Banana Republic’s “Now Voyager” Moment

Banana Republic puts an updated spin on its travel and safari-infused past

We are seeing the highest inflation rate in four decades, and most women cannot or simply don’t want to spend a fortune on clothing. Where do you go for well-priced, good-looking sportswear basics that can form part of a daily uniform?

Captain’s Blazer, $198, Light Wash Jeans, $130

Time was, J. Crew filled the gap between the high and very low end but no longer. They have tried to rebrand themselves again and again unsuccessfully. The Gap is only a good place to search for shorts, jeans, and t-shirts, and forget about Old Navy unless it’s cheap sweats you’re after. Zara is inexpensive but often too trend-driven. Enter Banana Republic,

The cover of Banana Republic Catalog no 19 was drawn by Patricia Ziegler and pictures herself and her husband Mel Courtesy Right: Mel and Patricia Ziegler

In 1968, Yves Saint Laurent made safari jackets chic; suddenly, khaki looked good again. Ten years later, Banana Republic began selling safari-themed travel clothing inspired by the worldwide journeys of husband-and-wife founders Patricia and Mel Ziegler. The couple, a journalist and illustrator by trade, realized the importance of storytelling as part of their clothing line, hand drawing the original catalogs and telling tales befitting the adventure theme.

Left: Banana Republic Catalogue 1982 Right: the Banana Republic Now

Their safari-themed boutiques, which sold refashioned military surplus, offered a new concept in retail. There were zebra stripes on the door, elephant tusk door handles, 17-foot fiberglass giraffes, army jeeps, and palm fronds swaying overhead. Banana rode the brief adventurous safari fashion trend that was elevated by movies such as “Indiana Jones,” “Out of Africa,” and “Romancing the Stone .” For a while, it was “cool” and considered a “weirdly wonderful safari brand,” according to a profile in Adweek, but it did not last forever.

Gap, Inc. acquired the Banana Republic in 1983, and by 1988 the Zieglers lost creative control, eventually rebranding it as an accessible mass luxury retailer selling “blah” clothing. They got so far away from the original brand premise that they lost their way. Fast forward to September 2021.

Dolman Cotton Tunic, $80, Trench, $270, Cream Cotton Barrel Pants, $130,

Under the watchful eye of Chief Brand Officer Ana Andjelic, who joined 7 months earlier, BR reintroduced its new brand identity, winking at its heritage while reinventing itself for today’s modern world.

Meridien Linen Top, $100, Wide Legged Pants, $98

Inspired by its roots, the long-struggling, 43-year-old retailer put an updated spin on its travel and safari-infused past, reworking it to incorporate a vintage feel with modern detail. As part of the repositioning, they launched an “Imagined Worlds” campaign, reflecting the brand as it was originally conceived — a fictitious, faraway, and unknown place to be explored.

Heritage Suede Utility Blazer, $600,

The retailer’s fall 2021 campaign, called “The New Look,” focused on leather, suede, and haircalf, reworked in the form of the brand’s iconic photojournalist vest, cargo pants, and modernized leather jumpsuits, shirt jackets, moto jackets, and suede shorts-and-blazer separates.

Black Leather Jumpsuit, $1200, Leather Moto Boots, $130

These surprisingly upscale pieces, $500 – $1500, can be found in the “Heritage” category on the BR website. The two most expensive pieces in the collection are the black leather jumpsuit, $1200, and the zebra-printed Amelia hair calf jacket, $1500.

Heritage Cashmere Sweater, $250, Tapered Cargo Pant $120, Haircalf Loafers, $84.97 Photo:

The bulk of the line, made of cotton, denim, silk, wool, cashmere, and other fibers, is in the more affordable $100 – $500. One can easily put together a relaxed suit look for about $450. The company is establishing its green credentials by offering a range of sustainably sourced clothing, again a nod to its origins in recycled and up-cycled fashion.

BR Athletics

Capitalizing on the renewed affinity for the collegiate, preppy look, “BR Athletics” focuses on sporty country club separates with an emphasis on gender-inclusive design. In addition to abbreviated pleated tennis skirts and polo dresses, there are gender-neutral striped button-downs, club jackets, clubhouse blazers, pleated shorts, and varsity sweaters. It’s hard not to notice the old-school Ralph Lauren/Tommy Hilfiger vibe.

Halter Sweater Dress, $140,

There is a section devoted to “Weddings & Events. While one does not go to BR for special occasion wear, and it’s not their strong suit, like anything else, if you look, you will find tailored options, such as a white tuxedo jacket and matching trousers, satin halters, and slip dresses both short and long, sunburst pleated maxi dresses and maxi skirts, wide-legged pants in silk and linen, and numerous variations on the LBD. This one, in black technical viscose, is chic in its simplicity.

Olive Wool Riding Jacket, $230, Portrait Neck Sweater, $17.00

There’s no question that BR fares best when they keep it classic and straightforward and focus on what they do best: military and riding jackets, belted safari jackets, cargo pants and shorts, crisp shirts and shirt dresses, leather and suede outerwear, slouchy travel bags. Let others go crazy with color. I say, keep it chicly neutral. Forget the ditsy prints. Focus instead on timeless animal patterns like zebra, pony, and leopard, which work well with desert neutrals.

A refined take on Heritage Classics

Their functional expedition wear is all the better if it’s done in an urbane and sophisticated way. Capitalize on the spirit of adventure instead of making safari too literal. How many multi-pocketed vests does a gal need? I don’t know any woman who wants to look like Indiana Jones.

Black Leather Moto Jacket, $600. , Wide Legged Wool Pants, $58

It remains to be seen whether using nostalgia to reignite growth provides a long-term solution for the Banana Republic – or if they can be “cool” again. A large part is how unique and authentic they were at the beginning. You can’t revive the past and bring back the quirkiness, but the “new” BR is definitely an improvement over recent years. With its emphasis on travel, home, and comfort, it is in keeping with the current zeitgeist.

The models’ casting and styling are generally good (especially in their ad campaigns and on Instagram). Still, there is room for improvement: remove some hats and the needless accessories. Moreover, there is just too much unnecessary merchandise, and more editing must be done.

Through the years, BR has undergone myriad transformations and had its share of creative directors, all fruitlessly hoping to remake the company as a “fashion” brand. Maybe that’s part of the problem.

Instead of striving to be trend-driven and fashionable, they should heed Co-Founder Mel Ziegler’s observation regarding what made their brand work: “We sold things we loved to wear. Clothes that were really well made and really oblivious to fashion.“

Latest comments…

  1. I LOVE Haider Ackerman Thank you Haider. The clothes are sleek, wearable, with just the right touch of newness. Chic!…

  2. I am in love with every out your featured. I want them all! My favorite..Joseph and Ralph. Libertinecis a treasure.…

Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

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