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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Panama Hat and one of the Greatest Retail Stores before Corporate Destroyed It.

The Panama Hat. I've worn Panama Hats for over thirty years. Here's a fun background of mine on how I was introduced to them. I hope you might enjoy!

Today, when one thinks of Banana Republic, one has an image of a sterile, boring, store, which fits into the cookie-cutter format that all clothing stores seem to fit into. They are all about as exciting as soggy cardboard.

Banana Republic wasn't always that way, however. Back in 1979, two journalists, Mel and Patricia Ziegler, a married couple, left their jobs and started Banana Republic . The etymology of the term Banana Republic goes back to O Henry's use of it in his book "The Admiral". Loosely defined, Banana Republic is defined as a third-world country, most likely in Latin America, although for the store, it could be any worldwide ports of call, or exotic, less refined destination. For what they were doing, it was the perfect fit. They promoted a lifestyle of adventure, exploration, and even literature. 

Banana Republic was a very, very different sort of company back then. Their approach was way off the beaten path of conventional clothing stores. To begin with, their title was “Banana Republic Travel and Safari Clothing inc.” They had their own, very unique nitch, carrying products that no one else did. Where else could you find a bush vest, for instance? Or a ventilated shirt? A Bahia Dress? A Ladies Jumpsuit? Plus, they also had quite an original way of presenting their products.

Their stores were likewise. They had a WWII era Jeep mounted on a rock base, coming through the front window! Real palm trees were throughout the store. A vintage bi-plane would be hanging from the ceiling, as well. Kind of saying “We're a lot different than the norm!” And they indeed were! Here was a clothing store which also had a bookstore, focused in the direction of travel and safari. Who would think of going shopping for clothes and leaving with a Zane Gray book? This store was not for the ignorant.

Let's look at their catalog, for an example. All the other stores would have large 8x10 glossy catalogs, lined with models wearing their products. That wasn't Banana Republic's style, however. Banana Republics' catalog was a 4” X 6” catalog on a course paper. There were no models, but rather artistic images of both the product, as well as drawings of people wearing their product.

Additionally, there were stories in each catalog, written by authors, which depicted the travel and safari lifestyle. Some were dramatic, yet others humorous. Interviews as well. 

Their catalog, stem-to-stern, was the thing that dreams were made of. Within the context of that catalog, a combination of the essay based stories on travel exploration and safaris, interview,s and in the end, the products, all combined to be the essence of what dreams were made of. It was 360 degrees. They painted the picture of the lifestyle and made it very easily attainable for their clientele to put themselves squarely into that fantasy/reality. Banana Republic made those dreams come true.

Certainly not the approach taken by the big conglomerates. As a matter of fact, this approach was the antithesis of everything corporate.

They had grown to a couple of stores in California when they received an offer from the parent firm of The Gap, to buy them out. The owners would still be in control of the stores, but corporate overseers had the ability to offer expansion. It was a great offer at the time. Before long, the stores with Jeeps barreling over rocks in the front of the stores were coast-to-coast.

Living on the east coast, this was how I became familiar with them. One of the first things I bought from them was a Panama Hat. I've had Panama Hats ever since. When I first saw it available, I had to have one. It was me.

Not only did I get a Panama Hat, but I also got the fascinating history behind them, from Banana Republic!

The Panama Pat, to start with, is actually not from Panama at all. Panama hats are actually from Ecuador! The type of straw they are made from is called Toquilla (say: toh KEY ya) and is unique to Ecuador.

The story goes, back when Americans were building the Panama Canal, they were issued the hats as protection from the sun. The workers immediately realized that the hats were quite stylish and set them to San Francisco in order to make some additional money. They were a big success! The stores in San Francisco, having received the hats from Panama, called them Panama Hats and the name stuck!

Banana Republic continued and stayed true to form until 1988 when the Stock Market nose dived. The parent company decided on boring, corporate bullshit approach that everyone else was doing. Gone were the Jeeps driving through the windows, travel and safari clothing, the incredible catalog, as well as the founders, Mel and Patricia Ziegler. Before that, they had excitement, pizzazz, and a totally assume “WOW!” factor, rivaled by no one. Regretfully today, Banana Republic can't hold a candle to its own roots. Itcan best be described now as a “Sleeping Pill”.

I miss the old Banana Republic. Not only did they sell me an absolutely beautiful hat, they also took the time to tell me what I was buying. They painted a picture via the story behind it. In their catalog, they taught me about the hat and it's history. They also explained the style of Panama Hat that I purchased. The Panama Hat that I bought from them is what's known as a “Fino”, or, The Finest. I see people today buying Panama Hats which are lesser variations. They'll lack the flowing grace of the Fino. The lesser hats will have imperfections in the weave, often leaving bumps where they don't belong or a brim that just doesn't flow. The contour of the vertical portions of the hat, combined with the graceful flow of the brim makes a perfect Fino.

A Fino today runs around $100, give or take $15. The first couple I bought from Banana Republic, however, after the corporate bullshit hit the fan, they didn't carry them anymore. I've gone elsewhere since. You can find them easily online. My current one, which is due for replacement, I purchased from a haberdashery here in Key West, about three years ago. I've been wearing Panama Hats for thirty-two years.

                                                                A Perfect Fino

With the Fino Panama Hat, don't turn the brim up vertically on the sides at all. The Fino will have a natural wave to it. It's possible you may want to accentuate that wave, but be certain it remains subtle, easy flowing wave. The front of the brim should be slightly bent down. The Fino is style and grace. Think of it's flow to be akin of that of a Bentley, or a Ferrari.


Never let your dreams die!

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