Wednesday, April 24, 2013

How Banana Republic conquered the fashion world with chutzpah and irreverence

Wild Company, The Untold Story of Banana Republic
Published by Simon & Shuster (2012)

I’m a sucker for rags to riches stories, and Wild Company, The Untold Story of Banana Republic, is as rags to riches as they get, with plenty of laughs, life lessons and anecdotes thrown in for good measure.

This is the story of a young couple, Mel and Patricia Ziegler, who almost by accident created one of the world’s most iconic fashion and lifestyle brands (Banana Republic). They did so by breaking most of the rules of business and with sheer talents, instincts and chutzpah.

In the late 1970s, Mel was a writer, Patricia an artist/illustrator, both working at the San Francisco Chronicle. Feeling unfulfilled, they quit their day jobs to try their hand at freelancing. One day, Mel took an assignment in Australia and returned from that trip sporting a British Burma jacket. Mel and Patricia both loved the jacket, as did many strangers who approached them wanting to know where they could buy one.

This was a light bulb moment, and the couple figured there was a market for British Burma jackets “and anything else we could find,” Mel writes. With no business experience or business contacts, the couple set about establishing a company offering unique lines of clothing (shirts, jackets, bags, skirts and accessories) using un-businesslike ideas and strategies. As they would soon discover, there was a large, untapped market for finely-made and stylish outdoor clothing.

The couples’ journey from impoverished creative types into successful business leaders makes for a fun and entertaining read. Their chemistry was a recipe for success: Mel focused on marketing and promotions while Patricia concentrated on the fashion and merchandise side of the business. Their retail stores out-grossed larger and more established retail players in terms of sales per square foot. Their hand-illustrated, mail-order catalogue became a must-read for millions of customers and generated response rates double and triple the industry norm. By the mid 1980s, Banana Republic had become a recognizable name in fashion with a fiercely loyal customer base.

One has to admire the courage, chutzpah and prescience of Mel and Patricia Ziegler, who redefined fashion retailing and demonstrated what is possible by applying old-fashioned creativity, gut instincts, common sense and hard work. Their ideas and strategies were cheeky, irreverent, and far ahead of their time. Here’s Mel describing one of the company’s marketing initiatives:
I believed the best way to ensure our long-term survival was to overdeliver. Go above and beyond and, most importantly, make a human connection with customers. I scribbled notes to customers and put them in the boxes. The notes, on official khaki stationary, were signed by a random minister of the Republic: sometimes Minister of Finance, others the Minister of Progress, but usually the one truest to me, the Minister of Propaganda.
Wild Company is filled with many such creative initiatives, which helped grow the Banana Republic brand. This is a story that any entrepreneur, marketing manager or business student would appreciate. The tone and style are playful and witty, but the underlying message is very inspiring and resonates loud and clear: creativity and curiosity are just as integral to the success of a business as sound financials and the bottom line.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Tiger: a riveting tale of the hunter and the hunted

The Tiger, A True Story of Vengeance and Survival
By John Vaillant
Originally published by Alfred A. Knopf and Alfred A. Knopf Canada (2010)

Most people encounter tigers by viewing them in a cage at a zoo, reading about them in a book, or researching them online. Imagine the fear of not only sharing the forests with these powerful predators, but knowing that you are being stalked by one – with nowhere to hide.

That’s the scenario that Vladimir Markov found himself in back in 1997, in a remote corner of southeastern Russia near the Chinese border. Markov, an ex-Russian serviceman and paratrooper, lived and worked in Primorye Territory. He was a hunter and beekeeper and did other odd jobs to survive in that inhospitable part of the world.

Primorye Territory is believed to be the last stronghold of the Siberian tiger, and one of these beasts had targeted Markov, carefully stalking him and viciously killing him. The horror of the attack sent shockwaves throughout Primorye Territory and beyond, and then about a week later, the same tiger attacked and killed another man.

The story surrounding these deadly attacks forms the basis of John Vaillant’s excellent The Tiger, A True Story of Vengeance and Survival. With exhaustive research, a meticulous eye for detail and a true storyteller’s skill at producing suspense, Vaillant recounts the period leading up to these attacks and cites plausible theories as why the two victims may have been targeted. The story proceeds almost like a police procedural, gathering evidence and building suspense as the story unfolds. In describing the tiger’s capacity for exacting revenge, Vaillant writes:
The Amur tiger’s territoriality and capacity for sustained vengeance, for lack of a better work, are the stuff of both legend and fact. What is amazing – and also terrifying about tigers – is their facility for what can only be described as abstract thinking. Very quickly, a tiger can assimilate new information – evidence, if you will – ascribe it to a source, and even a motive, and react accordingly. 
The second part of the book describes a search party that was hastily assembled and charged with locating and killing the tiger, led by Yuri Trush, the head of a group known as Inspection Tiger Unit. Trush and his team persuade the authorities that this tiger needs to be tracked and killed to avoid further attacks. But hunting this tiger in the mountainous and forested regions of Primoyre will prove no easy feat, and a kind of cat-and-mouse game ensues.

Vaillant’s story doesn’t always follow a linear progression, and the story is much richer for it. He digresses periodically, tracing the history of tigers across Europe throughout the centuries, discussing the reasons why these wild beasts have been driven to extinction, and examining the complex relationship that has existed between man and tiger, from 10,000 B.C. to the present. Vaillant describes the landscape of the taiga (forest) in great detail, the courageous efforts by Trush and his team to find the elusive, man-eating tiger, and brings to life the many personalities who were directly impacted by these tragic events.

For  centuries, tigers have fascinated people all over the world. Their incredible physical powers and ferocity, their keen intelligence and cunning, and their incredible mystique and beauty continue to produce a sense of awe. In reading The Tiger, your fascination will deepen, and you will gain a new-found respect for the world’s most feared predator.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

A young Alexander prepapring for greatness

Fire From Heaven
A novel by Mary Renault (1970, Penguin Books)

This is a finely written novel about the formative years of Alexander III of Macedon (356 – 323 BC), or Alexander the Great, which explores themes of honour, ambition, friendship, homosexuality and loyalty.

The young Alexander is born into a world of privilege, a world where men often distinguished themselves in battle, a world that is powered as much by myth and superstition as it is by warfare. Into this world, Alexander comes of age, making friends and enemies, learning about philosophy (he was tutored by Aristotle) and gathering experiences on and off the battlefield that will serve him well when it comes time to inherit his father’s kingdom.

Renault’s Alexander seems destined from an early age to achieve greatness. As a young boy, he is he quick to observe the power struggles between his father and mother and the shifting allegiances among neighbouring states. Even when choosing friends, Alexander is bound by a moral code and keen intuition that will pay dividends throughout his rise to power.

The main challenge I had with Fire From Heaven is that I’m not versed enough in ancient Greek history, and so many of the references to Greek Gods, kings, battles and events were lost on me. To fully appreciate the depth and subtlety of this novel, readers would do well to possess a nodding acquaintance with Greek history. It would save a lot of Wikipedia searches.

But this observation is no reflection on the power of Renault’s writing, which has the ability transport readers to a fascinating era (Hellenistic) of Greek history. Renault’s eye for detail and her skillfulness at creating vivid scenes are extraordinary. Here, for instance, is 12 year-old Alexander poised for his first battle:
The rose-red on the hill-tops changed to gold. He stood between death and life as between night and morning, and thought with a soaring rapture, ‘I am not afraid.’ It was better than music or his mother’s love; it was the life of the gods. No grief could touch him, no hatred harm him. Things looked bright and clear, as to the stooping angel. He felt sharp as an arrow, and full of light.
Renault is brings the world of Alexander to life in Fire From Heaven with clarity, sensitivity and imagination. I would recommend this novel to anyone interested in reading a stirring portrait of one of history’s most accomplished and enigmatic figures. This type of historical fiction, in novel form, beats text book learning any day of the week, hands-down.