What Gap must do to get out of its funk and back in the fashion game
Highly popular in the 1990s, Gap has fallen out of favour with young buyers and is struggling to arrest its decline
The news that Gap is to shut 175 of its 675 North American stores, as well as a number of European branches, underlines just how much the fashion industry has changed since the US chain's 1990s heyday.
When Alanis Morissette was on the radio and Friends was on TV, Gap's chinos and khaki combats were an essential part of a fashionable wardrobe.
"Gap provided customers with a uniform, which worked so well for Generation X," says Bernadette Kissane, apparel and footwear analyst at Euromonitor International. "Gap innovated constantly - with products and also with marketing, being the first fashion company to run US TV advertisements. The Gap uniform became so trendy that some celebrities wore it, too."
The high street was very different then. In Britain, Topshop and H&M had yet to be rejuvenated. Zara and Primark were not churning out copies of trends, while the Japanese high-performance wear of Uniqlo and sexy Californian spandex of American Apparel had yet to become ubiquitous. The Scandi minimalism of Cos was but a twinkle in H&M's eye.
Over the past 10 years, those brands have parked their tanks on Gap's lawn, and the US chain has failed to meaningfully defend itself. While the emerging brands have been clear about their unique selling points, Gap's identity has become muddied.
"The key problem is that they have not innovated with products," says Kissane. "It also feels as though neither they nor their consumer knows exactly who they are targeting."
Gap was founded in San Francisco in 1969, the brainchild of husband-and-wife team Donald and Doris Fisher, to sell Levi jeans and LPs. It was an immediate success, expanded rapidly across the US and started selling own-brand clothing in the '70s. But it was under chief executive Millard "Mickey" Drexler in the 1990s that the Gap really took off. Sweatshirts with the brand's logo became popular, the brand went on TV and Gap's American casual became a trademark look.
Towards the end of the decade, however, the retailer ran out of steam. In 2002, Drexler was fired, and senior executives have come and gone since.
In 2012, Gap sought to address its problems by hiring creative director Rebekah Bay - the driving force behind Cos. But the quiet, nuanced designs that had worked for the sophisticated customers at Cos did not translate worldwide. In January this year, Bay left and Gap scrapped the creative director position entirely, replacing it with a far more corporate-sounding role - executive vice-president, Gap product design and development.
Fashion industry adviser David Watts thinks this move is a huge mistake.
"Having a strong creative vision is absolutely crucial. It feels like Gap could not find the right person so instead they did away with the role; that suggests a problem with the management more than the brand."
Watts believes that as Gap became a mega-brand, its bureaucratic processes have become slow and complex, and those issues have trickled right down to the shop floor.
"I recently went to Gap," he says. "It was the most depressing retail experience I've had in a very long time. The lighting, the fixtures, the scratched floorboards - everything was dull. There was nothing I was inspired to pick up."
Certainly, the subdued Gap shopping experience feels nothing like stepping into Topshop or Urban Outfitters - where music pumps and lights are bright. Yet it is millennials, or Generation Y (those born between the '80s and the 2000s), that analysts believe Gap needs to attract. "That's where most of the disposable money and the interest in fashion is right now," says Kissane. "But millennials' concept of value is very different to Generation X. They expect trends far more quickly and cheaply than Gap has been delivering them."
Oddly enough, many of the ideas that made Gap so popular 20 years ago - understatement, androgyny, clothes as uniform - are on trend right now, seen at designers ranging from Alexander Wang to Céline.
The street style version of this trend has been described as "normcore" - wearing anti-trend, anti-label clothes of the type favoured by unlikely style inspirations Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, in an ironic way.
Gap dipped a toe in the normcore waters late last year with its "Dress Normal" campaign, featuring celebrities such as Anjelica Houston and Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss. Normcore clothes are styled with irony - oversized shirts; wilfully nerdy trousers cut off awkwardly at the ankle. Gap's watered down version was just, well, normal, and came a good nine months after the idea of normcore had captured the internet's imagination. In the digital age, nine months is an incredibly long time.
Being fleet of foot is a significant challenge for a giant like Gap. The company has pledged that its streamlined operation will be a lot faster to react to trends. While the store closures are terrible news for thousands of employees, Kissane believes they will help bring the chain into line with the demands of the modern age: "In 2014, internet sales made up 13 per cent of Gap's sales; in 2009 that was just 5 per cent, so that is growing really rapidly," she says.
Now what Gap needs is good product and a brand message so loud and clear it can be heard worldwide.
As others have pointed out, Gap's problem is that it has become the very thing millennials detest: "basic" - the internet generation's favourite insult right now, meaning boring, clichéd, blah. It's a word even most of those born before 1980 are now familiar with, since diva Kate Moss hurled the diss at a poor pilot recently.
While the supermodel may be Gen X to her core, she has at least mastered the lingo of Gen Y. If Gap really is to put millennials at the heart of its business plan, the least it needs to do is follow suit.