Why Gap is strug­gling

Its stores are full of un­flat­ter­ing clothes, de­spite new de­signer and shift in lead­er­ship.

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - By Booth Moore booth.moore@latimes.com Booth Moore is fash­ion critic for The Times.

De­spite a new de­signer and a shift in top man­age­ment, its stores are full of unf lat­ter­ing clothes, writes Times fash­ion critic Booth Moore.

Some­time in the last two months, I walked into a Gap store and spot­ted one of the ugli­est dresses I’d ever seen.

It was a sleeve­less style in a washed-out gray-green palm print with a full skirt hemmed tod­dler-length above the knee, but made for an adult woman, with the kind of in­verted pleat­ing that flat­ters no one. I au­di­bly gasped. The Ten­cel denim (read, shiny and cheap-look­ing) jog­ger pants next to it weren’t much bet­ter, nor was the stripey V-neck tu­nic that had all the flair of a med­i­cal scrubs top.

So news that Gap will close 175 of its stores — about one-quar­ter of its North Amer­i­can lo­ca­tions — and cut 250 cor­po­rate jobs at its San Fran­cisco head­quar­ters was not sur­pris­ing.

Sales at ex­ist­ing Gap stores fell 10% in the three months ended May 2. But Gap has been on a col­li­sion course with fash­ion ir­rel­e­vancy for a while now. For close to three years, Gap’s de­sign was un­der the helm of Re­bekka Bay, hired af­ter she helped launch Swedish fast fash­ion gi­ant H&M’s bal­ly­hooed min­i­mal­ist brand Cos.

Bay couldn’t have been a worse fit. Bring­ing Cos’ avant-garde and of­ten over­sized shapes and com­pli­cated drapes to the quintessen­tially Amer­i­can sports­wear brand was a mis­take. No one goes to Gap look­ing for a swing sweater or high­low hem dress, and much of Amer­ica has no busi­ness wear­ing those fig­ure-chal­leng­ing styles.

Gap’s trou­bles con­tin­ued to deepen, and Bay’s po­si­tion was elim­i­nated in Jan­uary. Shortly af­ter­ward, the com­pany hired Wendi Gold­man, who had been with the peppy-preppy brand C Won­der and Vic­to­ria’s Se­cret. But here we are in June, and there’s not much ev­i­dence that her hand has stead­ied the ship. Gap stores are still full of un­flat­ter­ing pa­per bag waist skirts, shape­less elas­tic waist dresses and T-shirts in off-putting brush­stroke prints.

In ad­di­tion to chang­ing de­sign lead­er­ship, Gap has made mul­ti­ple al­ter­ations to top man­age­ment, cul­mi­nat­ing in a new CEO this year.

What­ever the rea­son, Gap clearly suf­fers from a lack of fo­cus. I know we are liv­ing in the age of fash­ion in­di­vid­u­al­ism, when trends don’t much mat­ter any­more. But that doesn’t mean a re­tailer shouldn’t have some di­rec­tion for shop­pers.

Gap’s much-pub­li­cized 2014 brand repo­si­tion­ing with the tagline “Dress Nor­mal,” as zeit­geisty as it was by tap­ping into the whole norm­core thought scoop, was a ma­jor mis­step. Advertising “nor­mal” clothes is akin to selling fla­vor­less cof­fee. Why bother, even when you have David Fincher and Sofia Cop­pola di­rect­ing your com­mer­cials?

In an ap­par­ent re­ver­sal of course, for spring 2015 Gap launched a cam­paign star­ring Paul Dano and Jenny Slate in a mi­cro se­ries of Web episodes with the tagline “Spring Is Weird.” So what is it? Is Gap nor­mal or weird or both?

The as­sort­ment in stores is no less con­fus­ing.

This spring, the re­tailer has missed op­por­tu­ni­ties to jump on sev­eral straight-offthe-run­way fash­ion trends that would have been a per­fect fit for an el­e­vated Amer­i­can sports­wear brand, in­clud­ing the boho 1970s (where are Gap’s flared jeans, fringed bags and cro­chet tops?) and ging­ham checks and over­alls. In­stead, Gap is still selling last year’s skinny jeans and short-shorts.

Why wouldn’t shop­pers head to For­ever 21, H&M and Zara, where on-trend styles are abun­dant — and cost much less than any­thing at Gap, for the same, near-dis­pos­able qual­ity?

Gap’s lower-priced Old Navy chain also has been do­ing well, per­haps a re­flec­tion of the slow re­cov­ery of house­hold in­comes from post-re­ces­sion lows.

Gap’s news comes on the heels of J. Crew’s an­nounce­ment that it is re­plac­ing its top women’s de­signer and cut­ting 175 jobs af­ter a de­cline in sales of its women’s col­lec­tion. J. Crew is in­stalling Som­sack Sikhoun­muong, head of de­sign from sis­ter brand Madewell, in its top spot and hop­ing some of that brand’s magic will rub off.

And Gap and J. Crew aren’t the only ones suf­fer­ing. With dis­ap­point­ing first-quar­ter fi­nan­cial re­sults at Michael Kors, Ur­ban Out­fit­ters, Aero­postale and Aber­crom­bie & Fitch, it’s clear we’re just scratch­ing the sur­face of the great Amer­i­can re­tail shake­out. Come next year at this time, the lo­cal mall could look a whole lot dif­fer­ent.

Joe Raedle Getty Im­ages

Joe Raedle Getty Im­ages

SALES AT EX­IST­ING GAP lo­ca­tions fell 10% in the three months ended May 2. The com­pany says it will close 175 of its stores. Above, a store in Mi­ami Beach, Fla.

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