Banana Republicans

On the road, I pick cafés based on the size of their rack. Der Spiegel and crumbly old Newsweeks won’t win a Nescafe order from me, but I can manage French Vogue at a pinch. It doesn’t matter how old they are: glossy time-travel is fun. And a 1999 Esquire is more of a curiosity than a 1992 Time that drones about war and the economy.

Flipping through a 1999 Vanity Fair, I found an ad for Banana Republic. It was as powerful as a scent memory, this slick, bland spread pushing a pre-fab lifestyle. There were six pages of Dot-Com-Exec Chic, and I could almost feel the slightly scratchy texture of those gray stretch wool pants. I remembered the frazzled excitement when Jason wore that exact dark red shirt to investor pitches, and how the collar faded when it was dry-cleaned. The square-toed shiny black shoes. The little fringe-flip all the boys wore then. I had the skirt and the turtleneck, and maybe even those shoes.

At Vindigo, we used to tease the founders, Jason and Dave, about their matchy-matchy style, neat as Audrey Hepburn. David bought everything from the blue and beige Banana Republic palette, Jason (or more usually his proxy, me) scooped up the black and red stuff into their pale-blue carrier bags. Very occasionally, they showed up in the same v-necked sweater.

It was expected then, though they’re both more adventurous now. Investors would have been spooked by the nervousness betrayed by a suit and tie. And, in New York at least, they would have questioned the judgment of a saggy t-shirt. Banana shirts, preferably deep blue and not home-pressed, whispered a soothing compromise, and so collectively the dot-com biz-dev babies looked duller than than any IBM suit. In 1999, year of Regis Philbin, colors were as solid as the Dow, and pants were only made in khaki. (I can never remember: is it in American or British English that ‘pants’ really means underpants? Which of you says ‘trousers’? Please advise.)

I was a mis-cast yuppie at the time, and owned a Banana Republic platinum card. Christ. They sent it to me after I’d burned through six months on the regular black card, a star customer who nipped down two blocks to the Fifth Avenue store every fortnight to relieve the stress and loneliness of a start-up in a rack of comfortingly predictable clothing. They kept sending thank-you vouchers in the mail, the amounts carefully calculated by some marketing analyst to stimulate another little spree. I even bought Banana Republic candles, for God’s sake.

I don’t know where all those clothes are now. I used to shrink them by accidentally sending them to the laundromat, and I was usually covered in food-stains by lunchtime anyway, no matter how blandly elegant I started the day. The sleeves were always too short. I was flattered by their shameless dress-size deflation, which by 2000 had me buying size 2 trousers and wondering what the hell Calista Flockheart was left with.

These days, I frequent a different kind of banana republic. I’m the only person I know who gains weight on a year-long diet of third-world streetfood and tap water, but it hardly matters in my worn-out sweatpants. I’ve worn Timberland boots or stinky trainers every day for months, and occasionally flip-flops with a skirt if I’m desperate for novelty and willing to display scratched and blackfly-scarred legs.

But in Cuenca, where every unmarried adult lives at home to save money for clothes, I broke down and bought a two-dollar lipstick and pair of proper shoes. They’re shiny and high-heeled, with a neat ankle-strap like a flamenco dancer, and they’re not terribly practical for the Inca Trail. I wear them with the same old black trousers, of course, and one of my two shirts, both now covered in indelible dog hair. But still, I feel like RuPaul, a strutting glamazon again. It is amazing what twenty two bucks and a cocktail will do for a girl.

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