Experience is the best teacher. I learn with my hands. If you find yourself saying things like these, perhaps you’ll find Mel and Patricia Ziegler’s story about the birth of Banana Republic to be an interesting item. Judging by the success of both Banana Republic and The Republic of Tea, one would think the couple were wed in the church of entrepreneurial genius, only to honeymoon on the beaches of business administration. The Ziegler’s new book is called Wild Company: The Untold Story of Banana Republic, and it uncovers an entertaining and enlightening history that provides a new understanding of what has now become a ubiquitous brand.
The book’s title does not exaggerate; the story of how Banana Republic began is a wild one. In the mid-1970s, Mel and Patricia—a journalist and a graphic artist, respectively—did not seem likely candidates for entrepreneurial enterprise. But similar to the case with our beloved Chris Guillebeau, there existed in this couple the raw determination toward independence. They coupled this determination with a set of unique skills and perspectives and the result was a clothing retail enterprise unlike anyone had seen.
The hiccups were plentiful over their first few years’ operation, and even at the company’s earliest moments:
“When we picked up the catalogues, we couldn’t wait to get some reaction. We rushed over to see two friends who lived close by, a couple who were also writers.
We handed them each a copy. They stared at the leopard print cover. We beamed.
“Go ahead, read it!” Mel said as we plunked ourselves down on their sofa.
Quietly. Watching them. Turning the pages. We waited for laughs, smiles, wows. But when they finished, they looked first at each other and then at us. Uncomfortably puzzled.
“You don’t expect this to sell anything, do you?” she asked, checking to assure herself that it was just a literary exercise.
Again and again, the Zieglers tell of incidents that for many businesses would have prefigured failure. But maybe that’s what makes the story of Banana Republic’s early years so interesting and fun: every time the company’s downfall is imminent, some turn of fate appears to change the future. To heap another cliché on top of the two lines leading this review: you can’t make this stuff up!
What makes Wild Company such a page turner is the background of the authors. At a point well into the book, Mel has a constructive digression, offering us a quick explanation of his and Patricia’s backgrounds—their lives prior to meeting in San Francisco, and the forces that shaped their shared personality, goals, and vision:
…the social upheaval came in our high school and college years. It shattered any plans our parents had for us living conventional lives. In our minds, our futures became all about freedom, the freedom to disengage from the safe and suffocating middle-class consumer-driven existence we had each come to disdain. We were determined to live life our own way; the last thing either of us wanted was orthodoxy in any form, particularly in our work, and we saw self-sufficiency as key.
There’s no denying the success of Banana Republic, even at the point when it was acquired by Don Fisher, owner of The Gap (also covered in the book). The Gap was already very successful then, and Fisher obviously knew what he was doing when he made the couple an offer. Wild Company gives us a reminder regarding the fickle nature of success in the world of entrepreneurs, and it does so with a friendly narrative that’s difficult to set aside. Finally, it should be noted that this book is primarily a story about a creative couple and their early experiences with running a retail clothing store. The Banana Republic of today bears almost no resemblance to the Banana Republic of 1982. You most certainly don’t have to be a patron of the current Banana Republic to enjoy reading Wild Company.