Lo­cal His­tory: NEPA na­tive launched Ba­nana Repub­lic

The Citizens' Voice - - NEWS - ERIN NISSLEY Lo­cal His­tory

It all started with some Army sur­plus shirts.

As a busy re­porter who got his start as a copy boy for the Scran­to­nian-tri­bune in the 1960s, North­east Penn­syl­va­nia na­tive Mel Ziegler of­ten donned the sim­ple, cheap sur­plus shirts smartly al­tered by his wife, Pat, ac­cord­ing to a May 4, 1986, Scran­to­nian ar­ti­cle. After peo­ple started ask­ing where he bought them, Ba­nana Repub­lic was born.

Mel Ziegler grad­u­ated from Scran­ton’s Cen­tral High School in 1963, al­though many news sto­ries about him over the decades list him as a Car­bon­dale na­tive. He worked for a time at The Tri­bune and the Scran­to­nian be­fore en­rolling at Penn State. While a stu­dent there, he won sev­eral Wil­liam Ran­dolph Hearst Foun­da­tion awards for ex­cel­lence in jour­nal­ism. He con­tin­ued his ed­u­ca­tion at Columbia Jour­nal­ism School.

He even­tu­ally made his way to Cal­i­for­nia, where he worked at the San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle. He also penned the preface to “Amen: The Di­ary of Rabbi Marin Siegel,” and cre­ated a na­tional tele­vi­sion show called “The Tip­sters.”

The five-times-a-week show fea­tured “imag­i­na­tively dra­ma­tized tips … from such wor­thy and savvy sorts as the le­gal ea­gle, the in­side man, the work­ing mother, the doc­tor, the teenager, the con­nois­seur, the psy­chol­o­gist, the vet­eri­nar­ian, the fash­ion ed­i­tor and the re­cy­col­o­gist,” an Oct. 3, 1977, Scran­to­nian ar­ti­cle re­ported.

The Zieglers opened their first Ba­nana Repub­lic store in the San Fran­cisco sub­urb of Mill City, Cal­i­for­nia, in 1978. They trav­eled the world look­ing for in­ter­est­ing fab­rics and cloth­ing, start­ing out with “a cache of old Span­ish para­trooper shirts that were used in the Fran­cisco Franco era,” ac­cord­ing to an un­dated Chris­tian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor ar­ti­cle about the cou­ple.

“We thought we were re­ally clever,” Mel Ziegler told the pub­li­ca­tion about the buy. But when the shirts ar­rived, they re­al­ized “the sleeves were an inch or two short.”

They im­pro­vised. Pa­tri­cia Ziegler sug­gested the sleeves be rolled up as a fash­ion state­ment and her hus­band drew on his writ­ing skills to weave a story about “Franco’s ma­ni­a­cal per­se­cu­tion of long-armed Spaniards,” the Chris­tian Sci­ence Mon­i­tor re­ported. “They sold out al­most im­me­di­ately.”

The Zieglers sold Ba­nana Repub­lic to The Gap Inc. in 1983, who then opened lo­ca­tions all over the coun­try. To­day, there are more than 700 Ba­nana Repub­lic stores around the world.

After the sale, “the Zieglers stayed on and re­tain cre­ative au­ton­omy for the cloth­ing, mer­chan­dis­ing and cat­a­logue,” ac­cord­ing to a May 4, 1986, Scran­to­nian ar­ti­cle. Mel Ziegler over­saw and wrote copy for the wildly pop­u­lar cat­a­logue, and Pat Ziegler con­tin­ued to de­sign clothes for Ba­nana Repub­lic, draw­ing in­spi­ra­tion from tra­di­tional cloth­ing around the world.

At one time, stores also fea­tured travel book­stores and the brand main­tained a toll­free num­ber where re­searchers would an­swer ques­tions about travel des­ti­na­tions any­where in the world. The cou­ple trav­eled widely and even launched a quar­terly mag­a­zine called “Trips,” which fea­tured travel ar­ti­cles and was closely linked to the Ba­nana Repub­lic brand. The mag­a­zine was short lived. The Zieglers them­selves parted ways with Gap in the late 1980s.

Soon after, the Zieglers also launched Repub­lic of Tea, which they sold in 1994. The Zieglers have writ­ten two books about their lives, “Wild Com­pany — The Un­told Story of Ba­nana Repub­lic” and “The Repub­lic of Tea: How an Idea Be­comes a Busi­ness.”

While he moved away at a fairly young age, Mel Ziegler’s fam­ily resided in Scran­ton for decades, ac­cord­ing to a Feb. 26, 1984, Scran­to­nian ar­ti­cle. His mother, Har­riet Feibus Ziegler, moved to Flor­ida in 1981, after the death of her hus­band, that ar­ti­cle re­ported.

ERIN L. NISSLEY is an as­sis­tant metro ed­i­tor at The TimesTri­bune. She’s lived in the area for more than a decade. Con­tact her at lo­cal­his­[email protected] timessham­rock.com.


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