Fashion retail is a tough game, even for the ultra-luxury brands that sell to recession-immune billionaires. But one area of growth that continues to flourish is the stories of ailing brands and their serial attempts to revive themselves.
Take Gap, the 53-year-old brand that not so long ago, 2021 to be precise, announced that it was closing all its stores in Europe, to the muted soundtrack of small violins. Frankly, even before this humiliating retreat, Gap had long since ceased to be an essential stop for just about anyone. While everyone likes the idea of brick-and-mortar stores, not enough of us are shopping.
Its glory days as a reliable supplier of well-made and designed utility clothing and a flagship of democratic American design were long gone. This also applies to the era (2002-2006) when fashion shows were organized in London to which European fashion editors flocked because they knew that the behind-the-scenes staff included Pierpaolo Piccioli and Maria Grazia Chiuri, who were both working together at Valentino at the time; Pierre Hardy, now at Hermès; Phoebe Philo (although she was never officially confirmed as a consultant) and Emma Hill, who later achieved huge success at Mulberry, were in charge of accessories.
In fact, amid all the booing, you could say that Gap’s decision to move to an online model was a moment of sanity.
But now, just two and a half years later, we’re supposed to be playing drums, because Zac Posen has been hired to be, wait for it, the executive vice president and creative director of Gap Inc. and the chief creative officer of Old Navy, Gap’s “little” brother.
This is probably excellent news for Posen, a talented trader. That talent, however, lies mainly in designing somewhat campy red carpet dresses that echo that old perennial – ‘Hollywood Glamour’. At age 20, he designed a dress for Naomi Campbell, composed of 36 individual pieces, he said The New York Times in February 2001 (doesn’t that seem like a different era?), so complicated, with open slits on the side of her body, forming triangles. His teacher at fashion school told him that if he could pull it off, it would be the most difficult bias-cut dress ever made. Unfazed, Posen said The New York Times (who breathlessly called the interview with him A Star is Born: “I think it will be almost impossible to make, but just wait until you see it.”
That dress really put him on the path to fashion stardom. He was born in New York and studied at the legendary fashion school Central St Martins in London. He returned to the United States and first settled in his parents’ living room. After his first catwalk show in New York in 2001, he was courted by fashion’s biggest corporate names – Yves Carcelle, the president of LVMH Fashion Group, Sidney Toledano, the CEO and director of Christian Dior SA and Domenico De Sole, the president and CEO of Gucci Group NV – as well as some of the biggest names in entertainment at the time.
Natalie Portman, Rihanna, Amanda Seyfried, Claire Danes, Cameron Diaz, Jennifer Lopez, Mischa Barton, Beyoncé, Glenn Close, Reese Witherspoon, Naomi Watts and Rita Ora all wore it. A big, waspish personality, he became a favorite Project Runwaythe television show focused on finding the next big designer (as if all the fashion weeks weren’t enough) that was always much more popular in the US than its British counterpart here.
Yet, like so many other industry darlings, he couldn’t turn the hype into a profitable business. And for some reason – perhaps his waspishness that some saw as arrogance, or the way he seemed to achieve all this so early – he became very much an invaluable, more of a punchline, a punching bag. “I got so tired of never having any money,” he says candidly House of Z, an unexpectedly moving documentary from 2017 that charts his rise and fall. He went from being a lauded prodigy, he noted, to a point where “everyone hates Zac Posen. Fashion has a dark side.”
Like many designers, he took a big hit when Barney’s, the upscale department store, fell on hard times, and in 2019, after he designed Princess Eugenie’s second wedding dress that year: an impeccably designed champagne-colored ultra-flattering wasp waist with a cape at the back. – he closed his business.
Which brings us to the current scenario: two bruised and chastened outcasts searching for the One who will revive their fortunes. Three, if you count the Old Navy.
Posen, now 43, has some experience with the mass market. In 2010 he designed a well-received collection for Target, the strong American chain, but it was mainly aimed at the teenage prom audience. He’s not an obvious candidate to save a denim and T-shirt brand whose dwindling base consists of norm-core “moms,” dads and toddlers. In the third quarter of 2023, net sales fell 15 percent to $887 million compared to last year, but the brand saw strength in women’s and baby apparel. But toddlers grow up fast and by the time they’re five and have an opinion about their style, they’re gone unless Posen can change their mind.
Gap has form in working with the unexpected. Gap Yeezy, the Kanye West collaboration that launched in 2021, was initially wildly successful, driven in part by Black Lives Matter and West’s global popularity. But West’s racist, misogynistic talk quickly turned him into a toxic figure. The collaboration ended in 2022.
Clearly, Posen’s fame isn’t on West’s scale, but perhaps that’s a good thing, as it marks a return to product focus rather than hype. Get the fashion industry talking and wait for the trickle down. Posen’s appointment came from the top: CEO Richard Dickson recently joined Gap from Mattel, where he was credited with coming up with the Barbie movie idea. Could Dickson count on Posen to bring some joie de vivre to a brand that has become extremely boring?
Or perhaps Posen’s gift for cut and fit, first shown all those years ago in that 36-piece dress for Naomi Campbell, will come into play in the best basic jeans and T-shirts around. Heaven knows there are a lot of horrible things like the old standards in this market; Victoria’s Secret and Abercrombie & Fitch have been dwarfed by competition from Uniqlo, Boohoo, Shein and second-hand marketplaces such as Vinted.
Two big points in Posen’s favor: he’s no Kanye West and he’s smart. His appointment has certainly increased interest in Gap, however briefly. Could he be the remake of Gap and Old Navy, still two of the biggest clothing brands in the US? Could Gap and Old Navy be his rebirth? Together, can they give us chic, simple staples plus pizzazz? If so, wouldn’t that be nice?