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“Wild Company: The Untold Story of Banana Republic”

by Mel and Patria Ziegler

Simon & Schuster, 208 pp., $25

Today, Banana Republic stores are fixtures in shopping malls across America — meccas of office-appropriate trousers and pencil skirts. But in 1978, there was only one Banana Republic shop, located in Mill Valley, Calif. It had two employees, its husband-and-wife founders. The store was unheated, and some days most of its foot traffic came from aikido students using it as a hallway to get to the martial arts school upstairs. Banana Republic’s shelves were full of military surplus clothing that had been cinched and restyled to have an air of hipster cool.

“Wild Company,” a memoir by the store’s founders, Mel and Patricia Ziegler, tells how two former journalists with no business experience parlayed a homespun idea for safari-inspired clothing into a multibillion-dollar business. Even though the reader knows the venture will ultimately end in success, the Zieglers’ account of the early days is still absorbing because it is so hard to imagine how they will climb out of some major financial and conceptual holes. After spending half their capital on 500 Spanish paratrooper shirts, how would they ever sell them if the sleeves were too short?

As the Zieglers tell it, their business eventually thrived because of their unique partnership: Patricia, a former courtroom illustrator, had a knack for styling merchandise and creating the Banana Republic aesthetic. Mel was the strategist. A former reporter, he also wrote the whimsical copy for their catalog, a key driver of sales.

The one unsatisfying section of the book is its denouement: The Zieglers quit Banana Republic in 1988 after a clash with corporate overlords at Gap, the retail titan that had purchased the chain five years earlier. The couple put a positive, professional sheen on it, but readers have to wonder if they were truly at peace with the decision to leave a business that had clearly been so personal for them.