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Fashion and Beauty

Yes, we have now Banana Republic

CULTURE VULTURE - Therese Jamora-Garceau -

People like to joke that the Philippines is a banana republic. Frankly, we’ll settle for having a Banana Republic (or four). And that long-held wish will finally come true this Friday, when the first Banana Republic store opens in Greenbelt 5 in Makati.

But that’s getting ahead of our story.

I’m at Exit Art, an art gallery in midtown Manhattan, about to witness my first New York fashion show. The atmosphere is very Devil Wears Prada even before the audience of New York fashion editors, fashionistas, and media arrive. Stark white cube benches flank the runway three deep. At each place is a small blue bottle of Pop champagne (meant to be sipped through a straw), a press kit, and a brown leather-bound notebook commemorating Banana Republic’s 30th anniversary this year.

The gallery soon fills with about 200 beautiful people (including editors from Vogue, Women’s Wear Daily, and one male model who resembled a young Richard Gere), and models start emerging from the park-like backdrop clad in Banana Republic’s fall-holiday 2008 collection.

BR has come a long way from when I last saw it, as a fresh grad in the States in the ’90s. Back then, it was all about safari- and travel-inspired clothing with an emphasis on khakis — if you wanted that romantic, English Patient look or just wanted some smart, crisply tailored neutrals for the office, Banana Republic was the place to go.

The 42 looks on display this evening are still smartly tailored, still neutral, but now exude modern, luxurious urban style. To celebrate its 30th anniversary, BR decided to reimagine iconic pieces like the crisp white shirt, the little black dress, and the classic trench coat.

The result? Exciting pieces you wanted to score immediately, like a trench cape for her and cashmere-lined khaki coat for him, sleek black column dresses, and white buttondown shirts with architectural details.

For both the women’s and men’s collections, a neutral palette of gray, white, black and navy dominated, with pants that ranged from skinny to tapered under more voluminous tops, like funnel-necked sweaters and poet’s blouses tied at the neck. The women’s collection exhibited a menswear inspiration, with Le Smoking and tuxedo-style shirts.

For the men it was Continental suiting, with lean jackets and lightweight tweed flannel blazers over vests and slim ties. Accessories like berets, ankle booties and frame bags added almost Parisian chic.

When a couple of fuchsia shift dresses emerged amid the sea of grays, whites and blacks, that unexpected pop of color was like a spring peony blooming in the middle of a wintry landscape.

“Touches of couture are mixed with very classic styles,” observes Simon Kneen, Banana Republic’s new creative director and EVP of design, about the collection, which was developed by Alessandra Brunialti and Michael Anderson, vice presidents of design for women’s and men’s, respectively. (Kneen’s influence won’t be seen until spring 2009, when he debuts his collection.)

“Fall is a nod to heritage but in a very evolved way, looking back and forward,” says Rosemary Young, Banana Republic’s director for marketing and PR. “The classics have been reborn and taken to the next level.”

Before the fashion show we met Young in downtown New York City, in the loft-like offices of Gap Inc. One lobby wall is covered with portraits of celebrity endorsers like Isabella Rossellini, model Patti Hansen, actor Ray Liotta, and Lee Radziwill, Jackie O’s sister. A signboard announces: “Brad & Angelina have a few. (Causes, that is.) Do you?”

Young introduced the international press to the brand. Banana Republic was founded by Mel and Patricia Ziegler in Mill Valley, California in 1978. Their little store on the other side of the Golden Gate Bridge sold military surplus clothing and safari adventurewear, which evolved to high-quality casualwear in the early ’90s, to work clothing and luxury fabrications in the late ’90s, and today to an accessible luxury lifestyle brand.

“We’re not the Louis Vuittons and Guccis of this world, not The Gap, H&M or Zara,” claims Young. “We’re a bridge designer brand.”

In 1988 BR diversified from its safari look to include dressier items, including sportswear and jewelry. In 1995, the first Banana Republic store outside the United States opened in Edmonton, Canada. The rest of the ’90s saw BR become a lifestyle brand, introducing lines of personal care, shoes, gifts and home accessories, as well as intimate apparel.

“Banana Republic wasn’t born from The Gap,” clarifies Young. “We had our own identity and brand expression, positioning and vision. But when Gap Inc. purchased the brand in 1983, it exploded.”

More recently, Pinoys will recall encountering the brand on the TV sitcom Will & Grace, where for several episodes Sean Hayes’ character Jack was a Banana Republic sales associate. Fans of Project Runway will likewise remember the Banana Republic challenge, when the contestants were tasked with designing an ensemble that would fit BR’s aesthetic and be sold in-store.

In 2006 Gap Inc. decided to enter other global markets and expand rapidly. The question then arises: What took so long? “It just takes time to find good partners,” Young explains. “We look to our partners to be experts in their markets, and leverage their and our expertise to get out into the world quickly.”

Since then, Banana Republic has opened 21 stores in 12 countries in a little over a year, with sales of $2.3 billion. Gap, Inc. signed a franchise agreement with the Rustan Group of Companies in October 2007, and Rustan’s division Casual Clothing Specialists, Inc. plans to open eight Gap stores and four Banana Republic stores in the Philippines by 2012.

“The Philippines represents a natural market for Gap Inc. to expand its international presence,” said Ron Young, senior vice president of international strategic alliances for Gap Inc. “The country has a strong, steadily growing economy, and consumers in this market have a great interest in iconic apparel brands such as ours.

“We’re pleased to have forged a relationship with such an excellent local partner,” continued Young. “In addition to strong operational expertise and a deep understanding of their local customer base, the Rustan Group of Companies has a track record of successfully introducing well-known fashion and apparel brands to international markets.”

In its steady jaunt upmarket, the company has also launched an upscale, limited-edition BR Monogram collection, which features even more luxurious fabrications (like pure silk) and more meticulous tailoring. In the first 3,000-square-foot test store on the corner of Bleecker Street and Sixth Avenue, the sales associates are called “stylists,” who serve customers Voss bottled water and encourage them to linger on the Billy Baldwin furniture. Other services include a full-time concierge and an on-site tailor who provides same-day alterations at no extra cost.

For now, as BR opens more global boutiques, expect to see clothes geared toward the real world. “It’s more focused on the world. It’s more about lifestyle and individuals’ needs,” says Young. “Customers are looking for quality stuff that you can keep 10, 20 years.”

With a design team that goes on trips all over the world, vintage, multi-culti finds — even just one old piece —can be the crucial element that an entire collection is built around. They recently did that, in fact, when a vintage belt with a square buckle spawned a collection of purses, handbags and shoes.

The fragrance Malachite, part of the fragrance collection that was re-launched in 2006, was inspired by — you guessed it — a huge hunk of malachite found in a flea market.

With a strong connection to art — as evidenced by an in-house art collection and the fashion show held in a gallery — Banana Republic is moving towards injecting more color to excite customers and pulling inspiration from countries like ours, but a large part of it remains that neutral yet elegant canvas you, the client, leaves your personal imprint on.

As Young says, “You take our clothes and make them your own.”

* * *

Banana Republic will launch its first store on May 9 with a fashion show at 7 p.m. at the Fashion Walk in Greenbelt 5, Ayala Center, Makati City.

BANANA BANANA REPUBLIC PLACE REPUBLIC
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