In 1969, Donald Fisher was a 40-year-old real estate professional who had a big problem finding Levi’s that fit him properly. His solution became the Gap.
Fisher and his wife, Doris, opened the first location of the retail chain on Ocean Avenue in San Francisco, a short walk from the state university campus. For three months, the new store, named by Doris Fisher in a nod to the generation gap, sold Levi’s, especially in difficult-to-find sizes, and records. The store soon dropped the vinyl. As Donald Fisher told the San Francisco Chronicle, “The pants were selling the records, not the other way around.”
But even after the Jefferson Airplane longer-length vinyls disappeared from the shelves, a loose association with the counterculture continued to serve the chain for the next 25 years. As it grew into a corporate behemoth, the Gap’s carefully engineered link with a generation of rebellious young people helped make the company into a definitive clothing brand of the American century’s final quarter.
A disrupter with ‘far-out jeans’
The wares sold by the Fishers were snatched up eagerly upon the store’s opening. Levi’s was one of the hottest brands in the country. Within the year, the Gap had opened a half-dozen other locations. Its nascent brand identity was visible in its advertising, which tried to speak the language of the tuned-in. Ads promised “Levi’s for cats and chicks” and bragged of “tasty plaids,” “wild bells” and “far-out jeans.”
Actual hippie teenagers may have smirked at the copy, but it was eye-catching, as were the store’s broad selection and low prices. Four years after the company was founded, there were 36 locations, bringing in $14.7 million in sales (more than $85 million in today’s dollars). The following year, the Gap began selling its own label. In 1976, it went public — just in time for the world to change again.
A broader view for the brand
By the late 1970s, a denim price war was underway and, overall, demand for jeans was slowing. The pendulum was swinging decidedly back toward the formal.
So in 1983, Donald Fisher brought in someone with a broader view of what the Gap could be: the Bronx-born Millard Drexler, called Mickey by those who know him.
Drexler had long held a dream of the perfect merchandise slate. “I listed on a piece of paper everything I would want to carry in this company that I was going to start. That eventually became my Gap job,” he said in a recent interview.
With the arrival of Drexler — who soon became known as the “merchant prince” — came the pocket tees, the khakis and the sweaters that would signal an end to the brand’s youth.
“The vision was casual, cool clothes at really good prices,” Drexler said. “I thought that there should be a point of focus. Casual, great colors, good prices. It was all about style. And clearly Gap didn’t have it.”
The stores were redesigned. Well-known artists like Miles Davis, Marilyn Monroe, Jack Kerouac, Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol appeared in advertisements, linking creative iconography to the Gap heritage. The Gap’s acquisition of Banana Republic in 1983 began to pay dividends, and the first GapKids opened in 1986. (The Gap’s original customer base was, by then, well into its parenting years.)
By 1986, The New York Times was already calling the transformation driven by Drexler “one of the most remarkable turnarounds in retailing history.” Five years later, The Times reported that the Gap’s clothes were the second most popular in the United States behind Levi Strauss.
“That was a defining moment,” said Gap archivist Erin Grady, who works as a sort of corporate historian at the company’s headquarters in San Francisco, cataloging past ad campaigns, store imagery and other ephemera. “We looked at our identity and became who we are today.”
A backlash against the bland
With business success came cultural ubiquity. And with that ubiquity came widespread contempt.
In a recent interview, Thomas Frank, the author of “The Conquest of Cool: Business Culture, Counterculture, and the Rise of Hip Consumerism,” confessed that it had been some time since he had thought about the Gap and “the mysterious union it once achieved with my generation’s sartorial taste.”
Still, an old theory of Frank’s applied.
“Artists and rebels turned out to be the ultimate consumers,” he said. “Or rather, in the Gap’s case, the ultimate icons for consumerism. We’re talking about a society that uses the language of dissent to sell this really bland lifestyle.”
The company that had identified itself with flower children had begun to wilt into corporate anonymity.
Even those whose brand was bland were moved to remark on Gap’s hegemony. Columnist Peggy Noonan noted in 1992 that Republicans and Democrats alike were “Gapped, linened and Lancômed.” And in a cross-generational attack, the 1994 Gen-X classic “Reality Bites” portrayed a gig at the Gap as the ultimate sellout job.
Three years later, the company temporarily rebranded the New York Stock Exchange, outfitting traders in khakis — which in 1997 were still forbidden on the trading floor.
“We said, ‘What is the symbol of business? It’d be really cool to take on the symbol of business, one that hasn’t gone casual.’ And we said, the New York Stock Exchange,” a Gap executive told The Times that year.
But the company’s presence on the stock exchange was also a sign that the Gap had become safe, conservative and profoundly uncool. As Frank pointed out, the “rebellion against middle-class style” had become mainstream. Nonconformity had become less an ideology than an aesthetic, one to which everyone could safely conform.
Drexler exited in 2002. (He drove a period of rejuvenation at J. Crew before stepping aside in 2017; he is now working with his son on Alex Mill, a fashion brand resembling a kind of luxe Gap.) Donald Fisher died in 2009.
What comes next?
The Gap has struggled in recent years. In February, it announced a plan to spin off Old Navy into a separate company. Its second-quarter results were disappointing; Art Peck, its chief executive, said in August that the company was dealing with a “challenging environment.”
The generation that grew up with the Gap has aged; they may have enough basics to be getting on with. And casual clothing isn’t hard to come by these days. In helping to define the world’s uniform informality, the Gap helped make its strategy obsolete.
Grady, the Gap archivist, is 28. She did not grow up shopping at the company’s stores, and only really became familiar with the brand when she started work. In a conversation about pop culture touchstones in the company’s history, she mostly reached back, mentioning Mick Jagger’s outfit at the 1985 Live Aid concert and Alicia Silverstone’s sweater in the 1995 movie “Clueless.”
But there was a highlight from 2019. She spoke proudly of the Gap’s role in the new season of “Stranger Things.” Several scenes take place at the store, including a montage of the show’s eager teenagers shopping there. The season, released this summer, is set in the year 1985.