By  on August 23, 2005

WEST NYACK, N.Y. — Gap Inc., seeking to elevate the specialty store experience and recapture mature customers who may have tired or outgrown its classic khakis and jeans, will launch the Forth & Towne retail concept here on Wednesday.

Considering Gap's weak performance during the last several seasons and moves by rivals, Forth & Towne — the company's first new store brand since Old Navy in April 1993 — is overdue. Wall Street analysts will get a preview today.

During a tour Monday of the Forth & Towne store in Palisades Center mall in the suburbs north of New York City, Gap executives said the division will offer four apparel collections for women 35 and up, and the kind of service and wardrobing opportunities not seen since the heyday of department stores in the Forties and Fifties.

"That was our inspiration," said Gary Muto, president of Forth & Towne. "We want Forth & Towne to be a great shopping experience. That is the differentiator. What we are offering is not being done in the marketplace."

He said the division will cater to a "mature, confident woman, not looking for the latest trend, but who wants to feel current.…She still frequently shops department stores and likes the variety they offer. But she gets overwhelmed by the sheer size of them."

Several specialty retailers have either recently started divisions catering to older audiences or different categories, or have them in development, putting more pressure on Gap. The San Francisco-based retailer has more than 3,000 stores and reported $16.3 billion in revenue last year. But same-store sales fell 3 percent for the quarter ended July 30, and Gap is being challenged to generate exciting assortments. In addition, rivals have been faster to roll out new formats.

In the past year, Abercrombie & Fitch launched Ruehl, Polo Ralph Lauren unveiled Rugby, Pacific Sunwear introduced One Thousand Steps, Aéropostale opened Jimmy's, Chico's launched Soma and Limited started Bigelow. This fall, American Eagle plans a new division that has yet to be named.

Forth & Towne was pulled together in just nine months, and will open even before a complete coat of paint has been applied to the walls of the brand's offices in Manhattan's Chelsea. While the name doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, like Gap, it is a play on being Gap's fourth brand. Towne is meant to evoke a town square destination.Executives declined to discuss sales projections.

There are about 80 employees, including designers recruited from fashion houses as lofty as Oscar de la Renta or as mass-oriented as Isaac Mizrahi for Target. The design team was subdivided into four groups, each charged with creating a distinct collection sold inside Forth & Towne. They are segmented as shop-in-shops. Each of Forth & Towne's brands is geared to appeal to the different lifestyles of the targeted customer, and all emphasize mix and matching items and wardrobing, whether by taking pieces from a single collection to create outfits, or pulling a piece from one collection and pairing it with an item from another of Forth & Towne's collections.

The four collections are:

  • Allegory, for classic, conservative, tailored men's wear-influenced wear-to-work into evening, and weekend fashion, including suitings, pants, blazers and shirtings.
  • Vocabulary, for "an individualist with her own sense of style, someone who is worldly and artistic," with lots of knits and matte jersey, for "an elevated lounge feeling" and pants accented with prints.
  • Prize, the most feminine and flirtatious, with tighter silhouettes for the more fashion-forward and trend-conscious.
  • Gap Edition, the most casual and bright, with an emphasis on a variety of denim fits and washes, turtlenecks, and T-shirts. It is similar to the quintessential fresh American casual clothes Gap has been known for, though the fit is for the older customer.
A size 8 in Allegory will fit the same as a size 8 in Vocabulary, Gap Edition or Prize so there is no guessing as to which size to wear in which brand.

Aside from Gap Edition, there is no apparent connection to the iconic Gap brand.

A separate accessories shop is situated between the Gap Edition and Prize shop-in-shops. Accessories are geared to work with any and all of the four collections, or obviously, purchased by themselves. They are all under the Forth & Towne label. Shoes, however, are supplied by Vaneli, and bear that company's label.

All of the merchandise is priced between Banana Republic and Gap Brand. Forth & Towne, considering its primarily better-priced assortment of career and casual ready-to-wear, sportswear, shoes and accessories, and its target audience, will compete most directly against Ann Taylor, Chico's, Talbots, and department store brands such as Jones New York and Liz Claiborne.As far as catering to women 35 and older, it's not exactly where Gap Inc. has excelled, which Muto acknowledged. "The Gap has a strong following of women under the age of 35, with 7 to 8 percent market share," he said. "Over 35, it's less than 3 percent. We see that as a very compelling reason" for Forth & Towne.

He described Forth & Towne's four-brand format, as a point of departure, enabling the store to offer "the best of department stores in a specialty store setting."

Austyn Zung, Forth & Towne's senior vice president of design, and a former designer for Oscar de la Renta, sees the setup as addressing all the needs of the targeted audience in a relatively compact, easy-to-shop space.

"You can buy a complete look for $150 that includes a casual khaki pant for $58, a button-up shirt for $48, and canvas tote for $48, or a wear-to-work outfit that includes a $98 wool trouser, and a suit jacket for $148," she said.

"This isn't about pushing product," she added. "It's about working with these women to put together looks."

Zung said moving from Oscar to Forth & Towne represented "a huge change for me. But what the customer needs is not all that dissimilar. I've put a lot of what I learned at Oscar into this. A woman at any price point should get stylish sophisticated clothing. I think we have four very distinct style aesthetics under one roof. The breadth of assortment along with the service, is something we believe is unique."

Although heavily merchandised, the store isn't suffocating, and seems spacious, with its eight-foot wide aisles, and 85-foot stretch from the front to the back. Between any two fixtures, there is at least three feet of separation.

Overall, the atmosphere is toned down, even more so by its every day value pricing structure. Executives said the store will not be overly promotional or based on a high-low pricing, though there will be sales.

There is a statement about the store made right at the entrance, with four arrangements of mannequins mimicking a runway and cueing customers to the quartet of collections ahead."It's our version of the grand opening moment," Muto said, comparing it to when customers used to be impressed by a department store's glittering chandeliers or panoramic views from the elevators.

Right behind the mannequins is a 1,000-square-foot circular dressing area, called "the fitting salon." It houses 12 fitting rooms rigged with three-way mirrors, dimmers and room enough to accommodate a friend. Within the fitting salon's central area, accessories are within reach. The fitting salon serves as the centerpiece of the store, and is constructed with a curvature that pulls shoppers in and around and deeper into the store. Typically, fitting rooms are buried in the back of stores or off on the side, but Forth & Towne glorifies them.

"We're embracing the dressing room. If you get the customer into it, the conversion rate goes up," said Muto, referring to the percent of customers who actually buy something versus those that leave without making a purchase. He did not have any specific statistics on how much the rate rises.

Sales associates, called "style consultants," are throughout the store. Gap executives said they have been recruited from spas, hotels, and fashion firms, trained to show customers how to mix and match items to create outfits, and will be eager to help without being overbearing.

Underscoring how much Forth & Towne wants to convey a service ethic and wardrobe building, it will advertise "Tea for Tuesdays," when customers are asked to bring in their favorite items and request that the staff complement it with a jacket or pants to create an outfit.

There are also about 30 mannequins in the store showing how to coordinate items.

"There is a narrative, if you take a walk around the store, you will get a good sense of how to build a wardrobe,'' said Rinat Aruh, vice president of marketing for Forth & Towne.

Four more units are to open Aug. 31 in the greater Chicago area: Algonquin Commons in Algonquin; Fox Valley Mall in Aurora; Westfield Old Orchard in Skokie, and Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg. Chicago was considered a fertile testing ground because of its large population of Baby Boomer women, Muto said. All of the stores are 8,000 to 10,000 square feet.Another five stores are planned to open next year, and Gap has committed to an additional 20 Forth & Towne units in 2007, meaning the division is basically a pilot program for some time before the company decides on a more aggressive rollout.

"With this [initial] group, we want to test the concept and test it in a variety of retail formats," Muto said. "It's a good mix of suburban and urban settings."

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