Gap, the ubiquitous San Francisco-based clothing retailer that’s been around since 1969, is on the brink. In October, seven months into lockdown, as shifts in consumer spending due to the pandemic shuttered beloved brands like Need Supply and Sies Marjan and bankrupted retail kingpins like J.Crew and Neiman Marcus, Gap announced that it would be closing 350 Gap and Banana Republic stores in North America by the end of 2023, by which point, an estimated 870 stores will remain, compared to 1,216 in 2019, according to Insider. Sad times for the retailer that once united your favorite ‘90s supermodels, suburban dads, and tweens on a budget.
But amid this trajectory were some bright spots that hint at Gap’s future. In June 2020, Gap announced a decade-long deal with Kanye West’s popular fashion brand Yeezy. (Two items from the Gap Yeezy collab — a cloud-like puffer coat available in blue and black — have since been released and met with both raised eyebrows and opened wallets.) In September 2020, Internet personality Emma Chamberlain posted photos of herself on Instagram, wearing white bikini bottoms and a thrifted Gap logo hoodie. She wore the latter in a post a few days later. Combined, Chamberlain’s odes to Gap’s navy blue sweatshirt garnered 4 million likes and over 12,000 comments on her Instagram. In turn, her fans newly designated Gap as “cool.”
Roughly 20 years after its most recent heyday — a time when Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford wore Gap jeans on the cover of Vogue’s 100th anniversary issue, stars like Sarah Jessica Parker and Madonna appeared in company ads, and Sharon Stone styled pieces from the brand alongside Vera Wang at the Oscars — people — young people, specifically — were once again talking about Gap.
Fashion and beauty TikToker Lola Clinton Hayward, who has over 78,000 followers, predicted in December that Gap would make a comeback. In a video titled, “Trend Predictions for 2021 Part 2,” which has been viewed more than 397,000 times and has over 61,000 likes, Hayward included Gap as one of her bets for 2021, alongside fur-collared cardigans and patchwork tops, both of which have proven to be big this year. “I know some are already on trend, but they will be sm bigger trust me,” the caption read. A month later, Barbara Kristoffersen, who has 265,000 followers on the platform, posted a roundup of outfits, one of which included a hard-to-find brown logo hoodie from Gap’s archives. The video has since garnered 1.8 million views and over 511,000 likes, projecting the brand, specifically the brown logo hoodie, into the realm of covetable.
Posts tagged #GapHoodie have since acquired over 6.7 million views on TikTok, which raises the question: Can Gen Z save the Gap?
Hard yes, says Domynique Badillo, a 22-year-old TikToker whose “Is Gap Back?” video has been viewed by over 36,000 users. In fact, Badillo believes the concept of “saving” a company like Gap, or bringing back a brand that’s falling out of fashion, is something that Gen Z considers when surveying which trends or brands they want to pay attention to. “Gen Z likes to look for Y2K trends that haven’t become popular yet, so they can be the first to find things,” she explains. “They come across brands from the aughts, like Gap and Von Dutch, and try to rework them and style them in a way that’s fresh.” According to her, it makes the act of shopping more of a game-like challenge.
In that sense, Gap’s prior lack of relevance with younger consumers actually benefited the brand. The company gained millions of new, interested shoppers without having to do anything at all (besides having once been cool). But given that Gen Z is known to quickly move on — TikTok videos are rarely longer than 15 seconds — the team at Gap knew that if they wanted to continue succeeding with their younger supporters, they’d have to put in the work.
On June 26, almost half a year after the Gen Z buzz had started to build, Gap dropped a limited-issue release of the brown logo hoodies for $59.95 that shoppers could pre-order for arrival at the end of August. (The same hoodies were selling for upwards of $200 on resale sites like Depop and Grailed.) “We have a responsive capability to order the hoodie and get it back in stock,” Mary Alderete, Gap’s global head of marketing, tells Refinery29. “We researched the vintage style and went out to get it done.” The brand also launched a two-week partnership with TikTok, titled the Color Comeback Competition. According to Alderete, the competition involved polling the platform’s users to find out which logo hoodie colorway Gap should bring back next, utilizing TikTok’s community of creators, like Chelsie Hill and Lisa Asano, to host the “competition.”
“Partnerships like this one with TikTok allow us to connect with our customers authentically, and we were excited to have the opportunity to be nimble and responsive to the requests of our younger generation of shoppers,” says Alderete. Moving forward, she says that Gap will continue to connect with its Gen Z and millennial customers in the same conversational way. In doing so, maybe the brand can avoid the same fate it experienced following high times in the ‘90s and early ‘00s, when it struggled to stay culturally relevant in the 2010s.
This approach seems to be working. “We can confirm that we have seen website visits increase since January, which is when we saw the #GapHoodie hashtag really take off,” says Alderete. The company has also witnessed a significant spike in year-over-year online sales of their lauded logo hoodies.
To rest on just a hoodie, though, is a gamble, according to Badillo. Instead, she suggests that Gap look at the bigger picture, and focus on getting back to its DNA, looking to when it was widely believed to be the “it” brand for jeans in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s — Gap was founded as an independent shop in San Francisco by husband and wife Don and Dorris Fisher with a simple mission: “To make it easier to find a pair of jeans that fit with a commitment to do more,” according to Gap’s website — and normcore basics in the ‘90s and early aughts. “You shouldn’t necessarily try to keep up with all the trends, and put out so many different things that you believe are trending,” Badillo says. “As long as you’re really focusing on your quality and what it is that your brand is known for, you’re going to have people that are really drawn to that no matter what.”
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