Inside the making of Yeezy Gap
It was almost 90 degrees in New York City’s Times Square recently when
100 people were wrapped around the block outside the Gap, waiting for its doors to open.
Inside the store 24 industrial-size sacks were lined up in two long rows and stuffed with clothing from Yeezy Gap, the collaboration between the artist formerly known as Kanye West (now simply Ye) and the giant ur-American brand.
For anyone following the partnership since its buzzy birth more than two years ago, this was a major development: the first time customers would be able to see and touch the clothes inside a store. They would get to try on the unisex tees, double-layered hoodies and long-sleeve shirts in dark colors. When they swiveled in front of the fitting room mirrors, they would see images of doves in flight printed across their backs.
Ultimately, they would get to judge for themselves how the boxy silhouettes and thick cotton differed from Gap’s typical offering — and decide whether that was enough to shift the fortunes of the brand: to make people across the country line up in anticipation, spend with alacrity and see Gap once again as a defining, disruptive staple of American fashion.
As opposed to viewing it as a corporation — Gap Inc. is the parent company of Gap, Banana Republic, Old Navy and Athleta — that is currently wrestling with the departure of its CEO after only two years, along with diminishing profits (including a net $162 million loss in the first quarter of this year) and dwindling cultural relevance.
It was that uncool factor that seemingly drove Gap to announce, in June 2020, a 10-year deal with the undeniably cool Ye and his fashion line Yeezy, with the option to renew at the five-year mark, at which point Gap hoped Yeezy
Gap would be generating $1 billion in annual sales. Though mass-market brands have engaged in one-off collaborations with high-end designers and celebrities for years, Yeezy Gap was, in scope and ambition, unlike any the retail world had seen.
Except that in its first 18 months, the partnership yielded just two products, both sold only online.
It wasn’t until a third party, Balenciaga, the French luxury house, entered the collaboration that a full Yeezy Gap collection was finally released this year (though it was still relatively small, with 36 styles in total unveiled in May).
In July, a portion of the collection was rolled out in about 50 stores nationwide. It is a milestone in the much-watched collaboration, but one that raises the question: What took so long?
Corporate meets creative
Going into the Gap deal, Ye had a certain track record in the fashion-forthe-masses business; in 2020, the sneaker collaboration between Yeezy and Adidas brought in nearly $1.7 billion in revenue, according to Bloomberg.
He had less success in building a ready-to-wear brand. An early attempt at a glitzy namesake luxury label in Paris had fizzled, and a comeback with the more minimal, conceptual athleisure Yeezy yielded unpredictable results.
Still, there was no denying his cultural influence and compulsive watchability.
Gap’s footing was less sure. In 2020, the brand’s net sales (about $3.4 billion) had been declining every year since 2013.
Industry wisdom said the company needed something big to stop the downward spiral. Ye was about as big as they come.
But he was not, as
Mickey Drexler, who led Gap from 1983 to 2002, told Yahoo Finance in 2021, “a corporate person, and Gap is a big corporation,” with hierarchies, systems, calendars and fluency in SKUs.
Julie Gilhart, the president of Tomorrow Projects, agreed. “In my experience, Gap was all about risk management,” she said. “They didn’t want to disgruntle anyone. And if you go with Kanye, you have to know there is risk involved.”
But controversy did not deter either side. Ye got to work, bringing on Nigerian-British designer Mowalola Ogunlesi as design director as early as the summer of 2020. (Ogunlesi left after a year, at the expiration of her contract.)
According to two people who worked on the collaboration, the original goal was to have a collection ready by November 2020. The garments were conceived to be relatively affordable, around $50.
One early product that survived the creative process was the “round jacket,” a puffy jacket.
This was Yeezy Gap’s first piece, made available for purchase in June 2021. It was sold for $200 in three colors. Yeezy Gap’s second piece dropped online a few months later: a plain, heavy cotton hoodie in six colors for $90.
The Balenciaga factor
Between the puffer and the hoodie, Gap intervened, hiring Leonardo Lawson, the former CEO of the British brand the Vampire’s Wife, to help drive strategy for Yeezy Gap — with Ye’s blessing, Lawson said. (Ye did not respond to requests for comment for this article.) Lawson’s directive has essentially been to build a conduit between Yeezy and Gap. He helped open a Los Angeles office for Yeezy Gap. Lawson was promoted to head of Yeezy Gap in March.
Meanwhile, Ye had already asked Demna, mononymous creative director of Balenciaga, to get involved.
“He said this is what he needs there: to bring this know-how to the brand, bring the structure; fittings, atelier, patternmaker,” Demna said.
Demna said he felt the need to “be there for him to help him create a solid foundation for Ye’s aesthetic on which they can now build. To accelerate the process.” Hence the name of the collaboration: “engineered by Balenciaga.”
And the clothes could, with the help of the strengthened Los Angeles infrastructure, make it out of the experimental phase and into the public’s hands.
What happens now?
The work with Balenciaga “really has been a fluid collaboration,” Lawson said. The entire experience of building Yeezy Gap “has been about being fluid,” and “creating new ways of doing things, and understanding how these ways of doing things will impact the bigger Gap brand and help everything be a little bit more fluid.”
But is fluidity enough to help Gap make a profit? This spring, before the largest Yeezy Gap drop to date, analysts who spoke to the Times were skeptical of Ye’s long-term effect on Gap as a company.
“Anyone who was excited about the Yeezy partnership when it was announced is disappointed with the amount of product that is coming out,” said Simeon Siegel, a retail analyst at BMO Capital Markets.
With the advent of the in-store product, however, that could change.
According to Demna, Balenciaga’s work on the project is now over, and he’s not sure what will happen next. But Yeezy Gap has its sights on other future partnerships, in addition to growing its core business.
As Demna said, when it comes to Ye: “This was just step No. 1. He needed a starting point, and that was my challenge: to give him the starting point. But he is still miles and miles away from where he wants this to go.”