplus.”) they have broadened their concept to include redesigns of perennial classics, which they farm out to factories around the world.

Their safari shirts and suits, for example, are made in Hong Kong and Thailand; their French sailor jersey in France. A North African oil driller’s suit is made in Italy, as is all their footwear; hats and belts come from England. All the clothing is 100% cotton, and from time to time, Patricia, who designs all the styles, cuts loose from scratch. She recently dreamed up a cozy cotton fleece “All Night Flight Suit” for transatlantic flights, and a woman’s “Expedition Cloth Flight Suit.”

“I don’t know what kind of jacket Amelia Earhart actually wore,” she says. “but ours is what it should have looked like.”

Sold the Firm in 1983

Swamped by the exigencies of day-to-day business, and longing to spend more time on creativity, the Zieglers sold Banana Republic in 1983 to the Gap Inc., the $534 million San Bruno, Calif.-based retail chain.

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The Gap, says Mel, “functions as a bank--plus.” The Zieglers retain full creative autonomy. The sale, for an undisclosed amount, has freed the couple to travel six months a year, seeking new ways of self-expression.

Insisting there’s no “work-play” division in their lives at all, they travel not necessarily to track new ideas, but just for their own instincts. “We travel,” says Mel, “for the buzz in the air.”

Their treks more often than not pay off in terms of specific merchandising ideas.

Last October, their visit to England’s Lake District, often associated with Wordsworth and other poets, convinced Patricia they needed to make a good classic woman’s tweed jacket and a basic black turtleneck. Both items will show up in the spring catalogue, themed “Rambles and Scrambles in the English Lakes.”

Their trip to the Soviet Union was less successful. They found a Soviet artist to paint the cover for one of their catalogues, but when they tried to buy some Red Army shirts, Soviet authorities said they could do so only if they joined the army.

The Zieglers, who dress exclusively in BR clothes from head to toe (“so we’re more focused about what the line needs,” Patricia says,) are finding no need in their lives for khaki formal wear.

Although success has meant going to more public functions than ever before, they prefer the quiet life, holing up in an old Victorian-style, three-bedroom house they bought in Mill Valley, encircled by hills, where deer nuzzle up to their windows.

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Fond of the outdoor life, the Zieglers say a great time to them is “to invite friends over for a hike.” Although they get lots of their best ideas while walking in the woods, they put in long hours at the BR headquarters, a turn-of-the-century, 80,000-square-foot building in San Francisco south of Market Street. Their 50,000-square-foot distribution center is across the bay.

Staff at headquarters includes a creative team of 50, who work with the couple on all aspects of the catalogue, store decor and clothing design. “We give them scribbles and journals and snippets--and they get back to us (with more fully realized applications),” says Patricia. She oversees visual aspects of the operation, while Mel oversees the catalogue copy and the business end. “But basically,” he says, “it’s a dialogue.”

They say one area where they have always been in total agreement is a contempt for the fashion Establishment and for designers who try to impose a “look” on customers.

Also, Mel says, “There’s a tendency now emanating from designers, one in particular who shall remain nameless, to create a kind of American aristocracy--you can see from the ads, we’re all supposed to look like dukes and duchesses.”

Using clothes to “distance” oneself from others, “perhaps the ultimate evolution of the yuppie mentality,” says Mel, is “pathetic. What matters is not how much money you have, but how imaginative, how soulful, how real people are. If you lose touch with other people, it’s sad.”

Such Populist notions may seem incompatible with the notion of a store located in flossy Beverly Hills, which is where the Zieglers opened their first Southern California store in 1983, but Mel sees no incongruity.

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The Beverly Hills store, campily decorated with a 15-foot-high fiberglass rampaging elephant, has always been one of the most profitable units.

Mel says, “There are lots of real people in Los Angeles.” And Patricia adds, “Where else in Beverly Hills can you get a sweater without glitter?”

In some ways, BR’s success has always been linked to the film world, many of whose employees shop at the store. “People are forever chalking up our success to movie-based fads, such as ‘Indiana Jones,’ ‘Out of Africa’ and now ‘Crocodile Dundee,’ ” Mel said.

“Actually,” he jokes, “I think our Beverly Hills store inspired all those movies.”

Plans for 20 Stores

The Zieglers, who expect to open 20 more stores this year, admit that only a minuscule number of their customers ever go on safari.

“Safari in Swahili means journey,” says Mel. “Life is a journey.”

Do the Zieglers ever dream of dropping business to return to their original loves: art and writing? Patricia says no, because she gets satisfaction seeing her art ideas “become three-dimensional.” And wouldn’t Mel like to get around to writing the Great American Novel? He smiles. “I think I am writing the Great American Novel--only not on paper.”

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