Monday, January 12, 2015

Fast Times in the Republic

Mel and Patricia Ziegler; Wild Company—The Untold Story of Banana Republic (Simon & Schuster; 2012; IBSN 1451683480).

Wild Company is the tale of how two people left their unsatisfying jobs, created something they really weren't willing or able to nourish, and ultimately lost control of their creation. Their creation lives on, subsumed in a corporation that neither cares about or wants to remember what made the creation great, just one bland face of three.

The Ziegler's both worked in journalism but were unsatisfied with their jobs. They stumbled into running a clothing chain due to a combination of luck, skill (art and writing, as well as an excellent eye for design) and serendipity. The book tells of many highs (finding bargains, excellent sales, extreme customer loyalty) and lows (they seemed to blindingly trust people and hire on a whim at times, which lead—in one case—to the loss of an very productive day's receipts due to a dishonest employee, and—in another case—to tens of thousands of dollars of merchandise being lost to another dishonest employee).

I was actually surprised how early on in the chain's story they were acquired by The Gap. That acquisition gave them the capital to expand, add more things to the store and even (eventually) design their own clothing rather than sell (mostly) military surplus. But it also eventually doomed Banana Republic as it was. The earliest sign of this was the clash between the lawyer the Ziegler's had for the deal and The Gap's corporate counsel. Then came three family member's from The Gap's founder to work in Banana Republic. Two of the three seemed to fit in, but the third was an ongoing exhaustion to Patricia Ziegler with weekly and daily clashes over materials, clothing lines, new product launches, the way stores looked, etc.

Eventually the Ziegler's left Banana Republic in what amounts to a coup by people within The Gap. The Ziegler's spent some time resting, launched a few efforts (some, like The Republic of Tea—subject of another co-written book—succeeded, whiles others did not) and watched while Banana Republic became what it is today: no different from The Gap or Old Navy, just a variant upon the same bland theme.

Who is blame? The Ziegler's? The Gap? Mel and Patricia had (still have, I'm sure) plenty of talent when it came to writing, design and the like. Not so much when it came to managing the business. Maybe things would have been better if they had found a good partner early on who could manage things while they concentrated on their talents? The Gap initially acquired Banana Republic both for the growth and the culture. Maybe if they had allowed more of that culture to flow up into the larger entity rather than fight the smaller entity they would be more than a bland mall store today?

It's really a shame, I think. Banana Republic succeeded because it was quirky. They had excellent merchandise (I believe I still have several of their shirts in my closet) and led the way in bringing us several design trends that we still see (the para-military or adventurer look is still with us) today. The catalogs and stores had a unique identity that set them apart from other Main Street or faceless mall storefronts. All gone, alas.

Is it possible to have quality, growth, quirkiness all in one? Is it possible keep what made a company great over the life of a company? I don't know, but I eagerly await the next Banana Republic. I need some new shirts.

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