How Gap fell apart at the seams

How Gap fell apart at the seams: As the US retailer closes all 81 of its British and Irish stores, FEMAIL charts how it went from the go-to destination for must-have basics… to just a bit bland

  • Gap will close all 81 of its stores in Britain and Ireland as it moves online-only
  • US retailer opened its first store in the UK in 1987 to much fanfare 
  • Its offering of denim jeans and casual basics epitomised American cool 
  • But it failed to update its offering in line with current trends, experts say 

Famous for its logo hoodies and classic denim, Gap offered shoppers a much sought-after taste of classic American style when it first opened its doors in Britain. 

It became a go-to for anyone looking to replicate the effortless jeans and a T-shirt look so popular in the US – at a price that was affordable to a range of shoppers.  

At its peak, Gap bagged A-listers like Madonna, Missy Elliott and Sarah Jessica Parker for its award-winning advertising campaigns and its signature sweatshirts were a must-have for teens around the world. Sharon Stone even wore Gap at the Oscars. 

‘It used to be the one-stop shop for that faux Ralph Lauren, American yuppie, clean-cut “weekend in the Hamptons look”,’ celebrity stylist Rachel Gold told FEMAIL. ‘Its prices were reasonable and the clothing aspirational. And the quality was great.’ 

But in recent years the retailer has been caught in a downwards spiral – both in the US and in the UK – as demand for its wardrobes basics has waned and shoppers have gone online in search of cheaper, trendier clothing.  

In a statement, Gap blamed ‘market dynamics’ for the closures, and vowed to offer ‘support and transition assistance’ for staff members. It is not clear how many jobs are at risk. 

To retail experts, the closure of Gap branches is the latest, almost inevitable, step for a company that has failed to move with the times – both in terms of its design and what its stores offer high street shoppers.

US cool: At its peak, Gap bagged A-listers like Madonna, Missy Elliott (pictured in 2004) and Sarah Jessica Parker for its award-winning advertising campaigns and its signature sweatshirts were a must-have for teens around the world. Sharon Stone even wore Gap at the Oscars

From basics… to bland: To retail experts, the closure of Gap stores is the latest, almost inevitable, step for a company that has failed to move with the times – both in terms of its design and what its brick-and-mortar offering gives to high street shoppers

The same styles that made it famous – t-shirts, khakis, jumpers and denim in a range of cut and colour – now holds it back.   

‘Gap offers a limited amount of product just cannot keep up with the fast fashion brands that are out there like I Saw It First and Boohoo,’ explained brand expert Nick Edes.

Retail expert Kate Hardcastle agreed, telling Radio 4: ‘They were very firm in their offer and that carefully curated denim that once had curb appeal for shoppers suddenly became lost in time.’ 

Stores have long offered prolific discounts in a bid to attract shoppers, but even that is not enough to tempt customers off the computer and onto the high street.  

The problem of a lack of football was only exacerbated by the pandemic.   

Ms Hardcastle explained: ‘As consumers have moved on, competition has come into the marketplace, we’ve seen the brands you want to shop in physical retail have to have so much more than products on offer, they have to have purpose for that consumer. 

Pioneering founders: Gap’s story began with San Francisco couple Donald and Doris Fisher’s quest to make it easier for shoppers to find a pair of jeans that properly fit 

First UK store: After nearly 20 years of growth in America, the clothing giant decided to cross the pond in 1987 and opened its first store outside the States in London. Pictured in 1987

‘So that might be on the value side of life, brands like Primark, or it might be on the experience side of life, but it can’t just be a case that doors or shutters open and shoppers flock to buy items. The stores have looked the same way too.

‘It’s about moving with consumers, it’s about making sure your brand messaging is moving with the times too. Things like environmental and ethical messaging is very important for consumers.

‘If you look at everything from the social media offering, the advertising for Gap, things just didn’t feel like a company that had embraced the consumer.’

Mr Ede added: ‘Gap has always been a great shop on the high street but the question is has it changed or evolved and the answer is “no”.’ 

Gap’s story began with San Francisco couple Donald and Doris Fisher’s quest to make it easier for shoppers to find a pair of jeans that properly fit. 

A-list appeal: Sarah Jessica Parker and Will Kemp in a Gap advert from September 2004 

Celeb collaborations: Kate Moss at the launch of Stella McCartney x Gap in 2010

Together they raised $63,000 and managed to open their first store on Ocean Avenue in 1969, choosing their name from the perceived generation gap at the time.

The store only sold Levi’s jeans and record tapes, but its popularity grew so quickly that it opened a second store the following year. By 1972 it had 25 locations across the US. 

Through the 1970s it started to launch its own brands of clothes as it became a dominant force in the US clothing market. In 1976 it went public with an initial offering of 1.2 million shares of stock at $18 per share.

In 1982 it purchased Banana Republic and opened its first Gap Kids store in 1986.

After nearly 20 years of growth in America, the clothing giant decided to cross the pond in 1987 and opened its first store outside the States in London.

Four years later it dropped Levi’s jeans, and a year later supermodels posed on the cover of Vogue Magazine’s 100th anniversary issue wearing Gap-brand jeans and woven shirts. 

Visit from the President: Barack Obama in a Gap store in New York City in March 2014

By 1995 the brand was opening stores around the world, as a Gap and Gap Kids opened in Tokyo, Japan.

The 1990s boom was overseen by Millard ‘Mickey’ Drexler as CEO, and saw the company open its Old Navy brand, which offered lower-priced clothes for customers.

After 29 months of slumping sales, Mr Drexler stepped down as CEO in 2002. 

A year later the Old Navy brand went international, and in 2003 Madonna and Missy Elliott starred in a advert for Gap’s autumn designs.

The late 90s and early noughties saw many famous faces appear in advertising campaigns for the retailer, including Sarah Jessica-Parker in 2004. 

After 35 years of service co-founder Donald Fisher stepped down as chairman of the Board in 2004, continuing to sit on the board of Directors with the title Chairman Emeritus until his death in 2009.

In 2006, Gap was among the retailers implicated in a series of labour rights protests after allegations surfaced of poor working conditions in overseas factories.

Going online: Now Gap will move to an online-only business offering for UK shoppers

The allegations came during the same year that it launched doomed online retailer PaperLime, which was shut in 2015.

The following year it closed its Forth and Towne venture, the store for women over 40 was closed down after just 18 months. 

During the 2000s Gap Inc saw Banana Republic go international with a store in Japan, while it also acquired Athleta, a women’s activewear catalogue company. 

Over the last 10 years it has focused primarily on acquisitions, picking up luxury brand US brand Intermix in 2013.

Barack Obama paid a visit to one of its US stores in 2014 as the company became the first major US retailer to change its starting minimum hourly wage from $9 (£6.87) in 2014 to $10 (£7.63) in 2015.

On its 50th anniversary Gap’s announced its CEO Art Peck would be stepping down from the company, no reason was given. 

Last October global head Mark Breitbard used an investor meeting to announce a major restructuring which would shift the business strategy away from owning stores. 

Discounts: Stores have long offered prolific discounts in a bid to attract shoppers, but even that is not enough to tempt customers off the computer and onto the high street

He said: ‘One of the options being explored is the possible closure of our company-operated Gap stores in the United Kingdom, France, Ireland and Italy at the end of the second quarter in 2021.’ 

For the year from February 1, 2020, Gap’s UK retail sales fell by 9.5 per cent to £195.1million. Its operating losses were at £40.7million.

Earlier this month, Gap announced it plans to shut 19 shops in the UK and Ireland at the end of July. 

Yesterday, it announced the remainder of its British and Irish stores will also close. 

The statement read: ‘In the United Kingdom and Europe, we are going to maintain our Gap online business.

‘The e-commerce business continues to grow and we want to meet our customers where they are shopping. We’re becoming a digital first business and we’re looking for a partner to help drive our online business.

‘However, due to market dynamics in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, we shared with our team today that we are proposing to close all company-operated Gap Specialty and Gap Outlet stores in the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland in a phased manner from the end of August through the end of September 2021.

‘We are thoughtfully moving through the consultation process with our European team, and we will provide support and transition assistance for our colleagues as we look to wind down stores.’

Gap is also considering reducing store numbers in France and Italy.’

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