By  on March 16, 2011

LOS ANGELES — Gap’s 1969 brand is embracing denim diversity.

From her perch at loft offices in an industrial area here where the premium denim movement took root, 1969’s creative director Rosella Giuliani is orchestrating Gap’s premium collection’s efforts to stay in stride or ahead of the denim fashion curve by broadening its range of colors, fabrics and lengths. Her challenge is to keep the retailer’s denim relevant and continue the momentum of 1969, which started two years ago after a major rethinking of Gap jeans’ fit and positioning. The collection is considered a bright spot in Marka Hansen’s spotty tenure at the helm of Gap North America, which ended with Art Peck taking the reins last month.

With the launch of 1969, Giuliani, the former Seven For All Mankind vice president of design and merchandising who returned last May to the company where she spent eight years in her early career, said Gap sounded “the message loud and clear” that it could offer “a really great premium denim line at an affordable and accessible price” range from $59 to $89. “Our goal is to take it even further,” she added. “The variety has definitely increased. We offer a lot more jeans. In summer, we have a lot of shorts. We have a lot of capris. We have shirts. We have dresses. It’s more of a complete sportswear collection that happens to be made in denim fabric.”

Expanding 1969’s color palette was a key focus of Giuliani’s. More shades of gray, white and pale blue will supplement traditional indigo. Heading into the warmer months, Giuliani declared “white is a big idea for us” in bottoms, from shorts to long pants. She also singled out gray from “charcoal to lighter grays as an easy color for a guy to pick up and have as an alternative to a blue jean.”

Giuliani was intent on lightening fabrics and lifting lengths as well. Tencel and linen are incorporated into the denim mix more often, and fabric weights are as low as 6.5 oz. and don’t go above 12.5 oz. And, in what are perhaps Gap’s shortest bottoms ever, 1969 will introduce shorts with 3.5-inch inseams. “It’s still very wearable,” said Giuliani. “There are a lot of [length] options, which I think is good because it gives you different reasons to buy.” Even when discussing pants, she stuck to a shorter theme, pointing out flood-length jeans in flair and legging iterations as important summer styles.

Elevating 1969’s sophistication level could give Gap the ability to nudge consumers to the higher-priced items in the collection as rising cotton costs gut margins on the lower end of the price spectrum and move 1969 beyond denim if the brand cultivates a premium identity enough to sustain subsequent categories. An early test could come this fall, when there’s the possibility of a capsule sportswear collection, which would most likely enter 1969 stores in Los Angeles and New York first. “The foundation has to be denim, and then as we are exploring these other categories, it is what works the best with the denim and what is going to complement it,” said Giuliani.

The two 1969 stores are the only ones planned for the brand at the moment. They serve as laboratories for the brand’s design and merchandising team, which is culled from veterans of various retailers and denim brands such as American Eagle Outfitters, Guess, Abercrombie & Fitch, Levi Strauss & Co., AG Adriano Goldschmied and Giuliani’s former employer Seven. For instance, a superskinny fit was vetted at the 1969 locations before recently spreading out across the Gap chain, and a slouchy slim fit has now passed inspection at the 1969 stores in order to get the go-ahead for a summer entrance into the Gap stores.

The pressures on Giuliani are multiple. Turning Gap stores into trusted denim destinations has been a top priority for the retailer and is viewed as essential to lifting store performance. Gap North America’s same-store sales dipped 2 percent in the fourth quarter ended Jan. 29 and chief executive officer Glenn Murphy noted in a conference call discussing the quarter’s results that consistent product execution has been an issue. “We’re still not there, and our brand presidents know that, our merchants know that, our designers know that,” he said.

“People are buying Gap denim again,” said Christine Chen, a senior retail and apparel analyst at Needham & Co. In order to keep people buying denim, she continued, Gap needs “to continue to innovate and be on-trend with where the trends are going in denim.”

As Gap shores up its Global Creative Center in New York under the management of Pam Wallack, Giuliani has already taken over creative responsibility for denim across the globe out of the Los Angeles office and explained that means ensuring there’s “one global line for everybody.” She reports to executive vice president of design Patrick Robinson and Peck.

Guiliani described herself as excited for the leadership Peck, who she said she’s “known for many years,” brings to the table and the future of 1969 as a well-rounded resource. “Hopefully, people will start seeing it as a whole bigger collection, and really see where we’re taking it forward,” she said. “It’s not just about coming in and getting a weekend jean or something to throw around because it’s a great price, but it’s something that you can actually go out in and feel dressed up in.”

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