At last count, there were 390,000 toll-free 800 phone numbers in this country, but only one, it's safe to bet, assaults your eardrums with a cacophonous cocktail of rain-forest noises when you are put on hold—howler monkeys on the rampage, you speculate, backed by a chorus of demented toucans, with arpeggios from a mortally wounded tree frog. Occasionally, there are ominous growls.
Before the heat and humidity can actually seep into your living room, though, you are connected with an agent of Banana Republic, a San Francisco Bay Area clothing company that in seven years has become the biggest triumph of outdoor chic since Robin Hood stuck a feather in his cap.
Mel Ziegler, 40, a former reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, where his wife, Pat, was a colleague, explains how it all began. "When I'd travel," he says, "I'd hunt up Army-surplus stuff, come home with things like the jackets the British wore in Burma. Then Patricia would make them into something beautiful, and people would stop me, boulevardiers, writers, film people...they had a hunger for this kind of clothing. So we rented a store in Mill Valley and designed a catalog to explain ourselves. We also set up a cottage industry in Marin County so that we'd have a place to tailor these strange garments to fit larger American bodies. We'd buy 20 old shirts and make them into 10 dresses."
The Zieglers' success was, literally, rags to riches. "We owned the business for a day, and then it owned us," Ziegler says. The catalog is probably what made it all happen. Now it's the product of four copywriters and at least 20 artists, but it still echoes the prose of the original black-and-white production. While it wobbles perilously close to whimsy at times, it successfully satisfies the urban desire to explore, vicariously, the wild places of the earth.
The mother lode shows no sign of petering out. "From Her Majesty's former burden, the colony of India, comes our genuine Bombay Bowler," declares the current catalog, which has an annual circulation of eight million. "On particularly scorching days, we suggest dunking the hat in cool water." A pith helmet like this will cost only $24, but you'll need $79 for the photojournalist's vest, with its 15 pockets. In fairness, it should be said that such items are merely icing on a cake made up of honest ingredients like rugged pants and shirts in natural fibers, and solid boots to take you through tundra and desert.
As far back as 1983 the Zieglers and their new republic were doing so well they began seeking outside financing. They got it from The Gap, the successful California jeans company. "But we were well aware," Ziegler says, "that big companies often squash little ones, so we negotiated to keep ourselves autonomous creatively. What we got was help with the nuts-and-bolts, day-to-day stuff—accounting and distribution." The Zieglers took the money but continued to run the store. Or stores, for now Banana Republic is spawning colonies as fast as the British empire did. There are 16 of them in the U.S., the latest pair having opened this summer in Manhattan. Characteristically, the new Bleecker Street establishment is laid out as a jungle hunting lodge, and the West Side outpost at 87th and Broadway just opened as a British officers' club.
Meanwhile, the Zieglers keep scouring the planet for functional apparel that will translate into high chic for the boulevardiers with a yen for the great outdoors; take their Israeli Fatigue Shirts ($28) or their Spanish Franco Pants ($32).
Ziegler has plenty of ideas for the future. For example, he plans a "climate desk" at each store. "Say you're heading for India, you'll be able to call for updates on weather, the shots you'll need, the political climate," he explains. And soon, he says, Banana Republic may launch a national magazine with a focus on travel. "Already we're a magazine trapped in a catalog," he declares, "a kind of literary clothing business."