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Bridging the Gap

May 12, 2010

The Gap has been in the news a lot lately. First they sponsored last week’s Met Costume Gala often referred to as the Oscars of fashion. Then they announced their latest financial performance which is not so good. In between they were also the subject of a write-up in the WSJ which sparked much debate in the blogosphere. Basically, the Gap is floundering and no one seems to know how to fix it.

Although much has been made of the merchandise, personally I don’t think it’s the problem. While it’s not 100% where it should be, it has been getting better. I particularly fond of this sweater
and this dress.

For me, the Gap’s biggest problem is their lack of identity, and their outlook won’t improve until they define their brand, pick a customer, and actually starting making clothes for her (and him).

Arguably the best part of shopping in chain stores is the consistency. If I walk into Anthropologie I know I’ll find loads of pretty, girly, whimsical clothes. If I go to Abercrombie & Fitch I’ll find sexed up preppy chic (and be assaulted by their cologne). And I say this as a consumer who doesn’t really shop at either of those stores, but their brand is strong enough that it still resonates.

With the Gap I never know what to expect (and not in that good, fast fashion way).  It’s funny because as a corporation, they’ve managed to define Old  Navy’s brand (cheap and cheery) as well as Banana Republic’s (modern, professional clothing), but the Gap continues to flail around like a neglected middle child, constantly acting out in a desperate plea for attention.

The Gap’s inability to define its brand almost seems counter-intuitive when you consider how strong their marketing is. Remember this commercial?

(I learned this same dance in high school so this commercial holds a special place in my heart.)

and this one

or when SJP was a Gap spokeswoman

and even when Madonna and Missy did Gap commercials

I even remember the tags from old gap campaigns like, “Fall into the Gap,” and “For every generation there is a Gap.” The Gap obviously doesn’t lack for creative ideas, but when not supported by a strong brand,  even the best ideas fail.

For example, take the Gap’s recent decision to sponsor the Met Gala. Great idea, the theme was the American Woman: Fashioning a National Identity, which is a natural fit for an iconic American company like the Gap. Several notable designers like Alexander Wang and Thakoon designed dresses under the Gap’s moniker, worn by celebrities including Kirsten Dunst and Kerry Washington. The dresses are now being auctioned off to support the CFDA. Sounds good, right?

Kirsten Dunst in Rodare for the Gap

Jaime Bochert in Rodarte for the Gap

Vera Farmiga in Sophie Thellat for the Gap

Jessica Alba in Sophie Thellat for the Gap

Zoe Kravitz and M.I.A. with Alexander Wang in Alexander Wang for the Gap

Riley Killough in Thakoon for the Gap

Kerry Washington in Thakoon for the Gap

Except  the execution fails to match the promise of the concept. Aesthetically speaking these dresses have nothing to do with each other, let alone the Gap. As contrived and Project Runway-esque as it sounds, it would have been really interesting to see what would’ve happened if the designers were challenged to work with only one classically Gap material such as denim (in keeping with this season’s trend) or khaki. The results could have been amazing.

But all this talk with no action is useless.  Obviously I’m not in charge of the Gap, but if I were I would definitely shake things up a bit. First I’d break up the family. It’s been clear for a few years now that the Gap is struggling, maybe the best way for it to find an identity is to stand on its own two feet.

Second, I’d search for identity. Obviously that’s easier said then done, but it’s possible.  Of late, everyone seems to have hopped on the quirky pretty bandwagon and is mimicking J.Crew.  (Loft I’m looking at you.) Sure ruffles and sparkle are nice, on occasion, but I’m a grown-up, and enjoy dressing like one, not like I’m on my way to a tea party. Personally I think there’s a sweet spot between the eccentricity of J.Crew and monochromatic palette  of Club Monaco, especially the middle ground can be found at a lower price point.

Finally I’d stop with the discounting.  It’s common knowledge amongst mall shoppers that things at the Gap always go on sale. Lately they’ve run so many promotions you don’t even need to wait for an actual permanent markdown. When I first read about the Gap’s struggles, my immediate thought was that their margins must be awful. But according to the WSJ margins, are not the problem. (Though there was definitely  a lot of grumbling about quality.)   Instead of discounting the company should just permanently lower their prices, which would be an easy spin given the still challenging economic climate.  Or alternatively they could improve quality and raise their prices, a strategy JCrew used when they first began their turnaround, and look how far they’ve come.

I want to fall back into the Gap, I really do, they just need to get their act together so I can. What about you? Is there anything the Gap can do to convince you to come back?

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