Fall Into The Gap

I went to The Gap the other day in search of some summer bargains and found myself right in the middle of a retailing horror land.

I looked around bewildered, desperately trying to figure out what market this company was targeting. Teens? Tweens? People who will go to the store in late July searching for some bargain that they’ll wear a handful of times at most, then donate to Salvation Army because it’s impossible to justify the drawer space for those “boyfriend shorts” that are cut like a potato sack and, frankly, even less attractive than a potato sack? (Full Disclosure: I own said potato sack shorts—Salvation Army, you’ve been warned.)

Aside from the disappointing clothing selection, there was the unkempt look and feel of the stores, like I’d happened on some indoor yard sale. Most location are packed with so many racks of so many clothes that so many don’t want that the stores have an unpalatable flea market feel to them. There are others, like the one I went to on the east side of Manhattan, that have a certain, weird ’70s downstairs den feeling—the kind you don’t want to spend any time in whatsoever.

All of which is supremely disappointing, I’m guessing to Gap shareholders—of which I’m one. Gap stock, to put it in retail parlance, has a huge, ground-in stain…a seemingly unfixable tear…a split seat. Really, there isn’t a metaphor powerful enough to illustrate the fashion faux pas that is Gap stock.

I actually thought the investment was a good one at the time—the shares had been dressed down by Wall Street, and the clothing line was roundly rejected by those in the know. Simply put, I was banking on a turnaround. After all, Gap had done it before, ascending from its retail ashes into a khaki and denim phoenix that soared above all other retailers. It was the late ’90s and the company, left for dead in the retail sector’s sales bin, was resuscitated by the indomitable Mickey Drexler. The stock soared. Of course, Popsicle.com did too back then, but there were actual sales and earnings behind Gap’s heady ascension.

Thing is, there is no Mickey Drexler this time around. And before we lose all semblance of perspective, it’s worth noting that there was a time too when Mr. Drexler’s charms no longer worked on The Gap—its rapid expansion and increasingly lackluster workaday offerings eventually caught up with the company and it was time to go shopping for a new CEO.

Which brings me back to the sorry state of Gap affairs today. With sales lagging and the stock once again in the sales bin, the company fired its global design guy in May. Then, inexplicably, company executives threw all of the company’s oddly flowered and buttoned garments in one heaping pile and danced around it chanting in an attempt to exorcise some haberdashery devil. That last part I don’t get, and, for the record, was not disclosed on any SEC filings. But, you know, people talk.

For all the doom and gloom, however, there is one bright spot in Gap’s portfolio. One beacon of clothier light: Athleta. For those who aren’t familiar with this athletic line, Athleta is known for terrifically made clothing at—this is the best part—a fraction of the cost of some other trendy lines. It is the reasonable person’s lululemon. Does it have the cache? Not like lulu’s. But every active woman I know not only swears by this line, they’re devoted to it.

Now, do I own anything from Athleta? No, and this is why: Until recently, it’s been a catalog-only line. That is, until they opened up a retail store in California last year—to huge acclaim. Next month, two more locations are opening: one on the west side of Manhattan and one on the east side. To which I can only applaud loudly, and then yell over my own applause: WHAT IN THE NAME OF ALL STRETCHABLE FABRIC TOOK YOU SO LONG, GAP?

My disappointment at how Gap has handled its Athleta clothing line cannot be overstated. Why oh why didn’t they try something like a pop-up store somewhere to build excitement? Or maybe host a trunk show of sorts in an existing Gap location—something that could goose those limp same-store sales? Why didn’t you, company executives, take your noses out of your PowerPoints to see that what real people want you, amazingly enough, have? But I digress.

While The Gap has been late, and not in the fashionable sense, of harnessing the power of its Athleta line, at least it’s doing something proactive now. And it’s got lululemon in its sights—a smart move, I think. Lulu might be yoga wear for the trendy set who have loads of disposable income to spend on stretchy workout gear, but Athleta, with its more varied portfolio of active clothing, is for the woman who’s not only athletic, but who also understands the reality of things: She’s going to be working her tukus off in her fashionable gear, so it really isn’t necessary to spend $128 on cute pants that are mere sweat holders. The Athleta gal will spend a fraction of her fancy lulu counterpart, and have enough money left over to buy, oh, I don’t know, Gap shares at a discount.

I’m still betting on a turnaround at The Gap. Athleta is a good first step, and I couldn’t be more excited to go shop at the new stores next month. That said, there is still loads of crumpled, unfocused clothing lines in Gap’s closet. Time for company executives to purge and donate what it can’t sell. You know, like those boyfriend shorts.