MAY 2013: BANANA REPUBLIC FOUNDERS MEL & PATRICIA ZIEGLER
By Hope Katz Gibbs
Founder and Publisher
With $1,500 to their names, and no business experience, Mel and Patricia Ziegler turned a wild idea into a company that would become the international retail colossus Banana Republic. Re-imagining military surplus as safari and expedition wear, the former journalist and artist together created a world that captured the zeitgeist for a generation and spoke to the creativity, adventure, and independence in everyone.
Their book is one of the best business tomes I have read. It’s honest, funny, charming—and it reads so much like a novel that you don’t want to put it down. The reason is simple: These two successful entrepreneurs embody what it means to stay true to yourself and your passion—even when the promise of millions, if not billions, of dollars is dangled in front of you.
Scroll down for our Q&A with the Zieglers and learn how they upended business conventions and survived on their wits and imagination. Listen to our interview as a podcast on the Inkandescent Radio Network.
Be Inkandescent: Let’s start off by talking about how and why you founded Banana Republic. You were both working at the San Francisco Chronicle at the time, Mel as a reporter and Patricia as an illustrator. So take us back to the beginning.
Patricia Ziegler: Well, the beginning was when I met Mel at the newspaper’s Christmas party, and I knew we were going to be out of there—the newspaper, that is—a lot sooner than a lot of the other workers. It didn’t take long—but we had to wait for the idea.
Mel Ziegler: At the Chronicle, we just felt the roof over our heads. It was a great job that some people would die for, and while we knew it was wonderful in some ways—it still was a job. Some people aren’t born to be employees. They long for freedom. I’m one of those people, and Patricia is, too.
Be Inkandescent: As we read in your book, you stumbled into the idea for Banana Republic when you were on a freelance assignment in Australia.
Mel Ziegler: That’s where I picked up an old British Burma jacket—a quintessential safari type that was made for the British army, and it was worn by British troops in the Burmese Theater in the Second World War. I wore it on my trip back to San Francisco, and when Patricia met me at the airport she kept staring at the jacket on the way home. Patricia changed the buttons, added some leather trims, and it looked really great. I knew we were on to something because everywhere I went, people would say, “Where did you get that jacket? It’s fantastic!” And it gave me an idea to sell them—so we went looking for more, and I used my skills as a reporter, and Patricia used her skills as a fashion designer. She always had a flair, and even when she was shopping at flea markets, she looked like she shopped on Madison Avenue.
Patricia Ziegler: So I was right at home hunting for finds in surplus warehouses. And we found one of the biggest ones right across the Bay in Oakland. We had no credentials and didn’t know what we were going to tell this dealer. So Mel decided that I should be an heiress who wanted to open up a little boutique and that Mel was my indulgent husband. So we walked into this cavernous, dark, dank warehouse, and this 300-pound man with a cigar in his mouth waddled toward us.
Mel Ziegler: We emptied our bank account, and with $1,500 bought these great Spanish paratrooper shirts, figuring we’d sell them at a flea market in Marin County.
Patricia Ziegler: But before we got a chance to do that, this great thing happened. We had unloaded the car and started washing the shirts—and had a dinner party scheduled for four of our friends. One was the novelist Herbert Gold, who always kind of dressed in safari style. After dinner, he asked where the bathroom was and I pointed downstairs next to the washing machine. Not five minutes later, he came up holding one of these Spanish paratrooper shirts and said, “What is this?” like he had just found some great treasure. Mel said, “Oh, those are Spanish paratrooper shirts,” and Herb said, “I want one.” He took off his denim shirt and started putting this shirt on.
Mel Ziegler: But the sleeves ended about two inches above his wrist, so he got another one, and it also ended two inches above his wrist. Patricia and I looked at each other and both thought, “So that’s why they were surplus.”
Patricia Ziegler: But we had at least 500 more shirts downstairs, so I ran over and rolled the sleeves up to about his elbow, and I stood back and said, “Nobody would wear those shirts with the sleeves rolled down anyway.” And they all sold that way at the flea market.
Be Inkandescent: Tell us how you parlayed those first sales into a catalog business.
Mel Ziegler: We created a catalog first. It was a natural progression because I write, Patricia draws, so we created a little catalog and mailed it to 500 friends around the country and to people in the media. One of them landed on the desk of a radio announcer in New York, who read it to commuters in the tri-state area one morning. He called Patricia on the phone, and during a 20-minute interview, she told him that if anyone wanted a copy, they should send $1 to PO Box 745, Mill Valley, CA. Three days later, the postman walked in with two stacks of mail. We opened those envelopes and it was enough to cover the cost of the catalog and postage—with enough left over to pay for dinner for months.
Be Inkandescent: Is that when you felt confident enough with the business to open your first store?
Patricia Ziegler: Mel decided that we needed a store right after the first flea-market experience. He found this little hole in the wall, where the ceilings were only barely seven and a half feet, and it was very dark, so we rented it. I bought palm fronds and stuck them into the top of this telephone pole that was in the middle of the store so it looked like a stout palm tree. We painted the back wall with a leopard print, and we had no dressing room and really didn’t want to take any space away, so we cleaned out a closet and hung a camouflage net in front of that. Mel ran to the hardware store to buy rack holders, but they were too expensive, so we found surplus belts and we just nailed those to the ceilings and attached dowels to those. And yes, people thought that we were clever.
Mel Ziegler: We used everything we had, which is what I say in the book: you need to go with what you’ve got. Too many people sit around dreaming and trying to make things perfect. Things will never be perfect. If you’re really determined, you gather yourself and just proceed.
Patricia Ziegler: It does create itself. The concept and the store kind of told us what to do. There was really no money, and no experience, but there were also no limits.
Be Inkandescent: And customers loved it.
Mel Ziegler: They did. And that’s how we discovered what we were supposed to be doing to be successful—by the way that they reflected it back. We were just good listeners.
Be Inkandescent: How did you eventually come to sell to The Gap?
Mel Ziegler: Actually, we were overwhelmed by success. And we never really quite caught up with ourselves. Remember, these were different times. You go out seeking a venture capitalist to fund a quirky little business in the 1970s. Banks laughed at us, so we had no capital. We were doing this all on cash flow. It felt good but we were exhausted.
Patricia Ziegler: That’s when a friend introduced us to Don Fisher, the founder of The Gap. We met, and hit it off, and not long after, he said he wanted to buy us out.
Mel Ziegler: I was very reluctant. Even as hard as it was, I could not imagine working for The Gap. I mean, when you start out thinking all you want is freedom and independence and you end up working for The Gap, you’ve done something wrong. But he was very persuasive. He said, “I don’t want to run your company; you can run your company. You can do anything you want with your company; I’ll just finance it. As long as you’re profitable, I’ll finance anything you want to do.” And I said, “Well, we’d have to have total creative autonomy,” and he said, “Okay, you can have total creative autonomy,” and so he made it very easy to say yes, when we were so exhausted. So by a vote of one “yes” (Patricia) and one “maybe” (me), we decided to sell.
Be Inkandescent: Looking back, do you regret that decision?
Mel Ziegler: No. I don’t think we have any regrets; it all worked out perfectly fine.
Patricia Ziegler: No, no, because we believed in the way he did it and he was representing us.
Be Inkandescent: But then, after your first son, Zio, was born—things changed.
Mel Ziegler: By then we had 101 stores, we were doing $250 million in business, all of it based on that one conversation with Don. But then on Black Monday 1987, the stock market crashed and The Gap stock fell for the second time in two months. The execs at The Gap started to panic.
Patricia Ziegler: They wanted to see what we were going to offer for the spring line; all of a sudden they were very nosy about the creative side of the business.
Mel Ziegler: It was clear that our time was up. We had creative autonomy as long as we had creative autonomy, and the moment we didn’t have it, we said goodbye. Freedom is what we were in it for, not money. And we walked away from a huge, huge amount of money because we had just signed another five-year contract. That really would have made us comfortable for life, in ways that we never even imagined or wanted to be.
Patricia Ziegler: But that was a conscious choice, it was a conscious choice when you look at a contract, to make this money and give up your freedom, or walk away with freedom when you have enough. For us, it was no question.
Mel Ziegler: We took the freedom. We felt great. We did feel badly for the people who were with us, but many of them ended up starting successful businesses of their own.
DON’T STOP NOW! Learn what the Zieglers did post-Banana Republic. Here’s a hint: Ever hear of The Republic of Tea?