From classic to disposable: Gap UK closures reveal muddied identity

Time will tell if alliance with Kanye West and plans for online-only presence will pay off

First published on Thu 1 Jul 2021 10.28 EDT

The news that Gap is to close all 81 of its stores in the UK and Ireland will hardly come as a surprise to those in the fashion industry. Once a favourite of insiders looking for classic minimal pieces without the price tags of catwalk labels, its position has faded in recent years, replaced by brands including Arket, Weekday and Uniqlo.

Founded in 1969 in San Francisco, Gap came to the UK in 1987 and has long been known for American classics such as khakis, jeans and white T-shirts. After various sweatshop allegations in the 90s and early 00s, it positioned itself as the home of premium basics and kept its fashion relevance for a long time by balancing its blue-chip heritage with collaborations with buzzy young designers including Alexander Wang, Rodarte and Band of Outsiders. These names reworked classic designs that would showcase in slick adverts with supermodels including Liya Kebede.

Collaborations are still central to Gap’s culture. The alliance with Kanye West’s Yeezy, which is expected later this month at the earliest, is highly anticipated. But some partnerships have attracted negative press. As the West news was announced last year, it was also revealed that the company’s collaboration with Telfar, the Black-owned American brand famous for its bags, had been postponed indefinitely with Telfar’s team repeatedly following up on emails with no response. The designer Telfar Clemens criticised the brand’s behaviour, telling the New York Times there was “a vast power imbalance, perpetuated by the narrative of ‘inclusivity’” when designers of colour worked with big brands such as Gap. While Clemens was clear he was not a victim, the story was more bad publicity for Gap.

Gap’s fall from grace could arguably have been avoided if it had successfully tapped into the Normcore trend which began around 2014. The fashion movement focused on the kind of 90s preppy non-clothes worn by men such as Jerry Seinfeld and Steve Jobs. Douglas Coupland, the voice of generation X, even once said: “Gap clothing allows you to look like you’re from nowhere and anywhere” which is the aim of Normcore. The brand, perhaps resistant to looking retro, nodded to the trend in an ad campaign called Dress Normal, but the glossy images failed to capitalise on the moment. As the website Jezebel put it: “Gap’s blah Dress Normal campaign doesn’t get the irony of normcore”.

These days, it feels as if the identity of the brand has been muddied. In store, summer prints on easy dresses mix with sportswear and basics. While consumers know Uniqlo for its Airism cooling fabric, cashmere sweaters and UT graphic T-shirts, perhaps they are unsure what marks Gap out, what makes up its USP.

The news of the stores’ closures come as part of a review after falling sales in the pandemic and a change of guard. The unveiling of West’s first design for the brand last month was hailed as a new era, with all previous posts on the brand’s Instagram deleted. The 10-year deal implies Gap has put a lot of faith in West as the man to revitalise its fortunes, supported by the British designer Mowalola Ogunlesi as the design director.

Putting a positive spin on the news, Gap’s move to digital-only in the UK could be seen as part of a plan, a sign the audience it is looking to appeal to under West is a younger demographic who shops online-only, the consumers behind the success of Boohoo and Asos in the past year. Gap is betting that stores – expensive to run and suffering from less demand – are no longer necessary and that the digital-first trend continues as the world comes out of a pandemic. Whether or not this will work remains to be seen.

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