What Exactly Went Wrong With Gap

Photo: Courtesy of Gap.
News of Rebekka Bay’s exit as executive vice president and creative director of Gap hit the wires yesterday. Her position will not be refilled, and the company announced, oddly, that it would refocus its effort on customers, as if that was not the priority before. As Business of Fashion reported, global brand president Jeff Kirwan broke down Gap’s future this way: “Now’s the time to intensify our customer focus and break through with a truly dynamic and integrated approach to building relationships with our customers... Now is the right time to...focus the brand on delivering casual, American style.”

Rebekka Bay was a smart, visionary leader, and while it was a shock to hear of the departure of someone who had been touted as the answer — the savior, even — to a decade of flagging sales and neutered style for a heritage retailer, it wasn’t necessarily a surprise.

Gap hasn’t enjoyed a privileged spot in the retail landscape since the '90s, when khakis, crewneck sweatshirts, and ringer tees were the uniform de rigeur of the fashionable-but-not-frivolous set. When one of its stores finally appeared in the Midwestern mall near where I grew up in the '90s, the style sense of our suburb instantly changed: The brand was wholesome, safe, and modest, yes. But, also, it had that anonymity that made it urbane, sophisticated, and modern. In a pair of flat-front khakis and a ribbed turtleneck, you felt as discerning about your clothes as the famous people you admired on TV, even though theirs might have cost many times more.

The '90s might have been a weird time for style in that the more simple and streamlined your wardrobe was, the more taste you seemed to have — and Gap was on the forefront of that aesthetic. Even when, in the mid-2000s, it collaborated with a roster of indie, rising designers (Alexander Wang, Rodarte, and Thakoon were among the first of the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund finalists to work with the brand), the goal was still to reinvent basics. It was the white poplin shirt and the khaki layering piece that were the focus — not entire collections of diffused trends for the masses.
Photo: Courtesy of Gap.

Gap, in the 1990s, was one of CEO Mickey Drexler’s biggest success stories. He’s the one responsible for shining the light on the company's basics and making them covetable products, giving the signature khakis an indie, cool-kid spin by aligning them with one of the biggest dance trends of the time: swing. When he was fired in 2002 and then hired at J.Crew, he brought many of the same principles to J.Crew that he developed at Gap (creating staples in a multitude of options and colors, focusing on natural fibers, and creating a spartan merchandising scheme). Drexler's goal was the same: To take a classic, traditional brand and give it a high-fashion angle, and it catapulted J.Crew to success.

For J.Crew, Drexler's strategy also included focusing on embellishments, luxury elements, graphic prints, and splashy trends that characterized much of the mid-2000s. Gap attempted to mimic some of Drexler’s vision at J.Crew, while maintaining its traditional focus on basics. The result was a neither-here-nor-there amalgamation that was not quite fashion-forward and not quite classic.

But, it's not just the changing times and trends that are responsible for Gap's unpopularity. There have been quite a few obviously Gap moments that Gap missed out on entirely, including the neon hipster basics of the mid-2000s (a trend that American Apparel dominated), the urban-woodsman look of 2008 (that Urban Outfitters took the lead on), and the normcore of 2014 (that Zara ruled, despite Gap’s “Dress Normal” initiative, which lacked the cultural awareness to correctly capitalize on the movement). And, even though Gap could have, say, established itself as the non-sleazy alternative to American Apparel's library of basics, it never truly explored that option. It also ignored the expanding influence of utilitarian fashion, which left the market wide open for foreign brands like Uniqlo to take over, with its multitude of problem-solving technologies like Heat Tech and Airism.
Photo: Courtesy of Gap.
With Bay's position basically crossed out, perhaps Gap might finally realize that the answer is to innovate by stripping back. With foreign mass retailers such as Joe Fresh and Uniqlo spreading across states, and affordable indie purveyors of basics like Everlane dominating the online space, Gap may try to utilize its huge real estate advantage to reestablish itself as the staple store of this half of the decade. And, we bet if they really do make their customers a priority, they’ll realize that the answer lies in refusing to straddle that divide — or the gap, if you will — between trends and basics.

Pick one, stick with it, and you won't fall.

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