Founded in 1978 by Mel and Patricia Ziegler, the first Banana Republic store (located in Mill Valley, California) looked nothing like the affordable luxury brand, or as they describe themselves, "True outfitters of modern American style," it is today. From the beginning, and throughout the 1980s, Banana Republic was a safari-styled retailer. Instead of high-quality casual wear and parquet floors, stores were filled with palm fronds, cartridge belts, WWII Army jeeps, pith helmets, elephant tusks, Bombay dresses, and khaki vests. Adweek explains how after meeting at and then quitting the San Francisco Chronicle, they decided to start their own business reselling surplus military clothing.
With only $1,500 in working capital, the Zieglers started Banana Republic, a term O. Henry coined in 1904 as slang for a corrupt, politically unstable Latin country. Americans, for whom "surplus" meant only camouflage U.S. Army T-shirts, fell in love with the exotic military leftovers the Zieglers scrounged on their international buying trips. "In England, we found Melton wool overcoats made for the British army selling for 25 bucks," Ziegler recalls. Banana Republic marketed the clothing as rare and marked it up. "We weren't losing money," he says.
"A lot of people forget that there was a big safari craze in the mid-1980s," recalls Mike Madrid, Banana Republic's production manager in those years. Having flocked to movies like Out of Africa, Romancing the Stone and especially the Indiana Jones films, Americans were nuts about khaki twill and far-flung, steamy destinations. For those who couldn't afford a ticket to Sri Lanka, Banana Republic's mall stores offered a substitute of sorts.
Purchased by Gap in 1983, by 1984 Banana Republic was issuing 54-page catalogues eight times a year. You can check out several covers and pages from the retailer's safari-days catalogues below (courtesy of Abandoned Republic):
Head over to Adweek to read more.
Feature image via Mel and Patricia Ziegler. All other images via Abandoned Republic/Scott Adams.