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Surplus Ideas Led to Their Success : Banana Republic Traveling to Some New Markets

January 16, 1987|LEE WOHLFERT

Artist Patricia Ziegler and her writer husband, Mel, have pooled their love of travel to build one of the most successful retail and mail-order clothing operations in America.

"We're a unique beacon," says Mel of the 8-year-old Banana Republic firm. "This is hardly an age where the individual is celebrated. People are fad- and trend-crazed. But we say, 'Listen to yourself. Believe in yourself. Ours are clothes you buy one at a time, then put together yourself.' We say, 'See beyond the shirt to the character of the person who is wearing it.' "

Philosophy Pays Off

Such a philosophy has paid off for the Zieglers. Banana Republic has 65 stores in the United States, including four in the Los Angeles area (Beverly Hills, Pasadena, Santa Monica, South Coast Plaza) and an estimated $115 million gross sales in 1986.

Banana Republic, now part of the Gap Inc. retail chain, is to the tropics what L. L. Bean is to the North Woods. The company specializes in the military surplus look, travel and safari clothes: Bush jackets, safari shirts, Gurkha shorts, bomber jackets--that sort of thing. Prices are moderate (from $26 for a Carioca shirt to $115 for a safari jacket), and items are sold through a free quarterly catalogue that is mailed to 14 million people, or through stores theatrically decorated in late '50s "Mogambo" style--with rusting jeeps, palm trees, plastic elephant tusks and wooden-crate display racks to create ambiance.

This, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. The Zieglers now include a range of travel and guidebooks in bookstore areas set up in some of their stores. And they recently instituted a Climate Desk service, enabling people to call a toll-free number for weather information around the world.

It's all part of a grand scheme to transform Banana Republic into what Mel terms "A total travel resource company." He explains: "The analogy would be American Express, but more soulful, earthier. Amex came to travel through the financial services window. We're coming in through the apparel door."

This year, the couple kicked off the publishing stage of their venture with their first book, "The Banana Republic Guide to Travel and Safari Clothing" (Ballantine, $24.95).

Embellished with whimsical watercolor sketches, archival photographs of Africa, plus a foreword by the Zieglers, it features smartly written essays on such themes as the origins of the safari jacket and "Should Khakis Match?"

A 155-page hardcover spinoff of their popular catalogue, to be sold at major bookstores, the guide was launched recently with the Zieglers' whirlwind 12-city promotional tour, which brought them to their Beverly Hills store for a book-signing spree.

"The book," says Patricia, "is a compendium of Banana Republic's philosophy, attitude and style. It's not slick, not full of photographs--unless, of course, the photographs have soul."

Traveler's Magazine

Coming up in the next few years will be a traveler's magazine, followed by Banana Republic travel guidebooks and eventually trips--all geared to help the traveler "experience a place as a journalist or a foreign service officer," says Mel. "Most travel is tourist-oriented. We try to break the bubble that insulates the traveler, tell how to get inside."

Appealing to the wanderlust of today's upscale American seems right on mark, considering the predictions of many business pundits that adventure travel will boom in the next decade.

But when Mel, 40, and Patricia, 36, declare that "Travel will be the rock 'n' roll of the '90s," they are not basing their prediction on market or demographic studies, they say, but purely on their own personal interests, which guide them in all things.

"Before we do anything in business, we just ask 'Would we want to do this? Would we wear it? Would we read it?' We're our first two customers. That's the extent of our market research."

The pair's own retail odyssey started in the mid-'70s when Pennsylvania-born Mel, a former New York free-lance writer, was living in San Francisco, where he had just quit his job as features writer at the San Francisco Chronicle. Earlier, he had met Patricia Gwilliam, a free-lance artist and the illustrator who had done the Patty Hearst trial courtroom sketches for the Chronicle.

Always a maven of surplus and used clothing, Patricia had been happily sewing similar outfits together for Mel to wear. Mel, who was a devotee of the radical/hippie '60s Army surplus look, began rummaging around stores. When his British Burma jacket, refurbished by Patricia, began to catch the eye of friends who wanted similar ones, the couple began to see the glimmerings of a business. "It was just an idea that grew organically. Very California," he says.

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