$1,500 and a Dream: The Banana Republic Story

Colleen Oakley

banana republicIt’s the quintessential American concept: Start a business from a simple idea, and then watch it explode into a multimillion-dollar corporation.

Of course, most people who decide to become entrepreneurs have a plan. A little money, perhaps. And maybe some contacts.

Mel and Patricia Ziegler, the couple behind the clothing empire Banana Republic, had none of these things. But, in 1978, they did have a vision. “We were both doused with romantic fantasies of Hemingway and adventure,” says Patricia. “We wanted to figure out how to travel and see the world.”

The Zieglers knew it wouldn’t be possible to travel the globe with the paltry salaries that they made working for the San Francisco Chronicle, so they decided to start a business. They just had no idea what it would be.

When Mel came back from assignment in Australia wearing a safari jacket that he’d bought for $5, it dawned on them—with no fashion or business experience between them, mind you—they’d start a clothing store.

The couple’s journey to success is documented in their new book, “Wild Company: The Untold Story of Banana Republic.” LearnVest sat down with Patricia to find out more about the duo’s unconventional business tale.

LearnVest: You were a courtroom illustrator and Mel was a newspaper reporter. What made you think that you could make and sell clothing?

Patricia Ziegler: We were young and having fun, and we kind of felt like we had nothing to lose. Well, except the $1,500 we had in savings between us! Also, it was the late ’70s—not a great time for fashion. Everything was polyester and disco shiny. We were craving clothing with character.

So you decided to make that clothing yourself, based on Mel’s safari jacket.

Exactly. We went to a surplus store in town and spent most of our savings on these paratrooper shirts that were $1.75 a piece. We figured that I could sew a few elbow patches on them, switch out the buttons and then sell them at a higher price at a flea market. The first weekend we priced them at $6.75, and we sold four or five. It was not good. We knew we needed to do something different. So, the next weekend, I put on some tight jeans and heels, along with one of the shirts. I belted it, rolled up the sleeves and put a sign on the table that said, “Short-armed paratrooper shirts, $12.95.” We just about sold out. It was our first big business lesson about the importance of presentation and perceived value, based on price.

RELATED: 7 Things to Consider Before Starting Your Own Business

  • http://twitter.com/SenseofCents Michelle

    This is a great post! :) Me and my friend are in the planning stages of going into business together.

  • Linda W

    Do they talk about their human rights violations and child labor in their new book?


    • Talia

      You know they don’t own the store any more… it’s owned by Old Navy/ Gap…

    • Kate Gallagher

      They sold it to the bigger brands a while back ago…who are in themselves famous for these issues.

  • Kate Gallagher

    Interesting story too bad it’s not the 70′s anymore otherwise we would probably hear more of these stories. It’s like listening to how major brands got started with just 50 bucks, but 50 bucks in the 20′s was a lot of money so all I learned here is inflation sucks.

    • http://twitter.com/brokeandchic Broke & Chic

      I truly believe you can do anything you set your mind to. Money shouldn’t hold anyone back. If you learn how to code on your own and learn how to be confident, anything is possible!

  • http://twitter.com/brokeandchic Broke & Chic

    This post made me really happy. That’s all there is to say about it.