There was a time when you could shop Banana Republic through a catalogue filled with romantic hand-illustrated drawings and flourishing annotations. When walking into a Banana Republic store was like walking onto the set of Raiders of the Lost Ark, complete with Bush jackets, Ghurka shorts and a stipple mural of an African safari. A time when adventure and fashion went hand in hand.

1987 Banana Republic Catalog

Banana Republic Gift Work Book, 1987

Pat and Mel Ziegler, the founders of the store, met as journalists at the San Francisco Chronicle and, judging from their artistic, adventure-inspired motifs, were clearly storytellers, not business people. They traveled the world collecting vintage military surplus, determined to celebrate unique and original designs and discourage them from slipping into global homogeneity.

Flip through one of the vintage Banana Republic catalogues for a preview of those days, and enter the time machine: back to the 80s, to a daring yet utilitarian spirit (a British binocular case as a purse? Of course. How else will you scan the horizons for enemy troops?) and flourishing product descriptions written like sonnets: “Can a poet go woolgathering in cotton? Yes, when the cotton is as soft as little cat feet, thick as woods on a snowy evening, comforting as apples.

BR sold actual safari gear, repurposed “for fatigue duty in the urban jungle.” Their goal being to revive the lost and abandoned objects of the past, and in so doing, rekindle the possibilities of the modern individual’s lifestyle. Yes, you could wear a castoff lambskin flight helmet to a meeting. Make a bold statement because you – yes, you – are a bold individual.

There’s a new memoir about the Zieglers – Wild Company, due out October 2nd – which tells more of the story of how the couple met and built their small, family run business in Mill Valley San Francisco.

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11 Comments

  1. marinkid
    Posted September 26, 2012 at 7:37 PM | Permalink

    I used to shop BR in Mill Valley in the early 80's and it was exactly as portrayed above. What was even more bizarre were the warehouse sales they had – British military gear of all sorts and ridiculously inexpensive, though you might come home with a pair of trousers with one leg shorter than the other. The gas mask for you scored for $1.50 made up for any shortcomings.

  2. marinkid
    Posted September 26, 2012 at 7:37 PM | Permalink

    I used to shop BR in Mill Valley in the early 80's and it was exactly as portrayed above. What was even more bizarre were the warehouse sales they had – British military gear of all sorts and ridiculously inexpensive, though you might come home with a pair of trousers with one leg shorter than the other. The gas mask for you scored for $1.50 made up for any shortcomings.

  3. Jeremy Schuster
    Posted September 27, 2012 at 1:10 AM | Permalink

    I logged probably 100,000 miles in the last pair of rdshorts I purchased from Banana Republic when it was the real deal.
    I miss that commitment to quality. I understand how time changes things but when you are wearing/using or just holding a material you can depend on you feel different.
    Maybe that’s why I am switching out all my synthetics to natural fibers. An expensive process, so doing it slowly. Trying to get back to the core. You seem to get it.
    Thanks for the BR flashback.

  4. Chris
    Posted September 27, 2012 at 8:19 AM | Permalink

    That and the J. Peterman catalog were the two things I enjoyed reading most. My Ghurka shorts and Israeli paratrooper bag went form college to Africa with me. What a great store.

  5. Deb
    Posted September 27, 2012 at 8:52 AM | Permalink

    i remember ….

  6. Jimmy
    Posted September 27, 2012 at 9:32 AM | Permalink

    I was thinking the same thing.

  7. Jennifer
    Posted September 27, 2012 at 3:46 PM | Permalink

    I always talk about "when banana was banana". I miss it so much! Especially the travel books and maps they had in the SF store. Of course this was pre-web when finding a street map of Finland was much harder then it is today.

  8. iowaamy
    Posted September 28, 2012 at 7:36 PM | Permalink

    Inspired by these catalogues, my high school fantasy was that I would grow up to write copy for intriguing products for discerning yuppies. Instead, I ended up working at a Food Bank. I think I'm glad it was just a fantasy.

  9. Dale
    Posted October 6, 2012 at 9:52 AM | Permalink

    I have a handful of catalogues – No.28 Summer 86, No. 33 Fall 87, No. 35 Spring 88 (3 copies) and Fall Update 1988. also a couple of battered copies. Six good copies, and 2 battered copies. Anyone want to make an offer and take them off my hands?

  10. Posted October 14, 2012 at 6:43 PM | Permalink

    I worked in the Banana Republic creative department in that golden era; in fact, I wrote the Poet's Sweater copy. We did it first (beginning in the late 1970s). J. Peterman was founded in 1987.

    For the full history of BR, see the Zieglers' new book, Wild Company: The Untold Story of Banana Republic.

  11. Cass Daubenspeck
    Posted October 23, 2012 at 8:08 AM | Permalink

    Nancy, how great! The copy for the Poet's Sweater is one of my personal favorites…

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