Monday, February 19, 2007

Minding the Gap.

I am interested in the naming of things. Why things are called what they are called is a fascinating meditation, and its even more fun when the things you are contemplating are word puzzles with actual solutions, such as why brand names are what they are.

Today I was thinking about something that's bothered me for some time: why is Banana Republic named after banana republics? A banana republic, the kind of country, not the Gap brand, is definied by Wikipedia as follows:

Banana republic is a pejorative term for a small, often Latin American or Caribbean country that is politically unstable, dependent on limited agriculture, and ruled by a small, wealthy and corrupt clique put in power by the United States government in conjunction with the CIA and the US business lobby. The term was coined by O. Henry, an American humorist and short story writer, in reference to Honduras. "Republic" in his time was often a euphemism for a dictatorship, while "banana" implied an easy reliance on basic agriculture and backwardness in the development of modern industrial technology.

Of the four Gap brands--Old Navy, Gap, Banana Republic, Forth & Towne--only Banana Republic doesn't seem to sell products that suit its name.

Old Navy sells clothing that is intended to be casual and fun for the whole family. They sell weekend wear and day wear--nary a fancy party dress or pair of beautifully cuffed trousers in sight. It's the kind of stuff that's all-American, what you picture a sailor might wear when barbequeing with his wife, kids and faithful dog when he's lucky enough to have shoreleave in the summertime. Hell, maybe he was even lucky enough to go see the wife and kids on the 4th of July. It's the kind of clothing that's okay to get grass stains on, that's okay to spill mustard on, that's okay to wash and wear. The fits aren't stellar, but that's the kind of fit you get at that price point. I, personally, hate Old Navy. (Even though my sailor father definitely took me shopping there when I was little and there was a brand-new Old Navy near our house. I think he liked the novelty of the name more than anything.)

The Gap's name is no mystery. The company widely publicizes the fact that their name refers to the Generation Gap between young people and adults that reached its peak when Gap was founded in 1969--the Summer of Love. It's also no suprise, then, that Gap originated in San Francisco. While I have no knowledge of the style of clothing found at the Gap in the late 60s and early 70s, I know that in the 80s and 90s Gap embraced a style that transitioned easily between work and the weekend. The store is filled with basic work peices that can look more high end when mixed with nice trousers for work and can go casual with jeans. The store came to reflect the versitility of the lifestyle of people in their 20s and 30s, which are the years that really "fill in the gap" between childhood/adolescence and full-blown responsible adulthood. They even added a "Baby Gap" to help with that transition. Granted, Gap has had some major troubles maintaining the popularity of their basics in recent times and floundering sales led to the resignation of their CEO. They did manage, though, to do a number of things crucial to my generation. Gap pushed forward the Neo-Swing movement with their 1998 khaki commercial set to Louis Prima's "Jump, Jive & Wail," which Brian Setzer had coincidentally covered around the same time. (He sounds spookily like Prima on that record.) They also brought the gifted and talented Rufus Wainwright to the attention of the world when he asked us what we were doing on New Year's Eve in his white dinner jacket at a black baby grand during Gap's holiday campaign. The Gap also started Macy Gray's career and revived popular interest in musical theatre with their "West Side Story" commercial, for, fittingly, chinos.

Fourth & Town is the newest addition to the family of Gap brands. It is a very high end specialty retail store that is organized by "collections" and has a community of individually-styled fitting rooms. The shopgirls are meant to act as "stylists," although I can't say that's true for the one here in Santa Barbara. Fourth & Town, from the product it carries to the way the store is organized and the feel you get from walking in and being greeted by the shopgirls, fits its name. The kind of people who shop there, who like that lifestyle, who can afford the faux-couture clothing might live at an address such as "Fourth & Town."

Those things all make sense to me. The product each of those stores carry and the atmosphere they create all seem to reflect the name. Except Banana Republic.

Banana Republic, or BRep, as I like to call it, sells some of the finest workwear ever made. Some of the peices can be casual, yes, but the majority of the clothing sold at BRep is meant to transition not from work to the weekend, but from work to an evening out, or from a day in the office to a nighttime networking event. In BRep, you've left the world of family fun created at Old Navy. In BRep, you've even left the world of casual-minded Gen Xers with tots who shop at Gap. In the world of BRep, you've got style even Tim Gunn would approve of. (And clearly does, as Project Runway awarded its first two winners with jobs on the design team of BRep.) Banana's designs are all well-cut and highly-styled, and that kind of attention to detail and aesthetic is reflected in the price point of most of their items. They're not cheap, but they're definitely not as expensive as the faux-couture of Forth & Town.

So with that in mind, what's with the name? The meticulous care with which BRep's garments are crafted certainly don't have the raw, natural-fiber look of items made in such banana republics. My coworker Bill suggested that it was because BRep was the proxy government running the Gap, however, while it's a good analogy, BRep was established in the late 70s and incorporated into The Gap, Inc. in 1983. So the high-style running the lower-styled store doesn't exactly measure up.

But then I remembered what Banana Republic looked like in the late 80s and early 90s. And I remembered why I used to hate it. Granted, those years were definitely not good years for fashion for anyone, but I recall a Banana Republic that sold high-end resort wear. Imagine Tommy Bahama-style but with less tack: fewer loud prints, more raw, natural fibers and more neutrals.

Marcus has a jacket from BRep circa 1992 that I refer to as his "hobo jacket" because it truly is that hideous. It's some olive green linen thing that looks like a combination between a happy coat and a painter's smock. If it were part of the Seinfeld universe, I imagine it's something you'd buy in the J. Peterman catalog and wear with your "urban sombrero." I might burn it one night while he's sleeping.

If this jacket is the kind of style BRep had cultivated for itself until the late 90s--and certainly til Tim Gunn's blessings were bestowed upon them--then I get the name. It is similar to Bill's conjecture, only Gap is the despotic ruler-from-afar and Banana Republic is, well, the banana republic. The upscale resort wear manufactured for old BRep might be the kind of thing the dictator might wear while running the country. (I'm sure a majority of their products are actually manufactured in third world countries, as I'd wager is the case with all Gap brands.)

I'm glad that BRep has been touched by the hand of Gunn and that their style is no longer as heinous as it used to be. I love that they still sell natural fibers and that some of the peices do seem to have the worldly influence that their clothes have always carried, but now that worldliness is so much more sophistocated than the hobo jacket.

You're lucky, Banana Republic. Even with your really odd name, you're the only Gap brand I'll actually patronize. I forgive you for your misguided youth. And the hobo jacket.


w.pham said...

etymology aside, i can always depend on banana republic for a decently-priced merino wool sweater!

Meg said...

I'm not opposed to Gap or Old Navy, though the jeans from either always fit me terribly.

Long term teaching plans, however, include being able to buy work clothes at Banana Republic. It's a bit of a dream at this point.

RC said...

this is a great post! I was unaware at were Gap got it's name from and I most definitly do remember what Bannana Republic looked like in the late 80s/early was totally different was a much more "bizarre" style store that looked like it was perfect for your cruise to the bannana republics.

Thom said...

Banana Republic used to be a crazy mail order catalog before it went to the mall.

I bought a WWI leather flying helmet from them in the 80's. I very much doubt anyone at the mall store today was even born then much less remembers the catalog.