Be present, not tense
"I was either going to be a curmudgeon, sitting on the edge of it, shaking my finger at it. Or I was going to go see what it was all about." Mel Ziegler, who with his wife Patricia invented and sold Banana Republic and Republic of Tea, is explaining the end of a hiatus and the beginning of a new journey called ZoZa.

Mel Zielger Zoza "Here in the Bay Area, there's been a cultural explosion in the last couple of years which has been stunning," Mel continues. "People are going around the clock with travel and email and busy lives, clogged with traffic and going from the office to the symphony. Our lives are not segmented but our clothes are."

Ah-ha. If you give a curmudgeon a cell phone, a soccer game and a night at the opera, chances are he's going to need an outfit to go with it. Hello, ZoZa and "urban performance wear." So there was that and also there was this: "My daughter, who is in second grade, was asked frequently what her daddy did, and she would respond: 'He rides his bike.' Well, my daddy didn't ride his bike. He went to work every day."

Work? Mel had been a newspaper reporter for The Miami Herald and The San Francisco Chronicle. He worked for a number of magazines, including New York Magazine in the early 70s, as a contributing writer. That's where he comes from. Went to Columbia Journalism School.

But he had to make a living. The truth is, he was in San Francisco, working for the Chronicle, and having a really good time. But, in those days, the paper was so cheap that an out-of-town story meant Oakland. Mel just couldn't get to do what he wanted to do. He was frustrated continually. He's a pretty unemployable guy anyway. At least that's what Mel says. A lot of unemployable people end up in journalism. According to Mel.

So he realized that the only way he was going to make a go of it was to employ himself. At that point, he and his wife Patricia had met, over the Xerox Machine, at the Chronicle. She was an illustrator. He was a writer. She was into fashion and apparel. He was into Army Surplus. That's where they got together. Green Acres meets Indiana Jones. They each saw the idea from different perspectives. She is visual; he is verbal. She brought the vision and he brought the story.

The story: There has always been a romantic notion attached to Safari clothing. Mel loved to wear bush jackets and khakis, but he couldn't really find any. What he found was just some really silly imitations of it. "The closest you could get to something authentic was in the surplus world, particularly British Army Surplus in those days," says Mel. "It was magnificent. We saw the surplus and were kind of excited by it. And it fulfilled this romantic fantasy of being a writer and an artist and living in Africa. We just played with it."
Patricia Ziegler, Zoza
Patricia drew the catalog and Mel wrote it. "We just created it more as a theatrical experience and a retail experience," say Mel. "Neither of us had retail experience. Neither of us had business experience." What does Mel think of Banana Republic today? He doesn't think about it: "My analogy is that if you give your child up for adoption you really have no right to go back there and meddle in the way he or she is being raised."

Then came Republic of Tea. A similar story. They were both tea drinkers. They looked around, and there was Lipton, Celestial Seasonings and Twinings. If you went into the finest restaurant, they'd serve you a Lipton tea bag. If you went into the finest grocery stores there was no tea section.

Mel and Patricia realized there was a category to be created. "If there's a theme in our background, it's that we kind of create categories and then we put companies in the middle of them," says Mel. Now you go into really fine markets and you'll see a whole section for tea. Republic of Tea is sitting right there in the middle of it.

And now -- sitting right there in the middle of it -- is ZoZa, named for the couple's daughter, Aza and son, Zio.

Are your kids happier now that their dad has a real job again?

Yeah! They don't want mom and dad to talk about ZoZa so much and to get the cell phones out of our ears. But the fact is they are very engaged in the company. They love it. They're designing things and they're learning on the front lines what it's all about. And I think that in itself has made the exercise worthwhile for us.

What is urban performance wear?

In the outdoor clothing business for the last twenty years, we've been watching curiously as these new fabrics have been developed. We've been wearing these fabrics, actually, ever since we sold Banana Republic about 12 years ago and just sort of walked away from it.

Where we started shopping was REI, Patagonia, and places like that. We started wearing fleeces and exotic fabrics that did these amazing things. They kept you warm with very little weight, or dried quickly or didn't wrinkle. We just thought they were magnificent.

But the styles were not magnificent; we didn't feel good in them. They weren't made in the way that we would have liked our clothes made and designed. We thought the challenge was to use these fabrics in clothes that could flow with you throughout the day and that would be much easier to care for.

You've been quoted as saying that science has one-upped nature when it comes to fabric. What do you mean by that?

I think this younger generation is missing a lot, in the sense that you really don't have to break your life up into pieces. You can be what you do.

The fabrics have almost a bionic quality to them. One fabric is called Technical Gabardine. Believe it or not, it's got a really nice feel and weight to it. And yet it's totally washable. So, first of all, you have a washable suit. A lot of people, including myself, don't like to wear things that are dry-cleaned because of the chemical process. You can smell the chemicals on the clothes.

But Technical Gabardine -- Patricia flew back from Paris all night and slept in a Technical Gabardine suit. She had to get off the plane and speak at a conference within an hour and a half of landing. She pulled up in the taxi and you'd never know that she slept in her clothes all night. The suit resisted wrinkles. She came home and threw it in the washing machine. Took it out and didn't have to iron it. And it really is a beautiful suit.

Armani makes a suit using fabric that’s very similar to Technical Gabardine but it costs three times as much. There's an example, I think, of what ZoZa really stands for. I'm not saying we're the only people selling this fabric -- just like we weren't the only people selling khakis and the only people selling tea. We're just making a real commitment.

You have a line that's for men and a line that's for women. Were there any special insights into the way men live their lives versus the way women live their lives that influenced you in designing each respective line?

Hmmmmm. Well, on an item-by-item basis, I think you could say we have. For instance, one of the women's items is an evening dress in a bag. It's something a woman can take from the office to the gym and then go to the opera in. It's made of swimsuit fabric. It's quite nice. Now, we don't have a tuxedo in a bag but as I'm speaking to you I'm thinking that it would be a really good idea!

I don't really see a lot of difference in the way men and women are living these days. With so many women employed and working full time and traveling on business and just really deeply engaged in frantic lives, I don't see a difference.

How about in terms of demographics? Is the line intended to appeal to any particular demographic group or groups more than others?

The only way I know how to create a company is for myself. I don't really know how to do it any other way. I mean, I created Banana Republic and Republic of Tea for myself. I'm doing this for myself. What I find out when I do that, is that all this demographic stuff is just garbage. There are all kinds of people out there.

At Banana Republic stores I saw kids coming in with their grandparents and they were all buying the clothes. I have a truly natural aversion to overly categorizing people. I think there are lots of people, who when they see something fresh and they see something new and original, spontaneous and creative, have a very natural response to it.

Did you test your ideas at all before you launched each of your brands?


How do you stay in touch with consumers once the idea has been launched?

We tend to get a very articulate and literate customer, so I get emails all the time, letters and comments. Because of the nature of the clothes, when people try it on and feel it, and they see how substantially different it is, not only just in the fabrics but in the fit and the way -- the sort of ergonomic patterns -- people say say "wow, this is different; this is new." And then they become our best evangelists. I'm really a believer in letting the merchandise do the marketing.

Are you thinking about expanding the line to include children's clothes?


I'm guy who will walk into the middle of the storm. I think it's a very risky thing to do. And that's why people very shrewdly don't do it. But we've done it so long that we don't even know it's risky anymore.

How would they be different? How would you apply some of your thinking to a children's line of clothes?

Well, we haven't. It will be pretty much the same kind of clothing scaled down for kids. We can see from our own kids that kids would like a lot of the things -- not all of the things, but a lot of the items they would like. And kids are very fashion savvy these days.

Does everyone at ZoZa wear ZoZa fashions every day?

We're just getting them into the distribution center. But everyone is very eager to use their substantial discounts to get themselves suited up!

Normally I wouldn't ask a question like this, but what are you wearing right now and why?

(Laughs) I'm wearing -- I don't even know what we call this -- but one of these ZoZa shirts and a technical undershirt that goes with it. It's a chilly day here in the Bay area.

What's the thinking behind your distribution strategy, the way you're going to market?

Zoza We're multi-channel. We're a specialty store. The other words I'm hearing a little bit more are "channel agnostic." I think you could pretty much say that's what we are. We have a Web site. We have a catalog that's just been published. We have a store that's called a walk-in Web site. And it's a little different than a traditional store in the sense that it's a prototype for a series of stores that we hope to open, where they'll be in smaller footprints and not all of our inventory will be available there.

But it will allow us to r-oll out and give people a chance to touch and feel and try on the clothing. So if you like that fleece blazer, for instance, we may not carry it in the store except in one of each size and one of each color. And you'll come in and try it on and say "this is great for me" and then we'll take you to these beautiful monitors, these flat Apple Mac monitors that we have in there. You'll type in your order or have a salesperson help you have your first e-commerce experience. Airborne will deliver it to your door the next morning.

Traditionally, stores are designed to sell stuff. It's a sales-oriented medium. But you're really using your stores more like a marketing medium.

I don't really reflect on myself that much. That's one of the beauties of being a student of Asian philosophies. While I may be very contemplative, it's not myself I'm contemplating.

Well, there's a resistance level at apparel. You're going to buy a book at Amazon because you know what the book is about. In creating a new brand, it's important for us to get the brand out there without excessive advertising. We don't want to build the advertising and the rent into the clothing.

What we think is that we've really got some pretty smart customers. What they're going to appreciate most about us is that they're basically getting quality that's equal to European designers at 30 percent of the cost.

That's because we're not designing them in Europe, buying twelve pages in Vogue and selling them to Bloomingdale's. We're designing them in Marin County and manufacturing them by contract in factories in the U.S. and around the world and selling them directly through our own channels.

Speaking of distribution strategy, why didn't Republic of Tea evolve as a brand like Starbucks into retail?

It was a thought that we had, in the early days, to take it into retail. To be honest, we would have done that but our kids were young and we weren't that interested in running around that much. So we just ended up selling the company. We were heading in that direction, clearly. And it would have been really great in that direction. But the real short commodity is time.

What do you think it would have been like as retail?

We had some pretty good ideas about it. And it would have been an interesting counterpoint to Starbucks, in the sense that it would have been more about -- well, the expression that we created that they still carry on is "sip by sip, not gulp by gulp." It's the two different cultures. Tea is the more contemplative, thoughtful culture than the sort of screaming, raving, 24/7 coffee culture.

Starbucks creates a lot of anti-chain stuff. They're kind of like The Gap. You can perfect the story to the point where you destroy the story. It's no different with a brand. You can perfect a brand and its distribution to the point where all the spontaneity is out of it. I'm not saying Starbucks is there, but it seems certain that the market is telling us that The Gap is there.

You've said that the next big wave will be when merchants take the Internet back. You also said that you thought we were at the beginning of a 12-15 year cycle.

I think that the failure in the dot-com, e-commerce side of things has happened because the first wave was led by technical people. They're not merchants. They're different types of people. Merchants are merchants and engineers are engineers. Most of the Web sites are just not consumer friendly; they're not customer friendly. You don't have somebody there showing you the goods and selling them to you. And they spend $80 in marketing expense to get you to go there. It's a silly kind of business plan.

By another turn of events, we'd be making movies or writing books or selling paintings in galleries. But somehow or another we ended up in retailing.

We want to hold it closer to the chest. You have an opportunity, in buying ZoZa clothes, to buy it from the designers who created the clothes. It's a very direct experience. Isn't that what the Web is about? It's about connecting people. It's almost a peer-to-peer situation. We're in control of the process by which it's made, by which it's designed, by which it's sold -- by which we satisfy you if you don't like it. Everything is in our hands.

How do you hope that the ZoZa brand will evolve over the next 1,2,3,4,5 years?

We are very good at listening to our customers. I'm very eager to hear what the first wave of customers, the first folks who were attracted to the brand have to say about it. Once we incorporate their reaction, I can't really say how it will evolve. Our biggest challenge right now is to create, particularly on the Web, and in catalogs, which are both flat, a sense of what these fabrics are all about. I want people to understand that we really are behind these fabrics.

So we're going to try to perfect that a little bit better over the next couple of years. We also want to put a cultural experience into the world, of a company that does things a little differently, that's like that little bird that flies off on its own and doesn't try to follow the pack in any single way -- but does things from a real genuine, authentic, place of expression.