It seems consumers have fallen out of the GAP just as swiftly as the label once insisted that they fall into it. Mid-tier basics clothing labels, once touted as the preeminence of American fashion sensibility, have suffered since their reign during the 1990s. Juggernauts such as J. Crew and GAP, which essentially sold overpriced, inconspicuously labeled basics, have lost their mojo, as fashion heads scrounge to figure out how and why.
A slight clue...Nothing lasts forever.
It didn't make sense then, and it makes even less sense now. People bought into the lifestyle of the GAP when it was a fresh feeling as the brand spread its position into shopping malls nationwide, becoming a staple of the new American air of sophistication that marketers were pushing into the ether during the 90s. With everything from electronics like the sparkly new iMac computers to television shows like Dawson's Creek, Frasier, and Felicity, the new age of opulence was only beginning to gain its ground as the critical mass began adopting 'cellular phones' (before they were 'Smart'), at the zenith of dial-up, when subscribers flooded chatrooms and online instant message services that attracted group cohesion like AIM, before YouTube was a website or social media was a buzzword. Those days are long gone, and though the proverbial Kool-Aid is still selling, the flavors have all changed. We've seen this phenomenon elsewhere. Starbucks is long past its prime and as goes the overextended mass gourmet coffee house so goes the overextended masstige fashion basics retailer. Once emblems of social capital in both trend and lifestyle, now fleeting memories of an era since forgotten.
In Project Designer ID, the GAP was one of the most difficult brands to categorize because it was priced as a mass luxury brand but there was nothing very luxurious about it anymore. It was understood that at one time its adoption of the white cube aesthetic in its retail boutiques was a symbol that placed it on the forefront of progressive, mainstream elitism—or at least in the aspiration of such—but now it was a hackneyed concept that had been used and abused by a thousand other more competitive, more innovative brands with better business models. And GAP, following the old adage, "if it ain't broke don't fix it", stuck with its once winning formula that would increasingly become the object of its repulsion as time progressed. It did not change, it did not update, it did not modify. Twenty-five years after the start of the decade that saw these brands steamroll the fashion industry with overpriced premium-quality basics, they are still selling overpriced basics at slightly higher relative prices with slightly lower relative quality, despite the fact that no-one is buying it anymore, literally. But why?
To answer that we have to determine what the primary change is that has taken place. It could be argued that the market has changed, and that the core product category is no longer valid, but then again they are basics. They never go out of style, and they rarely change in a way that can compromise a producer's market position once it has established its consumer base. Competition has grown more fierce, and this has had a lot to do with it, but in traditional consumer goods markets, both durable and consumable, the market leader usually retains its dominance under the benefits of perceived authenticity as the copycats duke it out for the number two and three spot. The leadership position in the fashion basics market was a trend, but not one based upon bold innovation. So what, then, could have been the cause of the demise of the leadership in this mass market sector. Surely these brands have been replaced by their competitors in the fast-fashion sector, such as H&M and UNIQLO. Enthusiasm for the combination of value and quality offered by these labels was a sentiment regularly expressed by industry expert respondents during the Designer ID interviews. But in as much as the competition undercut the leadership of the premium basics market, they were able to do so because they changed the meanings within the value system in that market, and they were able to do this because the consumer changed and they recognized it.
This is fashion we are talking, where nothing ever stays the same. The trends even change their pace and become more diversified as time progresses. Telecommunications, manufacturing technology and shipping service networks have all but annihilated the periodic flow of fashion 'seasons'. When premium basics brands thrived in the 90s, twenty-something Generation X'ers were ecstatic about their $15 premium cotton tees that they had bought beneath the track lighting of the beach wood floored white cube known as the GAP. Those consumers are now forty-something and have since moved on to the greener pastures of consumer sensibility, where a T-shirt is a T-shirt and a pair of jeans is largely a pair of jeans unless you pay an arm and a leg for them. Where brand equity is something that is not merely proclaimed for no apparent reason, but earned through both authentic and paid associations, and status is substantiated by positioning, which necessitates exclusion on some level. There is no middle ground for premium basics. The term in and of itself is an oxymoron. Unsustainable over-expansion is a perfect formula for eventual regression. So why the premium price for standard goods pretending to be premium?
This brings us to our second point. By the time the GAP's streamline, postmodern white cube aesthetic had made its way to Ikea and Ikea had made its way throughout the American heartland, you might as well have stuck a fork in the fantasy that was being hocked at 1200% mark-ups in the form of solid color and melange jersey knit tees being sold by these retailers. It was done. What else was there? There were the cool celebrity endorsements that featured dance routines from the likes of Missy Elliot and Madonna, and that time that LL Cool J shouted out FUBU in the middle of a GAP commercial. All legacy artists at this point. What was once young and hot is now respected for its contribution to pop culture but no longer a driving force. Which brings us to our final point.
The consumer is more intelligent. This is a point not to be taken lightly and it will be discussed elsewhere on the Doniccé Report in greater detail at another time, but for the sake of this argument suffice it to be explained as follows: As time goes on consumers become more aware of the tactics that marketers employ in order to attract their attention and those tactics consequently lose their effectiveness on those consumers. It is also a general condition of modernity that the availability of all types of information to the general public increases at exponential rates. With these two facts in mind we are (more importantly the GAP is) left to deal with the fact that the sociocultural nuance that allowed these brands to sell overpriced basics uninhibited for over a decade was temperamental—it was conditional based upon the consumers' lack of knowledge, the newness of the incoming era of the 'trading up' model, and the cleanness of the basics as a staple of modern fashion, underscored by the postmodern retail aesthetic and the sophisticated adoption of pop culture in the production of what might be described as ultra-trends. It was also effective as a potent and articulate reaction to the perceived tackiness of the previous era's aesthetics found throughout the late 70s and the 80s. The mass adoption of cell phones spelled the democratization of luxury. In prior eras the Generation X'ers had only seen cell phones being carried by movie industry agents and executives like Dave on cartoon episodes of Alvin and the Chipmunks. For crying out loud, in the 80s Dave used a car phone! But the point is that by the mid-2000s showing car phones or cell phones were no longer a symbol of status, they were an everyday occurrence...well maybe not car phones, those were a joke by that time...a bad joke at that. Likewise, by the same period, white cube aesthetics, and the clean designs of basic attire were no longer sufficient symbols of social affluence or the aspiration thereof, as they were in the 90s. Nor were they potent reactions to the aesthetic standards of the previous era, as the 80s were long gone, and the 90s were defined by neon iterations of art deco, large shoulder pads, asymmetric hairstyles and geometric silhouettes which did not contradict with the visual paradigm of the GAP. Moreover, by the mid-2000s neither the GAP's core audience of Gen X'ers nor the Millennials were dumb or desperate enough to pay premiums for basics attached to the previous decade, when the fast fashion sector had kicked into full gear offering the same or a similar quality of products, with the same aesthetic, the same lifestyle and value propositions, at a—not just lower but—discounted rate.
In addition, as the 2010's rolled out, the luxury market had taken its boldest turn into the mainstream after a two decade campaign of 'bling'. With the widespread popularity of lifestyles marketing and media, popular audiences were feasting on the voyeurism of the Hilton and Kardashian Klans' 'wealthier than thou' brands of entertainment, MTV's Cribs, The Food Network, and luxed-out music videos. All this, as Hip Hop impresarios such as Jay Z and Kanye West followed closely in the footsteps of Russell Simmons in endeavoring to straddle the line between street credible urban influencers and cosmopolitan socialites amongst the denizens of genteel private affairs like the Met Gala and the Vanity Fair Oscars Party gaining greater and greater publicity amongst a more diverse general audience. Therefore affordable fashion and the luxury segment have thrived at the expense of fashion's middle market. The global financial meltdown and the longterm trend of increasing wealth disparity have done nothing to oppose this process.
The who? What Gap? ...J What? Who's Crew?
Under these conditions we see the rise of the polarized environment which Hyland so tactfully outlines in the above linked article. And it is here that we discover, accordingly, why there is no longer space for anyone to 'Fall into the Gap'.