What happened to the Gap?

The language of style.
March 9 2006 6:37 PM

Never Mind the Gap

How the retailer's clothes got so dreadful.

No one's falling into the Gap anymore? Click image to expand.
No one's falling into the Gap anymore?

It's hard to overstate the importance of black pants to young women in the early 1990s. Once you found a pair that fit perfectly—and maybe a good square-toe black ankle-boot to match—half the work of assembling a sleek, confidence-building wardrobe was done. My "magic pair," on which I blew nearly a week's salary, were made of cotton velvet and cut in the manner of blue jeans. I still remember the trepidation and excitement with which I brought them to the register of the Daryl K boutique on Bond Street. I wore them at least four days a week.

Lucinda Rosenfeld Lucinda Rosenfeld
Lucinda Rosenfeld is the author of the novels What She Saw . . . and Why She Went Home.

My secondary pair of black pants, however—tab-fronted, boot-legged, made of a cotton-polyester blend with a slight sheen—came from the Gap. They weren't quite as fabulous as my Daryl Ks, but I wore them the other three days of the week. My best black A-line miniskirt—summer's answer to black pants—also hailed from the retail behemoth. With patch pockets and white over-stitching, it had a relaxed feel that matched up nicely with my size-too-small cap-sleeve T-shirts and clunky black slides. 

These days, I never think of walking into a Gap. And neither, it seems, does anyone else. Last year, profits at North American Gap stores fell 10 percent, while the share price of Gap Inc.—which includes Banana Republic and Old Navy—fell 16.5 percent. (For a Slate Moneybox on the company's financial woes, click here.) Once synonymous with the very category of mid- to high-end chain stores it helped to invent, the Gap is now in serious trouble. What changed? Was it the Gap, or was it us?

It's hard now to recall, but for a brief moment in the early '90s the Gap's stripped-down aesthetic seemed like a rare gesture of authenticity in a world of excess. The attitude was cemented in a popular ad campaign, shot by Annie Liebovitz and others, that featured black-and-white portraits of semifamous hipsters (Spike Lee, Joni Mitchell, Henry Rollins, Liz Phair) wearing Gap basics. Sharon Stone's 1995 Academy Awards appearance—the screen diva, presumably in a show of rebellion against the bejeweled insanity of Oscars past, wore a full-length Valentino silk-crepe trumpet skirt with a black stretch-cotton Gap tee—only enhanced the populist appeal. What's more, the brand seemed to matter. A recurring Saturday Night Live skit featured "the Gap Girls." The retailer merited its own spoof ad campaign: an ingenious poster that featured a picture of the Führer in chinos and jack boots and announced, "Hitler Wore Khakis." Critics wrote about the brouhaha in high-end outlets like Artforum.

How did the Gap fall off the cultural map? In search of answers, I recently paid a visit to a mammoth Gap store on lower Fifth Avenue in New York. The company has launched an interior redesign campaign in select locations, but this store was still marching to its old Swedish-minimalist-meets-middle-school-gymnasium drummer: pale wood floors, lots of white wall, track lighting. For 12 noon on a Tuesday, the place seemed modestly populated.

The women's department that day was highlighting drawstring blouses and cropped trench coats that tied at the waist. The khaki version of the latter, for $68 (reduced now to $39.99), had the makings of a modern-day Gap classic. But the proportions were off: It was cut too short in the hips. A rubberized version of the coat was cut longer but imprinted with a blinding purple-and-magenta pattern that recalled an appalling shower-curtain from the late 1970s. Offered for $88 (now $59.99), it was a true eyesore. There was also a nice, narrow-fitting military-inspired jacket for $68. However, I'd seen versions of the same style at both H&M and Old Navy for less.

These items point up the Gap's two underlying problems. For starters, the brand is still aligned in the public imagination with the back-to-basic ethos of the '90s. Which is to say, T-shirts and jeans. As such, it can't begin to compete with the knock-off meccas (H&M, Zara, Club Monaco, etc.) that have become popular in the froufrou-mad '00s. These days, it seems, we want our mall stores to be ripping off high-fashion houses, not mass-producing sweat pants. But when the Gap moves in this direction (as with the unfortunate Prada-wannabe trench), it misfires badly. The company has hired a new designer whose first efforts will hit stores this fall, but even so, it's hard to imagine the Gap doing well selling asymmetrical sweaters and crocheted gaucho pants.

Second, the Gap may be the victim of its own success, insofar as its sister retailers have diluted the brand. Old Navy sells the 'round-the-house styles that made the Gap famous at lower price points. Meanwhile, Banana Republic proffers office-ready, boutique-quality versions of the same standbys, which makes the Gap look dowdy and down-market by comparison. Moving into the main room, I did find some of the old staples for sale—but the prices and quality were never quite right. The polo shirts, for example, had a streamlined shape and came in a pleasing array of jewel tones but were a tad expensive at 24 bucks a pop. The T-shirts, on the other hand, were cheap but featured a superfluous little pocket located somewhere near the collarbone. Honestly, who needs a pocket up there?

The Gap, which began as a blue-jeans store, is also having trouble with denim. Mimicking luxury retailers like Barneys New York, Gap stores now feature "jeans bars" with a dedicated salesperson. And the company is cutting jeans for all kinds of bodies—a noble concept. But the Gap has made the process so complicated that it takes an advanced degree to figure out which pants to try on. I fingered one seemingly promising pair on the shelf only to find them marked "original" "boy cut" "left weave" "ankle." Huh? Hoping to master the categorization system, I consulted gap.com but only grew more confused. What is the difference, for example, between "straight boy cut" and "original long & lean"? It was enough to make me think I might get another few months' wear out of last year's Sevens.

Which leads us to the other problem with the Gap's denim selection. Like it or not, the '00s are the era of the $200 designer jean. The labels themselves may be smaller than they were in the early '80s (when Jordache, Bon Jour, and Sergio Valente were duking it out—at least in my New Jersey suburb). But for those in the know, the back pocket stitching of today's favored brands exudes cool. The Gap, however, has forfeited this territory—in most cases, leaving the back pocket blank. At the same time, designer jeans outfits choose whimsical labels for their wares: names that are no more mystifying than the Gap's but that sound a lot less like homework. Right now, for example, the New York boutique Intermix is offering "J Brand 914 cigarette jeans." You don't need a chart to get the idea: You'd better start chain-smoking if you want get these babies on.

Next stop on my tour was GapBody, where sleep- and loungewear in cheerful lollipop shades filled the racks. Hanging above them were color photographs of beaming "nice girls" with their arms folded modestly beneath their bras. GapBody may be all about the bedroom, but the idea of sex had been excised from the place. (Also, the padded bras seemed a little expensive at $36 each.) Here was an area where the company seems to have confused basic with boring—certainly not the best way to woo the youth market.

Or maybe the youth market is the problem. Perhaps the Gap should give up on the young folks (whose tastes are notoriously fickle, anyway) and get back to the business of black pants and the women who once lived for them. It's too bad, really, that the Gap's parent company has launched Forth & Towne, a new line of stores that will cater to women over 35. It might have been smarter for the Gap itself to reclaim a generation whose fashion senses were cemented at the age of 21 (and who are unlikely ever to get their heads around crocheted gauchos—or their hips into J Brand 914 cigarette jeans). These people need clothes, too, and they're not ready to shop at Talbot's. The trick is not to scare them away with rubberized trench coats, but to give them clothes so basic and familiar that they begin to shop at the Gap again without even realizing that they're doing so—kind of like those unwitting Ambien drivers cruising the streets at 3 a.m. It's time for the Gap to give up on being cool. Middle age is about accepting yourself and your limitations. And the Gap, after all, which came into the world in 1969—just as I did—is rapidly approaching 40.