Gap's success spawns numerous competitors

March 25, 1992|By Robin Updike | Robin Updike,Seattle Times

To see just how successful The Gap is, ask yourself these questions:

Do you know anyone, excluding very recent Albanian immigrants, who doesn't know what The Gap is?

How many pieces of clothing have you bought from The Gap in the last year? The Gap is so successful that the prince of understated (and very pricey) chic, Giorgio Armani, has just launched a chain of in-store shops called A/X Armani Exchanges that are upscale imitations of The Gap. With jeans costing $80 and up, and denim jackets at $165, Armani Exchanges are clearly not wooing price-conscious Gap customers who've gotten used to paying $38 for Gap jeans and $50 for denim jackets. But Mr. Armani is describing his new line as "nuts and bolts" apparel. That's his twist on the fashion industry's sudden interest in "getting back to basics," industry jargon meaning jumping on The Gap bandwagon.

Dayton Hudson, the powerful Minneapolis-based retailer that owns Target discount stores, has announced plans to open a chain called Everyday Hero, an attempt to sell Gap-style jeans and khakis at discount store prices. And mail-order catalogs including J. Crew and Tweeds have been offering "basic" T-shirts, jeans and khakis in updated, fashion-forward colors for several years in the same price range as The Gap.

Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, but in the fashion industry, it is also a strategy for survival. At a time when designers, apparel manufacturers and retailers are suffering sluggish sales as recession-minded consumers save instead of spend, one of the brightest spots in the business is The Gap, whose stores sold 13 percent more in 1991 than the year before, a stellar performance in a year when most retailers felt lucky if sales didn't drop.

And while other retailers and some designers are going bankrupt or downsizing, The Gap is opening stores fast and furiously. San Francisco-based Gap, which also owns Banana Republic, now has 1,200 Gap stores nationwide. The chain now also is opening GapKids and babyGap stores, which feature pint-size versions of much of the same cotton knit and denim apparel sold in grown-up Gaps.

With the move into children's wear, Gap fashions seem destined to become the uniform of the '90s for the whole family.

"The guts of their success is that they've really struck a chord with the way people are thinking these days," said Norman Karr, executive director of the Men's Fashion Association. "The Gap is kind of a populist Ralph Lauren, and at a time when everyone is talking about getting back to basics, The Gap has come at exactly the right time with comfortable stuff that's affordable."

Sociologists have been predicting for several years that the excesses of the '80s are giving way to frugality and traditionalism. A/X Armani aside, they say that the days when even affluent Americans were willing to pay $75 for jeans with a designer label on the hip pocket have gone the way of the two-martini lunch and his and hers BMWs. That makes Gap apparel, which is free of insignia, logos and exterior labels, right in step with the new disdain for conspicuous consumption.

Several years of trend-setting advertising also helped establish Gap wear, and ironically, for a company whose philosophy is basically an anti-fashion chic, The Gap sets trends.

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