Today, Banana Republic stores are fixtures across America – meccas of office-appropriate trousers, oxford shirts and pencil skirts. But in 1978, there was only one Banana Republic, in Mill Valley, Calif., just north of San Francisco. It had two employees, its husband-and-wife founders. Some days most of its foot traffic came from aikido students using it as a hallway to get to the martial arts school upstairs. Back then, Banana Republic’s shelves were full of military surplus clothing nipped, cinched and restyled to have an air of hipster cool.
Wild Company, a memoir by the store’s founders, Mel and Patricia Ziegler, tells how the two former journalists with no business experience parlayed a homespun idea for safari-inspired clothing into a multibillion-dollar business. Even though the reader knows the venture will ultimately end in success, the account is still absorbing because it is so hard to imagine how they will climb out of some major financial and conceptual holes.
If they got rejected for a loan, how could they possibly open a store? After spending half their capital on 500 Spanish paratrooper shirts, how would they ever sell them if the sleeves were too short? The only asset we had was our own oblivion, Mel Ziegler writes. That would keep us blissfully ignorant of the bewildering and arbitrary impediments that would entangle us until we became so embroiled that quitting was no longer a possibility.
As the Zieglers tell it, their business eventually thrived because of their unique partnership: Patricia had a knack for styling merchandise, decorating the stores and creating the aesthetic. Mel kept the books and figured out when and how to expand. A former reporter, he also wrote the whimsical copy for their catalog, which was a key driver of sales.
The one unsatisfying section of the book is its denouement: The Zieglers quit in 1988 after a clash with corporate overlords at Gap, the retail titan that had purchased the chain five years earlier and was now trying to exert more control over its design and direction. The couple put a positive, professional sheen on it, but readers have to wonder whether they were truly at peace with the decision to leave a business that had clearly been so personal for them. Similarly, they offer little insight into how Gap executives perceived and approached the dispute. As a result, we don’t seem to get a fully authentic picture of how things unraveled.