The Other Side of the Jungle: The Untold Story of Banana Republic
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?
Are You Ready to Get Wild? Mel and Patricia Ziegler's 7 Tips for Entrepreneurs
What did Mel and Patricia Ziegler do after leaving The Gap and Banana Republic?
Patricia Ziegler: Well, Mel decided to go away on a meditation retreat for a week. We were both coffee drinkers at that point, and the next thing I knew, he came home and he was only drinking tea.
Mel Ziegler: What happened was they didn’t have coffee at this meditation retreat, and I had this excruciating coffee withdrawal headache on the second day of the retreat. It was probably the worst headache I’ve ever had. And when that headache lifted, I said I’m never going to drink this black swirl again. Instantly, this great idea popped into my head, so I came home from the retreat and said, “Let’s start a tea business. So like anything else, we use businesses to learn, and we learned about tea.
Be Inkandescent: And was that the start of The Republic of Tea?
Patricia Ziegler: Yes! We wanted to package it in a way that would stand out on the shelf, and be recyclable so you could use it again and again. We found that tea had been stored in tins, so we found these wonderful round tins where we could print our labels on each one to give it that artisan feel. And I remember there was a decision to make because we really wanted these tins, but until the quantity jumped up, they cost us like a dollar a piece—more than the tea. But we figured, if this tea company works, then we will be able to buy the larger volume, so we gambled on that.
Mel Ziegler: It was very playful. I was the Minister of Leaves, Patricia was the Minister of Enchantment, and even though we sold it, we’re happy that the company continues in the same tradition. It doesn’t have employees—it has ministers, and it’s a lovely company.
Be Inkandescent: When you founded it, about 25 years ago, there was no specialty tea category at that time, or even full-leaf teas available for mass consumption.
Mel Ziegler: That’s right. If you wanted to buy tea at that time, your options included Celestial Seasonings, Lipton, or Twinings Tea. Then came The Republic of Tea, which was available in 21 different flavors and packaged in tins filled with leaf tea. It changed the entire business. Of course, now if you go into a Whole Foods, you’ll see there’s a whole section of specialty teas. We created a context, and I think that’s what we did in both companies. We didn’t just try to fit the business into an existing context; we went out and made a new context, and then created a business that represented that context.
Be Inkandescent: That’s the mark of true entrepreneurs.
Patricia Ziegler: We also were new parents at the time. So we imagined a world that fit into our lives—a slower world that you could enjoy sip by sip, instead of gulp by gulp. When you take your time, and you want to notice the world around you, you sip tea.
Be Inkandescent: After you sold The Republic of Tea, what did you do next?
Mel Ziegler: We had children late in our life, and we wanted to spend as much time with them as possible. We were lucky enough to be financially independent because of Banana Republic, so we didn’t feel like we had to run out there again and again and again and repeat the same movie. And what we wanted to do was enjoy our two children, who are now 21 and 25. We’re the kind of parents who have absolutely no regrets—we were there all the time, we are a very close family, and we love our kids immensely. It was great fun. Basically, we went from having 3,000 kids to two kids. And those two kids were much more of a handful than the 3,000 kids who worked for us. Now they’re young, thriving adults and we’re very happy about that. So we would dip in and dip out of things, and one of the things we dipped in and out of was that San Francisco in 1999 was like San Francisco in 1849—it was the gold rush except it was the dot-com stuff that they were mining. We got swept up in it along with everyone else. Venture capitalists were throwing money all over the place.
Patricia Ziegler: That’s when our old COO from Banana Republic came to us to do something together again. So we invented a business called Zoza, and created a whole new line of clothes. Banana Republic was all about natural fabrics, really beautiful cotton and wool.
Mel Ziegler: In the intervening years, we were living on a mountain in Marin County, CA, and we got very outdoorsy. I started wearing a lot of Patagonia clothes and a lot of performance clothes because I ride a bike, and I hike, and I really saw the virtue of performance fabrics. With Zoza, we envisioned marrying the Patagonia look with Prada—high-fashion design that used high-tech fabrics.
Patricia Ziegler: It had a bit of a yoga influence, and we actually had free yoga classes in the office in the mornings. Employees would leave their shoes by the door, and it was all white carpeted. We also had free yoga classes during break. Zoza was right across the freeway from where our kids were going to school. They were 8 and 12 at the time, so we could pick them up after school and they would come in and help us.
Mel Ziegler: So we had a great time with that. Unfortunately, when the dot-com wave swept through San Francisco—in those days it cost $5 million to build a website that today costs $5,000—everything we did took so much capital. Then, when March 2000 came, and the NASDAQ started to really dive, people panicked and all our financing dried up. We were deep in the manufacturing process at that point, so like a number of other dot-com companies, we were swept out to sea. We liquidated everything.
Be Inkandescent: You’ve seen the highs and the lows of business.
Mel Ziegler: I like to say that the seed of success is in every failure, and the seed of failure is in every success. And it’s definitely true. With your success you can get a little bit too arrogant, and in failure, if you’re paying attention, you’re going to get very enterprising.
Be Inkandescent: So what’s next for the Zieglers?
Patricia Ziegler: We are now doing a business that creates slow food for fast lives. It’s called EaTrue, and this summer we are going to be selling bars that are like mini meals. They will come in several ethnic flavors, including Italian, Japanese, Moroccan, and more.
Mel Ziegler: So instead of eating energy bars, which are really glorified candy bars, you’ll be able to choose something nutritious, that tastes good, and is more like artisan food. They will be on the shelf next to the energy bars. And that will be the beginning of a number of products where we try to explore the idea of slow food for fast lives, because that’s how people are living. We think there’s a huge demand these days for nutritious, healthy food that is not junk fast food.
Patricia Ziegler: So, if you’re not in the mood for a candy-bar-style energy bar, you can look for our Indian EaTrue bar with coconut, curry cashews, carrots, cauliflower—a real savory artisan experience.
Be Inkandescent: Ah that’s wonderful. More trendsetting from the Zieglers. We look forward to talking to you more about that when the company is flourishing, and we’re certain that it will. In the spirit of advice-giving, please offer our readers and listeners insight into the nuggets of wisdom that you’ve learned in your decades in business.
Mel and Patricia Ziegler’s Top Tips for Entrepreneurs
1. Go with what you’ve got.
2. Be the customer. If you are making things for yourself, you’ll never have a doubt about what you should do—or how your products and services should be done.
3. Turn your liabilities into your assets. What you think is wrong is probably wrong. If you believe in it, find out what’s right about it and make it work.
4. If something’s in your way, find the gift in it. As we said earlier, you can—and should—learn from every mistake and failure. Our entire surplus line of clothing was exactly that. We would get things like French firefighter coats made out of asbestos, which was pretty useless to consumers. But the lining would be made of beautiful silk quilting. So we would tear out the asbestos and make purses out of the quilting. It was in there. We just had to look.
5. Don’t accept no only as an inconvenience. There is always a way to do something. Consider the fact that almost all of the clothes we found early on were for men. That forced us to develop a style for women using men’s oversized shirts and belting them—or men’s pants and belting them—that created a brand new look for women.
6. You can’t really make mistakes. Honestly, there’s no such thing as a mistake. If something isn’t working, and there’s no way to change that fact, you just move on.
7. And the final one is: It’s not about winning—it’s about playing!
Be Inkandescent: I have one more request. There’s a story you tell at the end of the book that is one of my favorite leadership lessons. It came to you one day when you were teaching your son to play ball.
Mel Ziegler: My son Zio was just beginning to stand. He was about a year old. And I was tossing him the beach ball back and forth to teach him how to catch. So I set his hands up, and I told him that when the ball comes really close, you just squeeze.
I threw it to him, and to his utter surprise and delight he caught it, and so he jumped up and down and said, “I caught it, I caught it, I caught it!” So I said, “Great, let’s do it again!” Again I set him up and tossed him the ball. This time he squeezed his hands too soon, and the ball fell on the deck, and he jumped up and down and said, “I missed it, I missed it!”
In that instant he taught me that it’s all about playing. Kids can do that, they really see it clearly, and it’s the day that counts. It’s all we have—the journey. We’ve heard it said in many, many different ways. The journey is the goal.
What I learned is what I wrote in the book: “It’s not about winning, it’s about playing.”