An Empire Built on Short-Armed Shirts

Mel: If you took 1,500 one-dollar bills and laid them end to end, they would stretch all of 750 feet, only three-quarters of the way down a crosstown block in Manhattan. We had to stretch those dollars into a lifetime free of ever having to work for anyone other than ourselves again.

I was a writer in my early 30s, and Patricia, several years younger, an artist. Newly in love, not wanting to be apart for a second, we itched to travel and see the world. We had met at the San Francisco Chronicle, where I worked as a reporter and Patricia as an illustrator and courtroom artist.

Patricia: One day I came home from work and shot Mel a playful I’ve-got-something-to-tell-you look.

“Guess what?” I could not wait to tell him. “I just quit!”

“No!” he replied. “I was going to surprise you -- so did I.”

We downsized, moving from our two-floor San Francisco apartment on Russian Hill to a two-bedroom house off Highway 1 in Mill Valley. Magazine stories paid well but were irregular. Indian summer gave way to a cold, rainy winter. We were barely making the rent.

Mel came home from the library one afternoon with a copy of Napoleon Hill’s “Think and Grow Rich” and tossed it to me.

The book prompted three basic questions: How much money do I want to make? How long do I give myself to make it? How will I make it?

We wrote down our answers separately and compared them. We had both scribbled “a million” and “five years.” Then we each looked at what the other had jotted down as an answer to the “how” question. Again, the same: “start a business.”

Sydney Surprise

Mel: One day toward the end of a trip to Australia on a magazine assignment, I wandered off into the backstreets of Sydney and stumbled onto a “disposal store,” which is what Australians call their surplus stores. One item caught my fancy: a British Burma jacket. Made of thick, soft khaki cotton twill, it looked like a safari jacket and had the tailored feeling of a fine garment. I had to have it, if only to wear it when I landed in San Francisco the next day.

Patricia: He looked great. How perfect the color, the raised lines of twill, the slightly worn collar and cuffs. The jacket said, with panache, close to everything that I, and the friends I admired, valued in life: character, adventure, heritage and independence. However, I thought it could use some new buttons.

I added suede elbow patches and leather trim on the cuffs and collar, and swapped the metal military buttons for wooden ones.

Mel: Everywhere I went, people stopped me.

“What a great jacket!”

“Where did you get that fabulous jacket?”

“Excuse me, do you mind if I ask you where you bought your jacket?”

Here was the business we’d been looking for.

Between us, we had $1,500 in our bank accounts. We would use it to start a company that would sell jackets like the British Burma jacket and anything else like it we could find. Therein lay our full and complete business plan.

“What should we name it?” Patricia asked.

“Banana Republic” popped into my head.

The name was the easy part.

We knew nothing about retail, nothing about mail order, manufacturing, surplus, finance, nothing about management. I began making phone calls. I learned that one of the top six military surplus jobbers in the U.S. was right over the bridge in Oakland.

Surplus Shopping

So much stuff was packed into bins and piles that it was difficult to get a good look at what anything was. I asked the jobber, Zimm, about British Burma jackets. He had seen them but didn’t have any. Instead he pointed out piles of used combat boots, bales of new-issue nonwrinkle polyester shirts, woolen U.S. Army mittens, fatigue caps, plastic tarps, rope, mosquito netting. Each time, we nodded and moved on.

We then came upon a huge pile of khaki shirts.

“What are these?” Patricia asked.

We haggled, settled at $1.50 each and brought the shirts home to wash.

That night, at a dinner at our house, our friend Herbert returned from a visit to the downstairs bathroom, which was near the washing machine, presenting, as a matador might hold up a cape, one of the shirts.

“I want one,” he said. “How much?”

The words “Take it, Herb, it’s yours,” were about to come off my lips when Patricia interjected:

“Six fifty.”

But he’s our friend, my eyes pleaded across the table.

“Plus tax,” she added sweetly. Banana Republic was born.

We were all smiling until Herb slipped his arms into the sleeves. The cuffs fell well above his wrists. Patricia ran downstairs to get him another, but the sleeves on that shirt were also too short. So this is why the Spaniards had declared them surplus, I thought.

By this point, nothing was going to deter Patricia.

“Nobody would think of keeping the sleeves on a shirt like this rolled down, Herb,” she said with an almost scary authority, rolling them up for him. Herb caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. “Fabulous!” he declared.

Six miles from San Francisco, off the 101 freeway, is Marin City, where every week a huge, dusty lot was transformed into a thriving flea market. Sunday morning, off we went, sign in hand:

“Short-Armed Spanish Paratrooper Shirts $6.50”

By the end of the day, we had sold barely enough to pay the $30 booth fee.

“We need to double the price,” Patricia said. “The shirts are too cheap. People can’t appreciate the value.”

The next Sunday, she herself wore a Spanish paratrooper shirt belted at the waist with tight jeans and heels. Same table, same spot, same everything except the sign, which now read:

“Short-Armed Spanish Paratrooper Shirts $12.95”

We sold more than 100 shirts. One hundred and two to be exact. Times 12.95.

With more than $1,000 in the bank, Banana Republic needed a store.

(Mel Ziegler and Patricia Ziegler are the founders of Banana Republic and the Republic of Tea. This is the first in a series of three excerpts from their new book, “Wild Company: The Untold Story of Banana Republic,” which will be published Oct. 2 by Simon & Schuster. The opinions expressed are their own. Read Part 2 and Part 3.)

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    Mel Ziegler

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