Banana Republic, Monogram and the Compromise of “Affordable Luxury”

Words by: Aaron Mack Schloff

Banana Republic has always filled me with a mix of hope, despair and dread.

Hope because the cool, crisp, modern, and attractive people in their ads work as intended: they attract. Whether engaged in happy plans in sunlit meeting rooms or harmonizing with contemporary artworks in white box museums, they suggest a happy world of productive teamwork in creative professions and culturally sophisticated socializing.

Despair because the clothing itself makes the ads look like more of a Potemkin village than most clothing ads. Plus sized fits are the second thing that bring me down to earth; BR’s mind may be in Soho, but its body is in Omaha. An American ‘medium’ is sized for the largest group of men who may dream that they fit into it, and the BR standard is no different. The ‘slim fit’ is little better. (Disclaimer: a well fitting garment is, of course, one that well-fits me. I’m about a 39R.) Despair, however, begins even before I try anything on because very often, especially with stripes and patterns, patterns are a little too small, colors a little too muted, and stripes signal “don’t look at me too long, or too much.”

Dread comes in when I take all these signals to mean that BR is not about wanting to dress well as much as the fear of dressing badly. “Please, just don’t make me look like an idiot,” says the modern man to BR, which tailors a Soho dream to order. The BR man’s life is not his own. He is not in charge, like the Brioni man confidently striding out of a limousine or private jet, solo. The BR man’s liberty is severely curtailed, a fate he shares with the sad citizens of the fruit-company controlled Central American nations from which the brand drew its name. In other words, Banana Republic is for me, the Republic of Fear. Once men escape from the work situation that requires BR, they cast it off like a shackle, which is why thrift stores are always full of excellent condition pieces from past seasons.

And yet BR has better taste than almost any other large chain in the United States, so when I learned that they had a more expensive line, “Monogram,” that had just been given its own store, I took a visit. The results were mixed but hopeful enough to give the brand a second look.

The store itself is on a triangular lot where Minetta hits Bleecker and Sixth, in New York’s West Village. While the standard BR interior design mixes white walls with dark wood, Monogram has gray walls with banks of floor to ceiling taupe drapes, which hide among other things, the in-house tailor (a first for BR) and the cash registers. In one alcove bordered by folding screens of mirrors, one can browse coffee table books of Richard Serra sculptures or Capri views while one waits for a fitting room. The staff was beaming: just happy to be there, but also genuinely attentive. They knew this was a plum position, and this was the first day.

The clothes themselves go some way to bring the BR dream of “affordable luxury” into focus. Take the shirts for instance: For half again as much as BR 98 USD, compared to 68, one gets a shirt with a textured stripe of red or blue, with white collar and cuffs. The fabric is genuinely superior, but the fit was perplexing: a chest of over 47 inches and a neck of 16.5, for a medium. A blue blazer (325 USD) had smart, almost eccentric touches like hacking pockets and a flapped breast pocket, a shorter length and a more fitted body than any BR coat I had ever encountered. But the would-be 3/2 lapel roll was still akward, my arms swam in the sleeves, and the lightweight worsted twill magically attracted of stray bits of fluff. The cuff buttons were sewn through but not cut through. If you’re going to do the sewing and make the alterations that more difficult in the currently fashionable style, why not just go all the way. This compromise is the BR mantra of ‘affordable luxury’ in a nutshell.

Other signs were more positive. The small and well edited collection had clear and strong colors – lightweight cashmere-silk sweaters of red and blue, for example. Patterned as well as striped shirtings were clear and focused, showing the Zara-like confidence that mainline BR so often lacks. Ties were the same.

Why can’t all of BR be this way? I wish I had asked Simon Kneen, when I saw him in the store and buttonholed him. If the name is familiar, it’s because he was, until BR’s parent company The Gap hired him in January, one of the people responsible for turning around the style of Brooks Brothers. For Monogram, he was wearing a white and black Monogram nailhead coat, a white shirt and gray trousers. Can Monogram shirts be monogrammed in store, was all I thought to say. He said they were working on it. This collection is not his work, of course (collections are designed about a year in advance, and presented half a year after that), but BR’s interest in the one year old Monogram is one reason they took him on. Kneen’s own work will debut in the Spring 09 line that BR debuts in the fall. Can he turn this great ship in a more confident and stylish direction? I’m sure he knows how. But will they let him?