Age: 69; 65
Location: Mill Valley, CA
The two of you started Banana Republic in 1978, back when it sold military surplus exclusively. What’s the story of its birth?
Mel Ziegler: We started the business with $1,500 in combined savings and an American Express card—that was it. We had no capital, no contacts, no experience.
Patricia Ziegler: At the time we had both just quit working for the San Francisco Chronicle, and we were beginning to worry about the rent when Mel was sent to Australia on a magazine assignment. Three weeks later he came home wearing this British Burma jacket. He looked fine, but the jacket looked really good. After I put on new buttons and elbow patches, it simply screamed character and adventure. He wore it everywhere, and everyone commented on it. So that’s where we got the idea to sell military surplus safari-style pieces.
The warehouse of one of the biggest surplus dealers turned out to be right across the bay from us in Oakland. There we found 500 beautiful Spanish paratrooper shirts, Banana’s first pieces. We bought all of them. We spent the whole $1,500 on these shirts that we later discovered all had too-short sleeves.
Despite the early setbacks, the company eventually became so successful that The Gap, Inc. bought it in 1983; you left five years later. Are the Banana Republics we see now at all similar to the original ones?
MZ: To us, Banana was never about fashion . . . which is the irony, because now it’s a $2.6 billion international fashion company.
It used to be that every Banana store was one of a kind. Every garment was designed by Patricia. Every catalog was written and illustrated by us at our kitchen table. Then, as we grew, we hired writers and artists and people who had never worked for a commercial venture before in their life—otherwise unemployable people, like us.
We didn’t start Banana to make money. We did it to be free, to be able to do whatever we wanted to do, to be whoever we wanted to be, to go wherever we wanted to go. But when it became part of a publicly traded company, it became too much about “How many pennies per share are you going to add to The Gap’s earnings this quarter?”
It all worked out in the end, but it was risky to have spent your entire savings on those paratrooper shirts. Weren’t you terrified that it wasn’t going to work out?
MZ: Failure was never an option. When you put everything on the line, you find a way to make it work: that was the strongest business lesson we learned.
I mean, I’m a writer, and Patricia is an artist. We had no business background at all. So we learned by doing.Everything we do, we just do it, and we learn how to along the way. It’s exhilarating; you’re never in there as an expert, never in there with a fixed mind about how things should be. You’re always in the process of invention and imagination, looking at things as they truly are and reacting to them.
It sounds like you’ve been consciously cultivating beginner’s mind. When were you introduced to Buddhism?
MZ: It was after we sold Banana to The Gap. It was like emerging from a long tunnel; during the ten years that we ran Banana, we never did anything but work. And at the end of it we were finally free in the way that we wanted to be, and the question everyone was throwing at us was “What’s next?” We didn’t want to think about “what’s next”! I had been living my entire life until that moment to succeed and achieve and succeed and achieve, and I wanted to get off that train.
We had a friend, who later became a Buddhist teacher, who advised us, “Don’t do anything. Just let it go to nothing.” So with that I went on a ten-day retreat with Jack Kornfield. I thought I was going to hang out and write and read my books, but the first thing Jack said was, “Here are the rules: no reading, no writing, no talking, just sit.” I was stunned.
I was a heavy coffee drinker, and this retreat only had herbal tea. By the second day I was suffering from the worst headache of my life. “If coffee is doing this to me,” I thought, “I never want to drink another cup of coffee again.” And out of that came the inspiration to launch The Republic of Tea, which we did several years later.
What are the two of you up to now?
PZ: We’ve invested in a friend’s company that we all cooked up together: Slow Food for Fast Lives. The mission is: Can you stop for a moment in the middle of your busy life and truly taste what you’re eating, and have that be real, healthy food, even if it’s in a package in your pocket? We’ve come up with savory energy bars that are made with vegetables, nuts, grains, and legumes.
Still entrepreneurs, I see! I have to admit that I, and maybe some of our readers, hold the perhaps unfair view that spirituality and business are not compatible. Can you surprise me?
MZ: Right livelihood, before we had ever even heard the term, is what drove us from day one. It’s one of the reasons Buddhism is so resonant with us. When we started out we said “no” to a lot of what we saw in the world. “That’s not going to be fulfillment if we go down that path.” And that forced us to create our own life. But anyone can do that; I truly believe that anyone can create their own happiness. Obviously there are objective circumstances that you have to deal with, and sometimes those are tough, but even in the most unimaginable of places I believe that people can bring light and change by their very presence.
The ideas of Taoism also strongly appeal to me, and in Taoism there’s light and dark; inspiration and expiration; construction and destruction; and it all works together. It’s all part of the fun of being alive. Yes, it’s about suffering, but it’s also about fun, you know, when you’re not suffering!
PZ: So much of suffering is just ourselves getting in the way. The spiral of the self holds us back and blinds us. When we’re only looking at ourselves and our own problems, we aren’t really here. Mel likes to say, “Be present, not tense.” Actually, a version of that—“Eat Present, Not Tense”—is the slogan of our new business.
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