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Banana Republic rising: Remembering the store’s safari years

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By, Peter Hartlaub, San Francisco Chronicle

I spent many hours in the safari-themed Banana Republic, born in Mill Valley in 1978, brought to prominence near San Francisco’s Union Square and eventually spread to malls across the state. Even as it expanded, somehow the distinct you’re-on-an-expedition-with-Indiana Jones vibe remained throughout most of the 1980s. With its palm fronds, mosquito net canopies and real military jeeps bursting into the walkway of your local mall, it was like someone dropped a Disneyland ride in the middle of the retail sameness of suburbia.

So why does it all feel like a dream?

This week’s Let’s Go to the Morgue! photo archive search is a tribute to the original Banana Republic, which couldn’t possible look less like the current incarnation. I’m not slamming the current incarnation — clearly the rebranding was a sound financial move. I’m wearing a BR slim fit stretch poplin dress shirt as I type these words. But it’s like the cable network that has completely altered its lineup to small children swigging coke and talking back to their mother, but still keeping calling itself The Learning Channel. Young people must be so confused.

A few more thoughts below Franklin Mieuli in a pith helmet …

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Photo: Eric Luse/The Chronicle 1981

One of the joys of digging around the Chronicle photo morgue is finding little surprises, like Warriors owner Mieuli (with Washington Square Bar and Grill co-owner Sam Deitsch) randomly showing up clad in expedition wear for the San Francisco Chronicle’s 1981 Banana Republic photo shoot.

My mind was further blown when I learned that Banana Republic founders Patricia and Mel Ziegler had worked for the Chronicle. I even located Ziegler’s 1974 press pass photo, which like all press pass photos of that era looks exactly like Dustin Hoffman in “All the President’s Men.” The Ziegler’s were recently profiled in this Chronicle Style section article. And they wrote a book about the Banana Republic years, “Wild Company: The Untold Story of Banana Republic” ($25, Simon & Schuster, 208 pages).

I’m not going to aim my spears of cultural criticism at the late Donald Fisher or anyone else responsible for jettisoning the original ideals of the company. Financially, the 1989 rebranding from expedition wear to trendier upscale clothing was a huge success.

I do feel sympathy for the Zieglers, who must drive by seven Banana Republics a day, knowing that nobody under the age of 35 understands what the company was like when they built it. It was a blast of adventure between the Miller’s Outposts, Chess Kings and Sam Goodys. It was a good place to buy a leather bomber jacket. The catalog was one of the more entertaining reads at the time. (Banana Republic was selling its jackets and dresses with swashbuckling Mel Ziegler-written blurbs long before J. Peterman.)

Photos courtesy Mel and Patricia Ziegler

Images courtesy Mel and Patricia Ziegler (2012 photo)

My safari-themed Banana Republic of choice was the Hillsdale Mall in San Mateo, although I mostly browsed. I bought T-shirts with safari animals on them, an Israeli paratrooper briefcase and maybe a pair of khakis. Along with the jeep, I’m pretty sure they also had a fog machine.

One conflicted Banana Republic memory comes in 1991 or so, when I was an editor for the college newspaper Mustang Daily at Cal Poly. One of our ad execs, who we’ll call “Amy,” was about to graduate, and landed a job as an assistant manager at the Hillsdale Banana Republic. She somehow got this job without seeing the store, and was desperate for information. Our conversation went something like this:

Amy: “You know about Banana Republic in Hillsdale? Is it a nice store?”

Peter: “You’re so lucky! It’s the coolest store in the mall. It’s not one of those faceless clothing stores. It has a rad safari theme and a jeep coming through the front of the store.”

Amy: “Oh my God, that’s such a relief! I thought it was going to be someplace boring.”

This is the type of misunderstanding that happened a lot before the internet. I felt really bad when I returned from school the following summer and discovered the old Banana Republic was replaced by something that looked exactly like the Macy’s activewear section.

One last note: I’m fully aware that I didn’t include a photo of a Banana Republic jeep, which is like running a Haight Street retrospective without any hippies. If you have a photo of a Banana Republic store jeep that you’re legally entitled to share, please send it my way at phartlaub@sfchronicle.com.

Looking forward to you Banana Republic memories in the comments.

PETER HARTLAUB is the pop culture critic at the San Francisco Chronicle and founder/editor of The Big Event. He takes requests. Contact him at phartlaub@sfchronicle.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeterHartlaub. Follow The Big Event on Facebook.

Photo: Chris Stewart/The Chronicle 1984

Photo: Chris Stewart/The Chronicle 1984

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Photo: Eric Luse/The Chronicle 1981

Categories: General
phartlaub@sfchronicle.com (Peter Hartlaub)

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