Local History: NEPA native launched Banana Republic
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.