If you were a young professional in the mid-‘00s, Banana Republic was almost certainly where you went shopping when it came time to buy your first workwear outfits: Maybe a blazer you hoped would help nail that job interview or a sheath dress that you thought would clinch that big raise. Certainly, that was the case for Rachel Whitehouse — a creator documenting her chic, high-low looks on her TikTok, @clothesarefriends — who scored her first big job in a pleated Banana Republic skirt in 2016.
“Through the next seven years of my life, Banana Republic’s suit sets were with me every step of the way,” she says. “My team would constantly ask where my blazers and suit sets were from, and the answer was always Banana Republic.”
While the brand — first launched in 1978 by Mel and Patricia Ziegler as a travel- and safari-inspired company, before getting acquired by Gap in 1983 — was a mall mainstay during the late ‘90s and early aughts, like many of its contemporaries, it fell out of favor as the cookie-cutter business casual aesthetic which dominated the era faded away in favor of looser dress codes and freedom of self-expression.
But, after seeing fashion publicist Gabriela Mannix post to her TikTok, @stillintribeca, about a chocolate-hued leather skirt she’d spotted on a recent shopping trip to the retailer in September, Whitehouse decided to go to the mall for the first time in years. There, she fell in love with the brand’s Vida tote and joined the chorus of voices making the oversized bucket bag a viral pick on TikTok which, at the time of publishing, has over 83 thousand views on the social media app.
“The material is truly wonderful,” Whitehouse says. “The shapes are simple and it screams ‘The Row’ without the price.” (A bonus, according to Whitehouse: “This. Bag. Never. Falls. Off. My. Shoulder.”)
Whitehouse isn’t alone in noticing how the brand has made a move into high-fashion territory; shoppers piled into comments of her post to chime in. “Also was on their website the other day and it’s giving Khaite vibes,” commented one user. “Banana Republic is so good rn I’m shook,” said another.
It’s been a year of comebacks for mall brands, whether it’s Abercrombie & Fitch’s image overhaul or J.Crew’s Olympia Gayot-led era. Unlike its competitors, though, Banana Republic isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel; instead, it's looking back at the kinds of classic pieces it has always done best while referencing the brand’s deep archive.
“We're lucky to have such a unique and rich history to lean on for both design and storytelling,” says Nicole Wiesmann, Banana Republic’s VP of design. When it was first founded — as Banana Republic Travel & Safari Clothing Company, quite the mouthful — the brand was known for its hand-drawn catalogs featuring travel stories and unique finds picked up by the co-founders on their trips throughout the world. Though it’s been four decades since its explorer-inspired past, the brand is continuing to mine that heritage.
“We are leveraging our history as a travel brand to create a distinctive BR Look that is rich in texture and style,” says Wiesmann. “It’s all about high-quality, accessible luxury, and timeless style with materials like cashmere, silk, leather, suede, and linen.”
A quick peek at the Banana Republic website immediately shows how the brand has gone back to its roots. Gone are the generic-looking product shots and commercial-grade images with white backdrops. In their stead? Highly editorialized videos and photoshoots in far-flung locales, the kind of imagery intended to make one dream of wearing, say, a red plaid blazer and wool cargo trousers deep in the Scottish Highlands, instead of on your morning work commute.
That shift, slight as it might seem, is paying off for customers. Where other retailers seemingly want to get in on the fast fashion game, Banana Republic’s commitment to quality is setting it apart for shoppers like Jesica Wagstaff, who has documented her renewed love for the brand on her TikTok @jesicaelise.
“Where many have sacrificed quality, Banana Republic has maintained their high standards,” Wagstaff says. “If anything, I think they have done what so few have successfully and that is to keep up with what’s trending without resorting to pieces that feel disposable and that’s quite a unique space to occupy. They clearly pay attention to the market and their clientele.”
Wagstaff, too, has noticed the change in the brand’s marketing, comparing its most recent campaign to luxury brand Loro Piana — and that seems to be the key to Banana Republic’s success. Its classic, well-made pieces are getting name-checked or referenced alongside big names in the luxury game, like Ralph Lauren, The Row, or Burberry, rather than its mall neighbors. Peruse its offerings, and you can find a pair of wide-legged leather pants for $750; a full-length sherpa coat at $500; cashmere turtlenecks for $140; a sexy silk maxidress at $250. Not fast fashion prices, to be sure, but, a testament to how Banana Republic intends to occupy an increasingly challenging space in the matrix of price and quality.
“They have become a sort of unicorn at this price point,” Wagstaff says. “Previously, many would have to shop fast fashion in order to find trendier items such as a cropped tuxedo jacket or sherpa coats at a relatively affordable price, often resorting to a cheap shadow of its designer inspiration. Banana Republic, with ‘The BR Look’ stands on its own — while familiar, the styles do not feel too referential or like knock-offs of what a shopper wishes they could afford.”
And there’s concrete proof of the strategy’s success: Once a struggling part of Gap, Inc.’s business, the corporation reported that Banana Republic sales were up by 9% in the quarter ending July 30 of this year. “If you make quality the main focus, the clientele will come around to the price,” says Whitehouse.
It’s still early days in the Banana Republic comeback story, but it certainly seems like they’re on the right track. So long as the brand continues to commit to quality, Wagstaff says customers will continue to flock back to its stores.
“The company has struck a beautiful balance between classic style and what’s trending,” Wagstaff agrees. “If they can maintain this without sacrificing quality, the company will maintain its unicorn status.”
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