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Wednesday
Nov282012

THE MEL ZIEGLER STORY

The Story
Behind the Story
of the Banana Republic
Story
 
More than Just a Book Review

 

By Lew Marcus
NEPAtoday Magazine Editor

 

Often times, earth-changing events come from the most unlikely of sources. The wholeNEPAtoday Magazine Editor LEW MARCUS nature of retail merchandising changed at the hands of someone who grew up in Scranton never, ever, thinking of a career in retail, fashion, merchandising and mail order. For Scranton native Mel Ziegler, life was all about journalism and international travel. That was his destiny -- that is until he developed a most unusual business: Banana Republic.

   Like many Scranton friendships, it is hard to recall how we met. We were a grade apart in school so it wasn't in class. We both attended the same synagogue. But so did a couple hundred other kids. Maybe it was because we both liked to wear button-down oxford shirts and khaki trousers. Maybe it was because we both had cottages at Chapman's Lake, our oasis for the summers. Maybe it was because we were frequent shoppers at Quint's Army & Navy. Maybe it was because we were in the same Boy Scout troop. Maybe it was we both wanted to be journalists -- only I didn't know that until Mel graduated from Penn State and went off to Columbia for his master's degree.

   I found out we had the same career path when it came time to pick my undergraduate thesis. I was so pleased with myself when I decided to do an analysis of newspaper trends in my hometown which had been bucking the trend in newspapers across the country moving to monopoly situations. Here was MEL & PATRICIA ZIEGLER in the daysleepy little Scranton with two fiercely competing rival newspapers. Why? That was the work for my thesis. I was so puffed up with myself because it was such a hot topic. That is, until I discovered that Mel was also at Penn State and that he just filed his undergraduate thesis. Typical of Mel in doing things bigger than life, he motored down to New Orleans and interviewed District Attorney Jim Garrison for a thesis on the conspiracy theory surrounding the assassination of President Kennedy. I would be putting an inside media analysis on a shelf in the Carnegie Library to gather dust while Mel was making headlines for his sensational findings.

   So I thought I was a hot shot when I finally landed that dream job I had wanted as editor of Boston After Dark, New England's still popular alternative newspaper. Well, Mel had landed his dream job of working for The Miami Herald's Sunday magazine, which sent him all around the world, his dream assignment. Burned out in Boston, I came home for a few months to recuperate before joining friends in San Francisco, where we planned to replicate our success in Boston out west. Before I even unpacked, I discovered that Mel had left Florida and was now on staff at the San Francisco Chronicle.

   I never got to San Francisco, except for a number of vacations, and Mel never found it to be his dream job. As a matter of fact he and his wife, Patricia, an illustrator for the newspaper, quit on the same day, unbeknownst to each other. Their dream jobs had become nightmares. So, as the song goes, what was a poor boy supposed to do?

   The answer was all related in a book that arrived at my house last month from Simon & Schuster. No note. No card. No letter. But I knew who sent it to me, anyway. Inside the package was a copy of "Wild Company. The Untold Story of Banana Republic by Mel and Patricia Ziegler, Founders of Banana Republic." In 208 pages, Mel and Patricia ran alternating versions of how it came that two journalists would throw the fashion and retailing world on its head.

   When my adult children complain to me how hard it is to make a living in this day and age, I sympathize with them. It doesn't make them feel any better when I explain that in my day life was so rich and full of promise that anywhere you put a seed into the ground a tree would grow. For Mel and Patricia, Banana Republic was that seed in fertile ground. The book is a message to the youth of today --including their own children-- that thinking out of the box can very often lead to great success. It worked for them. It surely worked for Apple and Facebook and Google, all violators of the "way things are supposed to be."

THE MILL VALLEY STORY at the beginning   I'll let Mel and Patricia tell you that incredible story that is exclusively theirs in their book. It is an amazing tale that I witnessed unfolding right before my eyes. I had a privileged seat on the ride because not only did I get to catch up on the Mel Ziegler Story every year at the lake with his annual visit, but I also bumped into his brother, Alan, on his regular visits to Chapman's Lake. Loved their catalog. Loved it even more because it was so unusual and literary. What else would you expect from Mel.

   Luck would have it during one of my trips to San Francisco, I was actually in their sleepy little inaugural store in Mill Valley before I knew they opened the store. I stumbled upon it by accident looking for a T-shirt shop while caretaking a little ranch for friends in San Rafael. And after they were purchased by The Gap  we saw the changes for the worse happening when we'd visit the stores in Washington and New York.

MEL with GAP FOUNDER DON FISHER   Mel and Patricia walked away from The Gap and their "big business" way of running business. The irony is that the owner of The Gap had been charmed by Mel and Patricia's unique and different way of doing business. The whole purpose of the acquisition had been to give the Ziegler's more tools to expand their vision, not to conform to business the way it always had been. The subtextual lesson in the book is that freedom comes with a high cost. The Zieglers traded their business for the money to travel to their hearts' content looking for that great adventure over the next hill and the next great piece of clothing. In selling their dream, they lost it.

   They went on to found two more companies -- one a success that is no longer theirsMEL & PATRICIA's SECOND BIG BUSINESS and another that was a promise that imploded with a crashing economy. But we can't feel sorry for Mel and Patricia. They traveled their world. They traveled to the farthest reaches of their imagination. They indelibly stamped their mark on business. They created a legend. And they got to do this all living in the hills of Northern California, where the sea crashes into the shore.