Hill City Could Be Just What Gap Inc. Needs

WWD Digital Daily - - News - BY ADRI­ANA LEE

Gap Inc. might be ap­proach­ing half a cen­tury, but its story is still be­ing writ­ten — no­tably with a new chap­ter called Hill City, the men’s ac­tivewear busi­ness that made its de­but in late Septem­ber.

Launch­ing a brand can be tricky at any time, but per­haps par­tic­u­larly so for a com­pany that is scru­ti­niz­ing its over­all store count. While Old Navy and Ba­nana Repub­lic showed growth in the third quar­ter, its epony­mous The Gap brand stum­bled.

But so far, none of that seems to af­fect Hill City, founder Noah Palmer or his 18-per­son crew. They don’t ap­pear to bear any of the par­ent com­pany’s weight or wor­ries.

With­out a track record or a his­tor­i­cal pat­tern to rely on, the com­pany has to take num­bers — and en­cour­age­ment — wher­ever it can get them. In this case, it’s from Hill City’s wear testers, a unique pro­gram con­ceived with dozens of mem­bers in mind.

In­stead, as many as 30,000 hope­fuls stormed the com­pany, ask­ing to join the pro­gram. At this point, most wind up on the wait list.

“We’re just at the very early stages of the wear-tester pro­gram,” Palmer told WWD. “But hav­ing so many peo­ple in­ter­ested I think is a re­ally good in­di­ca­tor that we’re onto some­thing now.”

That some­thing is a pen­chant for pre­mium ath-leisurewear, com­mu­ni­ty­driven de­sign and at­tract­ing cus­tomers who aren’t just in­ter­ested, but pas­sion­ate about in­flu­enc­ing prod­uct de­vel­op­ment.

The com­pany also chose to com­mu­ni­cate with them in ways mod­ern con­sumers find most com­fort­able — via chats or di­rect mes­sages.

“We don’t have legacy com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nels. We didn’t have e-mail; we didn’t have a web site,” said Eric Toda,

Hill City’s head of mar­ket­ing. “But if we were to take leaps and bounds into the fu­ture of where this guy is, he’s pretty dom­i­nantly tex­ting.”

Scal­ing a feed­back pro­gram that still feels per­sonal could have been daunt­ing for the com­pany’s min­i­mal team. But in­stead of man­u­ally man­ag­ing mes­sages, it uses chat­bots for Face­book’s Mes­sen­ger and Twit­ter.

“If you talk to legacy brands, some­times you’ll hear them talk about the e-mail like it’s the most im­por­tant piece of in­for­ma­tion you have on a cus­tomer,” said Amit Ku­mar, founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of No­tify.io, which built Hill City’s chat­bots. “But if you think about to­day and then mov­ing for­ward, the re­al­ity is the abil­ity to en­gage with a cus­tomer through mes­sag­ing is re­ally sig­nif­i­cantly more pow­er­ful. And it’s re­ally where your cus­tomers are to­day and it will con­tinue to grow.”

Oth­er­wise, the premise is sim­i­lar to nearby Sil­i­con Val­ley’s beta testers. Hill City’s wear testers try out prod­ucts and sub­mit prob­lems, of­fer feed­back and make sug­ges­tions re­gard­ing fit, de­tail­ing and other as­pects of the gar­ments.

Their rec­om­men­da­tions are taken se­ri­ously and, when it makes sense, ac­tu­ally show up in the clothes.

Palmer pointed out a pair of pants dur­ing a tour of Hill City’s in- of­fice show­room in San Fran­cisco. He ex­plained that the vis­i­ble pocket had an­other hid­den com­part­ment. Turns out, it was a sug­ges­tion from a wear tester who wanted a bet­ter safe­guard for his per­sonal ef­fects.

Like the testers, Palmer and his team “are also pas­sion­ate about Hill City,” he said.

Think of it as a bid for min­i­mal­ism:

“We want to cre­ate fewer, bet­ter things that are more ver­sa­tile so that you’d need to have less things in gen­eral,” Palmer added. “I think ev­ery­one’s a little bit

Gap’s online-only brand shows some dig­i­tal savvy, just as The Gap looks to close stores.

over­whelmed with how much stuff is avail­able. We want to con­tribute as little as pos­si­ble to that sort of feel­ing, so you can have a whole closet and re­ally have it packed into just a few items.”

It’s the clas­sic “qual­ity, not quan­tity” ar­gu­ment. The work to smooth seams and move tags, so they don’t ir­ri­tate the skin, or add se­cret pock­ets, that likely adds com­plex­ity to the de­sign and pro­duc­tion process. But the founder be­lieves that mat­ters less for the cus­tomer ter­ri­tory Hill City has staked out.

“I think with women, what we typ­i­cally see is a little bit more tol­er­ance of fit if some­thing looks amaz­ing,” Palmer said. “Guys have no tol­er­ance for some­thing that doesn’t fit them ex­actly as they want. And this is es­pe­cially true when you think about per­for­mance ap­parel and ap­parel that’s, like, at a pre­mium price.”

In­deed, Hill City is not meant to be an­other Old Navy. If it has a spir­i­tual sib­ling, it would be Ath­leta. Its shop­pers of­ten re­quested a male- ori­ented ver­sion for their hus­bands or sons. So it makes some sense that the com­pany would in­tro­duce Hill City by plac­ing prod­ucts inside Ath­leta stores.

For an online brand, that brick-and­mor­tar pres­ence is a rare as­set. But it’s lim­ited — in­ten­tion­ally so. The pub­lic can check out the mer­chan­dise in per­son, but when it’s time to ac­tu­ally pur­chase, cus­tomers have to pull out a phone or use the in- store kiosk. Ei­ther way, peo­ple aren’t go­ing home that day with the prod­ucts.

On the sur­face, this ap­proach might look like a risk. Then again, to­day’s shop­pers are ac­cus­tomed to win­dow shop­ping in phys­i­cal stores and then buy­ing online any­way. One could ar­gue that this is merely an­other ex­am­ple of work­ing with con­sumers’ ex­ist­ing be­hav­iors.

For par­ent Gap Inc., it’s cer­tainly an ex­per­i­ment worth try­ing, among oth­ers.

A rocky third quar­ter for the com­pany saw same-store sales fall 7 per­cent, a par­tic­u­larly strik­ing down­turn set against the suc­cesses of Old Navy and Ba­nana Repub­lic, which showed growth of 4 and 2 per­cent, re­spec­tively. Now it plans to shrink the ar­mada of The Gap’s brickand-mor­tar lo­ca­tions.

Per­haps see­ing the writ­ing on the wall, Gap Inc. had al­ready en­tered into a part­ner­ship with Mi­crosoft ear­lier this month to bring its pub­lic-fac­ing apps and in­ter­nal sys­tems to the tech giant’s Azure cloud plat­form. The up­date, it wa­gers, will make the com­pany more ef­fi­cient and fuel bet­ter cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ences in stores and on online plat­forms.

That may be some­thing Gap’s new­est brand can help shed light on. Be­cause its suc­cesses and fail­ures will likely in­form The Gap and its sib­ling brands across the board.

Hill City looks to qual­ity,min­i­mal­ism and com­mu­nity-driven de­sign.

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