A romantic restaurant six years ago. Thin and nervous, recovering from the worst illness of my life. On one side of us, a fireplace roars and crackles, making up for the bunch of lawbros talking structured finance to our other side. And then suddenly, I hear it, faux-naively touching my heartstrings like its own accordion keys, slow wistful notes common to 1960s and early 1970s French films, the kind that I would stumble on in late-night zapping through cable… So common as to be almost anonymous and thus exotic. The sort of channel-surfing that felt like waking dreams and alcohol-fuelled glimpses of other realities, where other mores applied.
I knew this would stay with me in my ears and in my head, so was glad the staff were able to tell me what I was hearing, the theme to Bernardo Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris lightly reworked by Gotan Project.
Last Tango in Paris, infamous now not for its eroticism but for the exploitation of its star Maria Schneider at the hands, and other body parts and a stick of butter, of director Bernardo Bertolucci and costar Marlon Brando.
Is it ever acceptable to separate what charms us from the otherwise problematic? I’ve been thinking about that again reading that Banana Republic is now marketing vintage items from its very different 1980s incarnation, back before its longtime owners, Gap, decided to rein it in. Back when its name, Banana Republic, had any relevance to its image and its merchandise.
Launched in Mill Valley, California in the late 1970s,Banana Republic once called itself a “travel and safari clothing company,” using a wonderfully constructed catalog narrative of exploration and exoticism to sell Brady fishing bags, so-called expatriate jackets and trousers, and arrays of travel books. It was closer to Seinfeld’s J. Peterman than J. Peterman itself, which started around the same time. Like Peterman, that old Banana Republic circulated thousands of catalogs with hand-drawn illustrations, rather than photographs, of its merchandise, accompanied by the seductive imagery of persuasive, whimsical prose recounting the founders’ exploits in Burma, Australia and elsewhere. The early Banana Republic shops featured life-size plastic megafauna like giraffes and staff whose jackets called them “guides”, with the shop logo of double bananas flanking a decidedly developing-nation-style star: the national seal, as it were, of Banana Republic.
To judge by small ads in old New Yorkers, many odd little ventures tried to sell clothes with atmosphere and wordy descriptions. But none did it more successfully than Banana Republic, which even launched (and quickly folded) its own high-powered travel magazine with serious contributions from international journalists famous not for fluff but insightful writing and photography.
In recent years, a devoted Instagram account, Abandoned Republic, has tracked down merchandise, memorabilia and personal memories from that era. And now, at least momentarily, so does Banana Republic corporate, in search of a more interesting brand identity than its last 30 years of “Gap, but a bit more upscale.”
Banana Republic corporate reconnecting with its past means current passing through a name, an attitude and a choice of merchandise that are necessarily differently freighted in today’s context. For the last three decades the name Banana Republic has been divorced from any signifier, a handful of syllables that might as well be an ideogram for “somewhat nicer khakis.” But what was a banana republic? In 1979, it must have sounded like a quirky choice of name, connoting quaint, backward, exotic autocracy – an elsewhere demarcated from the reader’s presumed safe, rule-of-law-governed, developed Northern Hemisphere, Western homeland. But this consciously chosen corporate name ignores the horrific, nearly incomprehensible political and ecological domination American corporations exerted on and in various South American countries to create and exploit enormous fruit plantations. O. Henry coining the term was one effect of such circumstances. This was by no means a forgivably distant phenomenon: barely two decades before Banana Republic’s own founding, one American fruit company lobbied the U.S. government into overturning a democratically elected government in Guatemala in favor of an unstable, bloodthirsty tyrant who safeguarded the company’s gigantic profits.
A similar lack of awareness stains those cute catalogs, which uncritically quote (for example) Henry Stanley, inarguably one of history’s greatest monsters, for the commercialization of safari fashions influenced by colonial nostalgia. Which was quite fashionable in the 1980s: Out of Africa, White Mischief, even claptrap like King Solomon’s Mines all came out in Banana Republic’s heyday, popular at least as much for their elegant, dashing depictions of ruling-classes as for their narratives. It’s rather surprising that the early Banana Republic didn’t sell the deeply freighted pith helmet, although it did sell – and the new BR vintage shop has briskly resold –many, many surplus Israeli Defense Force shoulder bags.
Safari fashions, particularly against the narrative and cultural context of early Banana Republic media and marketing, risk not just whitewashing but bleaching and sanitizing centuries of exploitation in all its forms. That conjunction of imagery localizes readers in the shoes of the privileged and the heavily armed, gives those forerunners all the benefits of a reputation laundered and lightened of venality, predation, bloodthirstiness without connection to any agency, risking turning the wearers into walking unironic homages to them. Context refracts resonance.
And with the resale shop an homage to that homage, what are we to make of this? It seeks a rebrand, to stand for something more interesting, now that it’s been reminded that retail, like the daydreamed safari landscape of BR’s old marketing, too is red in tooth and claw.
Like my consternation thinking about Last Tango in Paris, perhaps we can reproportion concern. The Banana Republic resale shop, although much heralded in fashion media, can only be a limited phenomenon (dedicated to the exploitation of the #basic consumer, rather than the Global South), limited by the relative rarity of existing 1980s BR clothing and by the marketing needs of maintaining exclusivity. And marketed identity lasts until the next thing. We, consumers, must exit comforting and entertaining dreamworlds and be aware, of what we are wearing, of its significance, whether we are shopping at Banana Republic or elsewhere, whether the song playing in the background will haunt us romantically or psychically.