News broke today that Rebekka Bay, the creative director of GAP , is being let go, effective immediately. Even more interesting: Gap won’t be replacing her. Instead, the role of creative director is being eliminated and the senior design team will take over. However, the brand did hint that it would be evaluating a “long-term leadership approach for the global design team” in a release on its site.
The change shouldn’t come as too much of a shock. Since Bay was hired in October 2012 after a successful stint at Cos, Gap has failed to evolve as a mass-market brand (sales dipped in the first quarter of 2014) or as a fashion favorite. While recent years have seen the normcore movement make an undeniable impact on the fashion world (jeans on the runway is now an expectation, not a surprise), Gap failed to cash in on the trend. Brands from both ends of the style spectrum have been eating Gap’s lunch when it comes to market demand for everyday basics—Nasty Gal branched out into denim, and J.W. Anderson created a logo sweatshirt. Meanwhile, the brand most associated with normal fashion struggled to be relevant. In a nutshell, normal is boring but normcore (whether you love or hate the word) can be aspirational.
Gap now has to ask the hard question: What’s next? Without a creative leader, should it reach for a business one? Brands like J.Crew, H&M, and Uniqlo have all managed to bridge the gap between mass market and fashion savvy thanks to their business leaders. So could Gap woo back Mickey Drexler (unlikely, given their abrupt split in 2002) or reach for a trendsetter like Nasty Gal’s Sophia Amoruso (surely too big a gamble for an entrepreneur largely untested at the operational level)? For the moment, it’s betting on its incoming CEO, Art Peck, who is being promoted from president of growth, innovation, and digital at the brand.
As per its release, the brand is also planning to devote a lot more effort to consumer relations. “Now’s the time to intensify our customer focus and break through with a truly dynamic and integrated approach to building relationships with our customers,” said Jeff Kirwan, Gap’s global brand president. Listening to consumers is important, but what Gap might want to focus on even more is keeping an ear to the ground for the subtle shifts in trends in basics—a thing that its competitors from J.Crew to Cos do so well. Collaborations, an area where brands like H&M and Target have excelled, should also be on Gap’s radar. Why not take up a partnership with the many talents today reimagining American sportswear? Wouldn’t you love to see Rachel Comey’s frayed jeans at a Gap price point? Trademark’s smart outerwear? Derek Lam’s chic dresses? Band of Outsiders’ seersucker separates? There is so much potential for Gap to become the iconic brand it deserves to be. (Hey, it was the first label to cast Joan Didion for an ad campaign.) Let’s see if its clothing designed by committee turns out to be the right kind of camel. Perhaps a camel coat?