The Gap Gets a Makeover

“Where the hell am I supposed to wear that?”  This must be the question most frequently asked during Fashion Week by people who are not at the shows. The Spring 2009 fashion season began this weekend in New York, and before the big names showed—Marc Jacobs on Monday; Michael Kors on Wednesday—smaller labels likely known only to fashion junkies sent a parade of thoughtful but extreme looks down the runway.

At ThreeAsFour, we saw sensual, artfully draped clothes in a Georgia O’Keefe palette. (Some of the looks recalled Princess Lea, not such a bad thing to fashion people.) For men, Daughters by Obedient Sons presented amusingly twerpy suits. (“Twerpy” as in schoolboy uniforms, cut to adult sizes.) Both collections indicated that deep pastels and the continuing revival of the ‘80s slouch are in the air.

But if you are not a fashion junkie, why should you care? Fashion Week must seem as far from reality as Wasilla is from the Executive Office Building. You want me to wear a white leotard with a chiffon float? Where?

The odd thing about Fashion Week, though, is that mall-style megabrands are on the same calendar as design stars and cult favorites. Fashion Week is not always devoid of wearable clothes. This season, for example, look to the Gap.Presenting his first spring collection for the giant brand yesterday, Patrick Robinson, an industry veteran who became the Gap’s head of global design in 2007, threw down an unexpected challenge to other big brands and design stars alike.

While Diesel—another major jeans brand showing this week—gussied up its popular denim with top hats and Hammer pants, Robinson did what the Gap ought to do: He showed stylish clothes that most people can afford. And in an era when high-ticket designers like Proenza Schouler feature only extreme, camera-ready fashion on the runway, saving the everyday jackets and skirts for the showroom, Robinson also proved that good-old American sportswear is more than a prosaic relic: It can also be cool. 

Robinson’s gallerylike presentation was packed with fashion power. Vogue’s Anna Wintour previewed the 55 fresh-faced models before other guests arrived. Harper’s Bazaar editor Glenda Bailey smiled brighter with each wide-leg trouser. So did Project Runway’s Nina Garcia and designer Carolina Herrera.

Robinson, who created editorial magic for Perry Ellis before exiting in a dispute in 2003, seems the ideal savior for the once-innovative brand. He has designed for Giorgio Armani, Anne Klein, and Paco Rabanne. (Though those collections were not always well-received, he has remained popular in fashion circles.) More recently, he launched a capsule collection for Target. Perhaps most important, Robinson spent the better part of his career abroad and has a keen eye for street style, both of which should come in handy as he guides a utilitarian brand with global reach. It’s easy to spot the parisienne in the offhand way he puts a look together.

Robinson’s fall collection—his first—was shown in February, and the New York Times aptly called it: “Oliver Twist goes to a Nirvana concert.” While that’s not a terrible concept, skeptics wondered whether the Euro-ragamuffin look would appeal to consumers.

For spring, Robinson wisely went lively. He played with stripes—a Gap favorite—offering colorful, “Peanuts”-esque sweaters and bathing suits. A guy’s pajama jacket and an office-worthy white knit blazer for women said “Buy me!” But Robinson’s real success was to make the clothes current without losing the carefree spirit that ought to be Gap’s signature. He’s lightened up the weight of the T-shirts for fans of American Apparel’s feather-thin knits and given the women’s clothes occasional, delicate feminine details (a tiny tulle ruffle, a silk flounce) that have been recent fashion favorites but missing from Gap stores.

Altogether, Robinson seems to have set an ideal direction for the brand with his spring collection. On New York’s runways, American sportswear—perfectly simple, chic, wearable clothes—is usually the territory of Michael Kors, but his “wheels-up” glamour offers aspirational style, not populist ease. Robinson’s collection offered truly chic sportswear for everybody.

The question for the Gap is: Will “everybody” buy it? Lately, the company’s stock has taken a beating; it filed a $1.14 billion loss on sales of $8 billion in 2007. Part of the problem is that blue jeans, long one of the company’s mainstays, are no longer considered a basic: consumers now shell out hundreds for designer jeans rather than snapping up the Gap’s workaday versions. And some fashion consumers have complained that the brand’s bland stores don’t reflect the slicker style of its advertising. A few weeks ago, the New York Times compared the brand with the sexier Abercrombie & Fitch, going so far as to do a bag count outside the recently spruced-up 5th Avenue store one day in August. (Six Gap bags compared with A&F’s 27 clocked in 15 minutes.)

Representatives of the Gap declined comment on whether a major brand overhaul all is in the works. With a planned 18 percent decrease in ad spending for 2008, it seems unlikely. But it would be a shame if Robinson’s able work goes unsung, unnoticed, and unpurchased. If good design is not enough to right the ship, perhaps the Gap should also take a cue from its founders. Part of the original genius of the Gap (named for the generation gap) was that it knew how to get people to its stores: The original location, near San Francisco State University, was also a record shop, and in the early days, the records outsold the jeans. Perhaps shopping at the Gap should once again become an experience; the company could even sell CDs. The jeans might catch on.