One of the major challenges facing brands today—especially in America, where many brands seemed to have peaked in the 1990s—is not just how to reach customers, or figure out what they want, but how to regain your cool, if you seem to have lost it. Stussy did it by stealthily perking up their designs. J.Crew is doing it by hiring Brendon Babenzien, founder of the transformational cult brand Noah. The Gap is doing it by hiring literally Kanye West.
And now, the mall stalwart Banana Republic is undergoing its own transformation—a process that begins in earnest Thursday, with the launch of BR Vintage, featuring 260 vintage products from the brand’s ’80s and ’90s golden period. The idea, Ana Andjelic, who joined the brand just four months ago as chief brand officer, is that even if Banana Republic seems a little staid now, it used to be pretty cool. “If any brand dropped this today, it would be super modern,” she said in a Zoom call earlier this week. “It’s better than anything Banana Republic has done in the past ten years. It’s before the Mickey Drexler metrosexual phase,” she said, referring to the retailer who led Banana-owner Gap in the 1990s before taking off to overhaul J.Crew.
The pieces are an intriguing peek into the annals of American fashion, when mid-priced sportswear dominated and a powerful middle class of yuppies was eager to express their well-developed taste. Founded in the late 1970s by Mel and Patricia Ziegler, Banana Republic embodied “that spirit of audacity and aspiration, of adventure, and [combined] it with urban clothes,” said Andjelic, who comes to Banana with experience at it-girl brands Mansur Gavriel and Rebecca Minkoff, and is alarmingly infectious. While safari shirting and dresses—which the Zieglers initially made from upcycled military fabrics—were the pillars, even after it was acquired by Gap, Andjelic is quick to clarify that the company retained its moral center. “They weren’t colonialists. It’s not about an actual safari. It’s about a spirit of adventure, and a spirit of imagined territories,” she explained. There’s a sense of whimsy to the clothes, “in the sense that you dress up almost in a costume.” The workplace was a challenge filled with unknown dangers to conquer. You just needed the right uniform. And Banana Republic’s clothes, Andjelic said, “made you feel bad-ass.”
Thanks, perhaps, to the cyclical nature of fashion, these vintage pieces are almost precisely what a retailer like Banana Republic should be making today: perfectly-draped pleated chinos, cinched-waist safari jackets, big khaki shorts, and printed champ shirts. In addition to the classics, there are more advanced offerings, like a wax cotton duster, and leather and canvas boots, that only a retailer like J. Peterman would be eccentric enough to make today. Andjelic said they worked with the vintage resource Thrilling to track down all the pieces.
Andjelic said in part they were inspired by the response that the brand’s early history elicited on Instagram: “Everytime you post something on Instagram—like a catalogue or a sketch of the old clothes—people go nuts. It’s literally the fabric of these people’s lives.” Still, while vintage brands are all over the platform—is there any brand in American fashion whose early 90s campaign and catalogue images Instagram users haven’t dug up to celebrate?—Banana Republic’s bygone luster is less well-known than that of, say, old Ralph or J.Crew. You have to wonder if that might actually help the turnaround: since there’s some real novelty to the idea of “vintage Banana Republic,” the company avoids looking like it’s just responding to secondhand market pressures. (Although, Andjelic told me, “Our stuff on Depop is, like, lit.”)
Andjelic insisted that her philosophizing about workplace attire was about something bigger than post-pandemic dressing. Still, that’s where my thoughts wandered. Brands like Fear of God and The Row, which seem to have influenced the styling on Banana’s back-to-work microsite (the non-vintage section, called “The Art of Work”), seem well-positioned to represent a kind of professional elegance that workers will likely aspire to. That energy seems to be exactly what Andjelic was describing, with her imagined safaris. Now that we’re all perhaps destined to be less desk-bound, and more in control of our time, might we want clothing that telegraphs a sense of easy dominance? Can making a deck be like searching for an elephant? What if business casual…becomes a subculture!
BR Vintage is just the beginning of a new era for the brand. “Very ambitious and very rapid,” as Andjelic described the changes. “We are revamping our entire design strategy,” adding, “We have a blank slate to reinvent what we want to be and how that’s great.” It seems to be working: most of the pieces have already sold out. See you safari-heads at the mall!
Originally posted 2021-06-17 22:26:54.