Before Banana Republic became a 600-store global retail sensation, founders Mel and Patricia Ziegler were sewing shirts and stapling catalogs on their kitchen table.

The couple spoke about the lessons they learned from starting the successful safari-themed clothing company, which they eventually sold to The Gap, at a recent event held at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism.

Inspiration for the store came from surplus World War II clothing they found in Australia. "I bought an old British Burma jacket that looked more like a safari jacket," says Mel. "Patricia added trim, and people began to notice. We extrapolated that idea to say there must be other pedigreed items out there to sell."

The Ziegler's eventually fell back on their journalistic roots to design and market these vintage products. The couple had been employed at the San Francisco Chronicle, which they both left on the same day to pursue their clothing dreams.

"These items were being sold in surplus, but we added value with a story," says Patricia. "This made them appealing and relevant."

Eventually, their business grew larger than their hand-stapled catalogs could keep up with. Opening a physical store posed just as many new problems as it solved.

"We found a small hole-in-the-wall store in [California's] Mill Valley," says Patricia. "I was in that store every day hoping people would get lost and wander in, taking every phone call--even if it was a wrong number."

What sparked a new wave of growth? Again, their literary roots carried them to success. "What saved us was the press we got," says Patricia. "People saw the story and fell in love with the metaphors the clothes represented."

And in spite of their humble beginnings--the couple had taken nary a business class and held just $1,500 in the bank when they launched--they grew the company into a chain with $250 million in annual sales. In 1983, after just five years of ownership, the Zieglers sold the company to The Gap for an undisclosed sum.

The key to their success? "Be your own customer," says Patricia. "You can't be wrong when your instinct tells you what to do. Creativity and the customer were the most important things."

In 2012, the couple wrote a book detailing the birth of their company. Wild Company: The Untold Story of Banana Republic is available form Simon and Schuster publishers.

Published on: Sep 22, 2014