I wandered into the Gap Design Editions store next to the Mega Gap on Fifth Avenue today just to see what Alexander Wang and Vena Cava have managed to do with all that khaki, and promptly broke my multi-year hiatus from buying Gap merchandise by walking out with the above cloche. As most people even mildly into fashion probably know, the troubled retailer has been trying to “pull a Target” for the past few years by collaborating with the winners of the annual CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund, which identifies and awards emerging talent. Last year’s iteration involved lots of variations on the white shirt by the likes of Philip Lim and Band of Outsiders — all great for buzz in the hallways of Parsons, but outside of the major cities, who knows?
In any case, after today’s cloche purchase, I’m forced to concede that these collaborations are, at the very least, effective ways to get former Gap-shoppers like myself to re-enter the store, if not “rediscover the brand.” Having spent most of the ’90s foraging almost exclusively in their sales racks, it’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly made me stop going into the Gap. All that negative press around sweatshops presumably had something to do with it, but ultimately I think it was just the monolithic anonymity of the brand that I grew tired of. It’s all fine and dandy if you’re buying underwear and socks but anything remotely designed, anything that may be interpreted as an extension of your personal style — well, this could not come from the Gap. Even if their stuff was decently designed, functional, affordable and higher quality than anything from H&M, something about the Starbucksian scale of the enterprise (mental picture: endless rows of Gaps in endless rows of strip malls) made it impossible to feel any sense of personal discovery. Even in the chaotic piles of cheap crap at Forever 21 you can at least pretend to be hunting for a diamond in the rough! Not so at Gap – everything about shopping there helped reinforce the idea that you and about 50 million similarly sized women were wearing the exact same thing.
Having found a beautiful hat designed by a South African milliner named Albertus Swanepoel at Gap today, that “everyone-and-their-mother-has-this” feeling was suspended just long enough to lead to purchase. For a brief moment, despite there being about 30 similar hats on the table and probably 500 more in the back, I felt as though I had come across something unique and interesting. Call it self-delusion, but that is precisely the emotion that Gap needs to continue to work on eliciting if it is to make a genuine comeback. Gap is arguably positioned to benefit from people seeking bargains during the recession. It just needs to make sure that they’re pleasantly surprised by new things, not instantly bored and reminded of why they left the brand in the first place.