Banana Republic co-founder Mel Ziegler gave the best advice I’ve ever heard about how to create a business. He said, “I would not think of starting a business unless I was its first customer. All it takes to launch a business in which you are the first customer is to find a second customer and sell him the product.”

Although Banana Republic eventually was sold to The Gap, the early days were a study in building one step at a time.

Ziegler was a writer who, with his artist wife Patricia, began importing casual clothing which they originally sold at flea markets. As their inventory and customer base grew, they moved into a store front in Mill Valley, CA which they decorated to create the image of a jungle trading post.

Before their demise as  a mail order company, Mel  and Patricia Ziegler’s Banana Republic catalog produced some of the snappiest ad copy around.

Banana Republic didn’t just sell clothes: they sold adventure. The most prosaic items took on a new dimension when the Zieglers described them.

Since you can no longer acquire their catalog, here’s a glimpse of the magic.

Cover of the 1985 Holiday Catalog

Gifts for myriad and sundry dreamers, adventurers, lunatics, mavens, explorers, wordsmiths, pundits, rebels, divas, visionaries, adversaries, newshawks, unnamed sources, mysterious strangers, dilettantes, debutantes, seers, dears, moms, dads, or for that matter any character on your list who has better things to think about than clothes but, nonetheless, would like something as unique and authentic as he or she is.

Freelance Briefcase

Though chronically out of work, freelancers nonetheless wish to appear employable, and there’s nothing like a briefcase for conveying the message. Still, a hardshelled encumbrance would seriously undermine one’s spontaneity.

Like freelancers themselves,our Freelance Briefcase works when it has to and plays when it doesn’t. It’s multiple compartments can conceal files, pencils, tape recorder; but when the assignment’s done, they issue forth granola bars, paperback mysteries, even a pair of actual briefs (for the extemporaneous overnighter).

An office-on-a-strap for those who believe that imagination opens more doors than a manicured resume.

Women’s Outback Pants

Dashing, loose-fitting pants in which Matlida could waltz, wrestle a wallaby or brew black billy tea beside a billabong. Whatever the occasions, she’d find six compartments for necessary sundries—enough to make any marsupial faint from pocket-envy.

The Ziegler’s went on to co-found The Republic of Tea with a young entrepreneur named Bill Rosenzweig. They wrote a marvelous book about that business adventure called The Republic of Tea: How an Idea Becomes a Business.

If you can track down a copy of that book, you’ll find one of the smartest stories written about the adventure of starting a business.



7 Responses to “Model Travelers”

  1. Annie

    Hi Barbara – what a great trip down memory lane — I LOVED the B.R. catalogs. The entrepreneurship lesson also reminds me of Penelope Trunk’s post today and John Warrilow’s upcoming book). Read her, clicked over to his interview, read you, now thinking about what start-up I want to create. Love your posts — thanks so much!

  2. Barbara Winter

    Welcome back, Annie. I believe we got the problem fixed here.

    I saw Penelope’s post today, too. And I am so sorry I didn’t save more Banana Republic catalogs. They were such fun to read. I once bought a terrific dress from them because they promised it would keep me warm when the mistral was blowing!

  3. Nancy

    After all my years as a travel writer, how could I not have known about these beautiful Banana Republic catalogs!? Thanks for this post, Barbara!

  4. Emmanuel Lopez-Motivatorman

    Thanks Barbara for these insights on the founders of Banana Republic. I loved their clothes for years and yet didn’t know their origins. I love going to the outlet in Las Vegas rather than shop here in Toronto Canada. It’s more of a fun adventure for me!

  5. Janet

    I loved those catalogs too! I wish I had saved a couple. Also, I lived in Mill Valley and loved to wander around the store on my lunch break, although I couldn’t afford the clothes on my measly salary. Great advice from the Zieglers, and I’ll look for their book. Thank you for this post- I had no idea they had started Republic of Tea.

  6. Dan

    I was in a Dale Carnegie class couple of years ago and they ask the class–who uses the product they sell? Less than half including myself raised our hands.

    Mel Ziegler had it right and I agree.

  7. Barbara Winter

    Wow, Dan, that’s shocking. I can’t imagine selling something I wasn’t using and wild about myself.

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