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Strike a Pose

<b>M</b>adonna didn’t call her album “American Life” for nothing. At the height of her power, the diva’s diva has turned democratic — at least long enough to slip into a pair of faded corduroys to collaborate with ...

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Madonna didn’t call her album “American Life” for nothing. At the height of her power, the diva’s diva has turned democratic — at least long enough to slip into a pair of faded corduroys to collaborate with hip-hop powerhouse Missy Elliot on a major musical moment for the Gap.

In what has all the makings of an advertiser’s dream, the two have teamed up for a fall TV commercial in which they take over a back-lot set at Paramount for a rollicking, rap-infused rendition of “Into the Groove.” Backed by 10 dancers, Madonna croons a few bars from her recently released “Hollywood” while Missy Elliott kicks out Madonna-inspired rap, the two combining for a whole new “Groove.” In the background, film crew types and a pair of aliens from the set next door wander through for a behind-the-scenes feel, and it all feels utterly spontaneous. It should. At the Gap, celebrating celebrity means big business, but they like to make it look easy.

Of course, even dressed down in Gap, “ease” for Madonna and Missy Elliott is not quite what it is for the rest of us. Madonna works a glamorous tomboy angle, wearing a tank with powder blue cropped corduroys, a newsboy cap, killer heels and — ahem — more than $20 million of Neil Lane estate jewelry, including a platinum-and-diamond wallet chain. Meanwhile, Missy Elliott gets her freak on, pairing cords in the same light blue with an airbrushed T-shirt, baseball cap, custom Nike sneakers and her own signature jewelry, delivering a serious dose of street chic.

“We wanted to promote corduroy. One thing led to another, and lo and behold, Madonna wanted to do it,” says Gary Muto, president of the Gap division. “We have tons of cords in production, but we went back in and bought more of the light blue they’re wearing.”

“It drives home the idea that you wear Gap in your own way,” says Trey Laird, president and executive creative director of Laird + Partners, the advertising agency behind the campaign. “Missy has her bling-bling, Madonna has hers. It shows that you can take these cords and wear them with a hoodie and baseball cap or with millions of dollars in diamonds.”

In fact, while in her “Hollywood” video, released in June, Madonna vamps as a latter-day Jean Harlow, her look here conjures up the diva’s off-duty days. It’s a diamond-studded version of Madonna the natty bike rider who whizzes past the paparazzi down the streets of London or L.A. “Madonna wanted the look to be right for her,” says Kyle Andrew, vice president of creative services and marketing for the San Francisco-based retailer. “It’s real for her. It’s the Madonna you know and love.”

To further personalize the stars’ wardrobe choices, Joe Zee, W’s fashion director, who styled the campaign, had the back pockets of their cords monogrammed with the letter “M” in gothic style. He then had Madonna’s embroidered with a scrolling “Lady M” down one leg. Now, the company is planning several in-store monogramming events so that customers can work the look, too. “Madonna and Missy weren’t playing characters being created on a stage,” says Zee. “They both retained their personal style in the ads. And that’s the point. These clothes are basics you make your own.” Madonna certainly took the message to heart, giving her coveted seal of approval by taking her cords home after the shoot.

“These women are rule breakers, and the spot shows the power of their two worlds coming together,” says Paul Hunter, the commercial’s director. “Madonna brought in her yoga-style dancing and Missy brought the hip-hop element. But just putting their schedules together was an incredible thing.”

It’s not the first time Madonna has appeared in an ad campaign. She draped her languid form across a flight of marble steps for Versace in 1995 and posed for Max Factor in 1999. Yet she’s nobody’s mannequin. “With Madonna you don’t say, ‘This is what you’ll be wearing today,’” Zee says. Rather, both stars were deeply involved with planning the project, tweaking the concept and rehearsing before the three-day shoot. Missy Elliott’s choreographer High Hat met with Madonna’s Jamie King, who worked on the Drowned World Tour. Each diva also summoned her own hair and makeup team.

While none of the parties involved will divulge contractual details, it’s a safe bet neither star signed on for the money. And we know they didn’t do it for the fame. “Madonna does what she wants,” Laird says. Luckily for Gap, what Madonna wanted was to sing with Missy. Though the rapper remixed a song on the “American Life” album, the two had never met in person and had only worked over the phone. Their interest in doing a duet grew into Laird’s good fortune.

Brainstorming about corduroy — you know, it’s got grooves — brought Madonna’s 1985 pop classic to mind. But Laird never dreamed she would actually go into the studio and serve up a new version of the song just for Gap. In the end she did even more, lending the new song plus a remix of “Hollywood” to a special-edition CD available only at the store to those who purchase a pair of cords or jeans in August. Gap, in turn, will donate $300,000 to the Boys & Girls Club of America on behalf of the stars. “It just gets better and better,” Laird says.

“Missy even worked in lyrics about Gap,” says Andrew. “When I heard that, I thought I would cry I was so happy.”

But Missy Elliott, who has appeared in Garrard ads as well as those for Vanilla Coke and Reebok, isn’t the first rap star to wax rhythmic about the company. LL Cool J gave his lyrical endorsement in 1997, professing admiration for a fashion brand that respects a star’s personality, while “everyone else wants to be your personal stylist.”

America’s corporate giants haven’t always had it so easy. In the Sixties rocker Jim Morrison threatened to burn a Buick onstage when his bandmates agreed to sell “Light My Fire” to the car maker. But Gap, for all its corporate might, seems to instill trust in even the most rock-solid rockers. The list of musicians who have donned T-shirts and jeans to pose for the company includes Sheryl Crow, Carole King, Jakob Dylan, India.Arie, Alanis Morissette and Steven Tyler, among others. In fact, nostalgia and a good hook have fueled some of the brand’s most successful communiques. There was spring’s catchy rendition of Simon and Garfunkel’s “Feelin’ Groovy,” last winter’s “Love Train” spots and the jumping jive and blazing brass of the mega-popular khakis swing commercial. “Gap has a history of both discovering new talent and rediscovering great old songs,” notes Andrew.

Madonna and Missy join quite a posse. But then, the retailer has showcased a spectrum of celebrity casual chic since the late-Eighties launch of the “Individuals of Style” campaign, which featured a slew of famous faces from Kim Basinger in a T-shirt and pearls to Dizzy Gillespie in a black turtleneck. By 1993, iconic khaki wearers including Marilyn Monroe, Pablo Picasso, Frank Sinatra, Miles Davis and Amelia Earhart invaded the popular imagination as sales soared. Indie stars like Christina Ricci, Juliette Lewis, David Arquette and Bill Macy followed, as have fashion icons like Ali MacGraw and C.Z. Guest.

And it’s Gap’s return to a simple, stylish marketing message that Wall Street watchers have credited with saving the fashion giant from certain doom. After a few seasons on the skids, in 2001 things looked dismal for Gap Inc., which owns both Banana Republic and Old Navy. But since last fall, when Paul Pressler signed on as the company’s new president and ceo, the team has honed its approach and the numbers have rebounded. In May the $14.5 billion apparel chain, America’s largest, announced that income had catapulted 452 percent during the first quarter.

“Last fall we had to stabilize the brand. We had to let people know this is the Gap that you always wanted,” says Laird, whose agency started working with the company last year. Clarifying its message, the company stopped chasing teens and trends and returned to chic basics and the celebrity spot, inviting Lauren Hutton, Natalie Imbruglia, Sissy Spacek, Whoopi Goldberg, Christian Slater and Marianne Faithfull to pose, while enlisting Willie Nelson and Ryan Adams to sing different versions of Hank Williams’ “Move It on Over.” As in the Eighties, each star wore the classic pieces with personal flair.

“Business has really turned around,” says Andrew proudly of a rebound rooted in brilliant advertising — and a whole lot more. After that rocky patch, the retailer has taken great strides to correct its merch. Now, product quality is up, the designers are focused and life is good. For fall, the firm’s execs are singing the gospel of corduroy — big time. And if customers respond as they did last winter, when cozy striped accessories were hawked to the strains of “Love Train,” there may not be enough to go around. Last year when stores ran out of those ubiquitous striped items, desperate shoppers turned to eBay, where a hat, scarf and glove set — original combined retail $67 — was going, going, gone for $550.

Imagine what could happen after 8 p.m. on July 28 when Madonna and Missy strut their way across the nation’s TV screens, debuting a director’s cut of the commercial on VH1. Photographer Regan Cameron’s billboard images will go up over Sunset Boulevard in L.A. and in New York, and others will grace the back covers of several magazines and more than 3,000 Gap store windows. Now that’s some serious swaggering.

“I’m a huge fan of both of them,” says Cameron. “Madonna and Missy got on like a house on fire and away they went in front of the camera.”

None of the divas’ fans, however, could be more excited about the project than Laird. “There was a moment when I was standing on the set,” he recalls. “I saw them and thought, ‘Oh my God, it’s Madonna and Missy Elliott singing ‘Into the Groove!’”

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