By and  on April 4, 2007

Despite plenty of woes, Gap insists it hasn't lost sight of talent, as it gives three new designers a big break.

"We are absolutely invested in emerging talent. Part of us has always been about celebrating young designers," said Marka Hansen, president of Gap North America, in an interview Tuesday. She elaborated on Gap's new limited edition collection for women called Gap Design Editions, which will be created by Doo-Ri Chung, Thakoon Panichgul and Rodarte's Kate and Laura Mulleavy.

Starting April 17, the collection will be sold in 100 larger Gap stores. It will be supported with advertising in The New York Times, Vogue, a WWD cover wrap, and store windows. It's a small step and one of many by Gap to help spruce up its tired image.

"We are being opportunistic," Hansen said. Asked if designers with bigger reputations might be recruited as guest creators, Hansen replied: "I would not rule out anything."

The project for these designers was simple — create white shirts, which the chain has been selling for 35 years. "It's the perfect iconic item," said Hansen.

The designers won't have their names on the products, but will appear in ads and in collateral materials making them readily identifiable to customers, Hansen said.

The project is an offshoot of Gap's partnership with the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund announced last month to introduce up-and-coming designers to a broader audience by arranging for winners to design limited edition pieces for Gap.

Last fall, Gap tapped Roland Mouret to create a capsule collection of dresses, but this newly announced quartet stands to have a broader reach, thanks in part to a print and outdoor advertising campaign featuring Stella Tennant, Liya Kebede and Carmen Kass, and shot by Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin. Clearly, the San Francisco-based chain is not skimping on talent even though Gap Design Editions, or GDE, will only retail from $68 to $88. Gap is said to have donated more than $1 million to the fund. Further fastening the connections among the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund and the retailer is Vogue's May cover, which has a gatefold featuring all nine GDE styles.In a statement Tuesday, Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour said, "Vogue has a long tradition of supporting young talent — in particular, our local talent — to secure a brilliant future for American fashion. And Gap's Design Editions project…will give a boost to the three CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund winners, and bring their wonderful designs to a much bigger audience."

Ironically, last year's fashion fund winner Chung picked up J. Crew chairman (and former Gap honcho) Millard "Mickey" Drexler as a mentor, and she is developing a wedding dress for J. Crew. As for whether that alliance will lead to other J. Crew products, she said: "I hope so. We're talking about a lot of things….Mickey wants me to be huge, which is wonderful. I love his enthusiasm. He thinks I can do much more than I think I can." J. Crew executives couldn't be reached for comment. It's unclear how they will react to Chung's work at Gap, a competitor.

For now, Chung is eager to see her finished Gap products, including a Claire McCardell-inspired shirtdress. "Throughout history people have always tried to redesign the classic white shirt — that's what made it so exciting."

Having Gap's colossal production crew was another bonus. After creating her looks and handling an initial fitting, Chung didn't have to deal with the patternmaking, tucking, seaming and all the other painstaking tasks to which she usually has to attend. "It was nice to have someone else to take care of that part," she said. "It's important as a designer to see how different processes work. You can get so pigeonholed with what you do. I get tunnel vision — once I'm in the building, I don't leave. It's good to step away to see a different perspective."

While Chung is not actively searching for other collaborations, she said if a project was presented that was something she believed in, sounded fun and was not detracting from her signature collection for an extended period, she would consider it.

Lately, designers have been teaming with mass retailers, with H&M lining up Karl Lagerfeld, Stella McCartney and Viktor & Rolf, and Target fronting Libertine, Proenza Schouler's Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough and Behnaz Sarafpour. This month, Alice Roi bows with a Uniqlo line, followed by Phillip Lim in May. Lim has a deal in the works with an international shoe company. If the designer-retailer combo weren't enough, H&M has raised the stakes by having Madonna and pop princess Kylie Minogue design signature collections. Another international retailer, Mango, has Penélope Cruz and her sister on deck for a collection, Kate Moss is on board at Topshop and Naomi Campbell is reportedly working on her own label.At Gap, Panichgul said he will be able to get his name out across the country. GDE also will be sold domestically online at "This is more like a special project than a collaboration. A lot of people are interested in collaborations — I don't think it's going away. It's just evolving into different forms like this one….I'm open to anything."

Laura Mulleavy said she and her sister, Kate, welcome the exposure GDE will generate, but they are not in talks with other companies about similar alliances. "Kate and I really want to do things we believe in, and right now that's our label….The support in America for new designers and for people trying to build their businesses is probably more than in any other country."

News of Gap Design Editions, while generally welcomed by analysts, put the focus on other Gap issues and its turnaround efforts. "Such short-term design initiatives are positive indications of their intention to improve, but it will probably require at least two to three years of reexamination and re-engineering before Gap can reclaim some of its former status," said Arnold Aronson, managing director of retail strategies at Kurt Salmon Associates. "They must revision the business in terms of merchandise thrust, fashion sensibility, depth and breadth of assortments, size and number of stores."

"They need to define their market, which is what they are working on," said Mark Montagna, an analyst at C.L. King and Associates. "I believe they need to buy with greater breadth and less depth and run it more like the H&M and Forever 21 where you get faster fashion. Their strategy of buying deep and narrow just encourages customers to wait for the sales…Gap should be doing what H&M does — get a collection by someone like Madonna or Karl Lagerfeld. These are people America has heard of."

Meanwhile, it is believed that Gap has begun interviewing candidates for its ceo post. Egon Zehnder was hired to conduct the search. "In this case, there would be a couple of buckets of candidates, for retailers and nonretailers," said one source familiar with the search process. Gap also formed an internal search committee that would draw up its own list of candidates and compare it with the search firm's. Some candidates have been contacted, but the interviewing phase could take three to four months or longer, said one source.Robert Fisher, Gap chairman, who stepped up as interim president and ceo in January after Paul Pressler was pushed out, outlined in broad strokes some steps to stabilize the business — including store closures; cutting marketing spending; making more changes faster; improving products; narrowing the focus at Gap with greater emphasis on knits, clean bottoms, denims and khakis; giving Gap Inc. brands greater autonomy, and retaining, developing and recruiting talent.

Gap division plans to narrow its targeted age range, which has been from 18 to 35, but now will skew older. The company also is converting the 45 Old Navy outlets to Old Navy stores and is closing its 19-unit Forth & Towne division by June.

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