By  on September 28, 2009

Donald G. Fisher, who with his wife Doris founded Gap Inc. and revolutionized global specialty store retailing, died Sunday at his home in San Francisco after a long battle with cancer. He was 81.

Fisher stepped down as chairman of the company in 2003, to be succeeded by his son Bob, but continued as chairman emeritus and a director until his death.

Fisher’s demise comes just more than a month after the 40th anniversary of when he and his wife founded the company, named for the “generation gap” between Baby Boomers and their parents. Then 41 — and with no retailing experience — he abandoned a well-established career in real estate development to become the clothier to his sons’ generation just weeks after Woodstock and a month after man landed on the moon. The company recently introduced 1969 brand jeans to great fanfare in commemoration of the anniversary.

The entire enterprise grew out of a frustrating shopping experience. The Fishers made their midlife career move after they had difficulty exchanging an ill-fitting pair of jeans and failed to find an adequate denim size assortment at local department stores. They raised $63,000 to launch the first store in their hometown in 1969, and sales reached $2 million the following year, when a second unit opened in nearby San Jose, Calif.

Initially, Gap bore a strong resemblance to any of the jeans and head shops that proliferated at the time. Although it would later pioneer and prosper from a vertically integrated approach in which it designed, sourced and sold only its own brands, the first Gap stores carried jeans and sportswear from its corporate neighbor in San Francisco, Levi Strauss & Co., as well as music and accessories. But even those early stores were different, offering a wider array of Levi’s styles and sizes than many of its peers, and selling them from small stores with merchandise stacked floor to ceiling, like books. Clerks had to reach the higher shelves using ladders like in libraries.

From the start, and, observers have pointed out, in no small part because of Fisher’s real estate background, Gap pursued expansion vigorously and didn’t hesitate to turn to the public markets for growth capital, listing on the New York and Pacific Stock Exchanges with an offering of 1.2 million shares in 1976. The pursuit of expansion would become a stumbling block for the company over the course of the last decade, cutting into profits and causing the firm to put the brakes on what had been close to uninterrupted growth during its first 30 years.

What would prove to be Fisher’s smartest move was to tap Millard “Mickey” Drexler as president and chief operating officer of the Gap division in 1983 from Ann Taylor. Over the next decade, the duo would revolutionize not only the way America and the world shopped, but also the way it dressed — turning basics into fashion, from white shirts to khakis — and along the way acquiring the fashion-at-a-price chain Banana Republic, then launching the lower-cost Old Navy and GapKids.

Drexler succeeded Fisher as president and ceo of the company in 1995, but left seven years later as its financial performance and brand appeal faltered. While the board said Drexler stepped down, he has repeatedly said he was fired.

They had different backgrounds and different styles — Drexler, an instinctive merchant raised in New York on fashion and known for his whirlwind energy and outspokenness, and Fisher, the low-key, mild-mannered West Coast introvert who rarely gave interviews.

Reached on Sunday, Drexler, now chairman and ceo of J. Crew Group, told WWD, “Don and I would both agree that it didn’t end pretty, but we had a hell of a run together building a really great company.”

And while Drexler’s departure from Gap wasn’t on the best of terms, he added that he and Fisher “had a very nice chat a few weeks ago.’’

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