How will Gap win us back?
Wednesday evening, 7pm, in Gap’s Oxford Circus store. Clothes and hangers clutter the changing rooms, two of which are being used as overflow storage, and there is a long queue at the tills.
The staff are helpful, yes, but all too thin on the ground, torn between folding piles of T-shirts, running to the stockroom to find a size and jumping on the tills. At 10am the next day in two of the brand’s City branches, it’s better — but not much. Friendly, helpful staff, but still the messy fitting rooms, cramped store layout and mountains of sale stock.
So, what happened to Gap? The store that in its 1990s heyday dressed the cool kids from LA to London and, famously, Sharon Stone on the red carpet (Gap white shirt, Vera Wang skirt, Oscars 1998) has slowly morphed into a retail monolith of dusty changing rooms and windows plastered with ever-present “sale” signs. Globally, earnings for the first quarter of this year are down 10%, in the fifth straight quarterly decline and the worst performance since 2011, and earlier this month it announced it is to close one-quarter of its stores in America and chop 250 corporate jobs. The UK arm, while not closing any stores, will not be renewing leases on some as they expire “on a case-by-case basis”, according to the brand.
The experts point the finger of blame at the brand’s failure to attract millennials — while Generation X shoppers bought into a uniform of T-shirts and chinos, today’s shoppers create their own style from a range of high-street competitors such as H&M, Topshop, Uniqlo and Asos. “Gap failed to keep up with the times,” says Marshall Lester, CEO of ML Marketing, who was director of design and image at the brand in the US from1989 to 1991. “It was the go-to store for buying into the American lifestyle — jeans, polos, sweatshirts,” he says. “But go into a Gap now and it’s drab, dull and flaccid. Go into Uniqlo and it’s bright, lively, exciting and engaging — exactly what Gap should have become. I compare it to the restaurants Café Rouge and Côte — Café Rouge got stuck in the 1990s, and then Côte came along and showed everyone exactly what the modern version of that French brasserie model should be.”
A source close to the company says: “It needs to wean itself off the discount cycle. The loyal Gap customer no longer buys full-price items, and the UK senior management needs a new lease of life, with fresh ways of thinking and retailing. It has been left behind when it comes to online and click-and-connect shopping.”
A revolving door of creative directors — including Rebekka Bay, the founder of Cos, who was brought in to revamp the brand but lasted a little more than two years — hasn’t helped.
It’s not all doom, though. Gap still holds a place in the British public’s heart — open any fashion editor’s wardrobe and you will find one of the brand’s white tees here, a cashmere jumper there. “The cuts are simple and devoid of decoration or trimming, so they never date, plus Gap cashmere washes beautifully,” says Sarah Harris, fashion features director at British Vogue. “They actually last longer than my designer cashmere.”
This season, its oxford shirts for men and sundresses for women are particularly good. Here, fashion insiders share what’s right and wrong with the label.
Photograph: David Yeo. Hair and make-up: Celine Nonon at Terri Manduca using Estee Lauder cosmetics and Paul Mitchell haircare
What the fash pack love and loathe about Gap
Michael Hennegan, fashion and lifestyle editor, Style
“I have a confession — I love Gap. Yes, the stores are crammed and hard to navigate, but I wear one of its basic crew-neck tees most days — they’re a great fit and a bargain at £9 a pop. In winter, the store is my go-to for waffle-knit cashmere. What it does well is basics — tees, chinos, oxfords and knits; what it doesn’t do well is on-trend fashion. But, really, who has it all?”
Pandora Sykes, fashion features editor, Style
“I remember, aged 11, adjusting my sawn-off Gap tracksuit bottoms so the logo waistband of my Gap knickers could be seen out of the top. Back then, Gap was fashion; now its classic simplicity has an enduring, trend-free appeal. Timeless, yes, but where is the directional stuff? I’d buy a trench, but I wouldn’t buy a coat for making an impression in.”
Dan May, style director, Mr Porter
“Gap was always about great basics. I still have a few old Gap cashmere jumpers, admittedly with a few holes in now, but that’s a sign they’ve had a life! The likes of Uniqlo, H&M and Cos have come in with cheaper garments, and Gap has struggled to keep its status as the go-to place for sweats, chinos, tees and cashmere. The brand still has a lot to offer, and with careful planning and guidance I’m sure it can recover.”
Bip Ling, blogger
“Gap hoodies were quite a trend when I was at school, but the brand didn’t develop new designs and have stock on the shop floor that people wanted asap. When I think of Gap, I think of beige chinos and white T-shirts, which everyone has in their wardrobe, but don’t need to replace that often.”
Oliver Spencer, designer
“I’ve always been a fan of Gap; my mum bought me Gap underwear. Now my wife buys clothes for our children there. It makes good basics, but the challenge is for it to make those basics relevant in today’s market, meeting the needs of millennials. Its discount strategy needs readdressing — too much, too often.”
Teo van den Broeke, senior style editor, Esquire magazine
“I don’t actually have any current Gap pieces, but I would buy its underwear and basic T-shirts, which are good quality and affordable. I’ve got some spotty boxers, though I won’t say how long I’ve had them.”
Ruth Chapman, co-founder of Matchesfashion.com
“I loved Gap’s collaborations, such as Pierre Hardy and Valentino. I used to buy a lot of Gap Kids for my children when they were little.”