Go Forth and Go Out of Business

R.I.P. Forth & Towne, Gap’s ill-conceived brand for older women.

Gap announced today that it would close its 19 Forth & Towne stores and scuttle the brand, designed for women 35 and older. In fall 2005, right after the first stores opened, Julia Turner assessed the clothes in a slide show essay reproduced below. While she liked some of what she saw, she concluded that the designers were too focused on reproducing youthful fashions with a more generous cut, writing, “If Forth & Towne wants to appeal to … their target demographic—to those who are over 35 and don’t care to dress like they’re 20—it may want to help these women find an interesting, affordable way to dress like themselves.”

Forth & Towne, the new store from Gap Inc., was born of a statistic. The company—which also owns the Gap, Old Navy, and Banana Republic—sells clothes to about 8 percent of women under 35. But it reaches only 3 percent of “older” women: that is, women 35 and over. And so it has created Forth & Towne with the intent of luring in this demographic.

Women age 35 and over are, in the words of Forth & Towne president Gary Muto, “underserved.” They have more income than younger women but fewer places to shop. For most middle-aged women, the mall is a wasteland: Apart from Eileen Fisher, which peddles roomy clothes in natural fibers, and Chico’s, which sells ethnic print sweater-coats and the like, it’s just tumbleweeds rolling through the food court. As a result, many women in this demographic are forced to comb through the racks at department stores or pore over catalogs like Coldwater Creek and J. Jill. For women in this age group, shopping can be a time-consuming (and, at times, frustrating) cobbling together of bits and pieces from various sources.

As a business idea, then, Forth & Towne makes sense. As a fashion concept, though, it raises a few questions. For starters: Who are these “women 35 and over”? It’s a group both enormous and diverse. It includes Sarah Jessica Parker and Madeleine Albright, Anna Wintour and Oprah Winfrey, Mrs. Robinson and Miss Havisham. It includes both my elegant 59-year-old mother, who scours department stores and discount chains like Loehmann’s for classic suits, and her chic 44-year-old sister, who recently devised a way to wear an Hermès scarf as a shirt.

How does Forth & Towne intend to appeal to all these women? To find out, I drove to West Nyack, N.Y., where one of the first outposts opened in August, to take a look at the clothes.

Click here to see a slide show on Forth & Towne.