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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.
This story first appeared in the September 28, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
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.’’
They enjoyed a remarkable run together. Fiscal 1995 sales were $4.4 billion, more than tripling to $13.7 billion in 2000 and hitting $14.45 billion in 2002. Net income, $354 million in Drexler’s first year at the helm, exceeded $1 billion in 1999, reaching $1.13 billion before falling to $877.5 million in 2000 and $477.5 million in 2002.
Drexler was succeeded by Paul Pressler, a former Disney executive, in 2002. But Pressler couldn’t get the chain back onto the growth path and Glenn Murphy joined the company as chairman, succeeding Bob Fisher, and ceo, succeeding Pressler, in 2007.
“Today we lost a friend, a mentor and a great visionary,” Murphy said. “Don and Doris took a simple idea and turned it into a brand recognized as a cultural icon throughout the world and changed the face of retail forever. We will miss him deeply, and our thoughts and prayers are with Doris and the entire Fisher family during this time.”
The company operates more than 3,100 stores in the U.S. and internationally, employs more than 134,000 workers and had revenues of $14.5 billion during its last fiscal year, making it the largest U.S.-based apparel specialty store operation. Initially, Fisher had envisioned a modest chain of casual apparel stores — “as many as 10,” he said.
Instead, Gap today sports five brand names. The namesake last year had worldwide sales of $5.96 billion, followed by Old Navy, opened in 1994, with revenues of $5.71 billion. Banana Republic, acquired in 1983, had sales of $2.64 billion. The company also operates two online-only brands, Piperlime, a startup, and Athleta, an activewear brand acquired last year for $150 million in cash.
While his career rewrote the history of apparel retailing in the U.S. and abroad, Fisher was known for his deep commitment to charitable and educational activities. The Gap Foundation, the firm’s nonprofit charity arm, was started in 1977, the year after Gap went public, and has donated more than $100 million to various organizations and causes since its inception. Actively involved in the United Way of the Bay Area, he and Doris Fisher provided $100 million in their own funds for the KIPP Foundation, a national network of college preparatory public schools, and Teach for America, which helps provide educational opportunities for disadvantaged youngsters.
“My father was an inspiration to many people, both in his dedication to his business and through his enthusiasm and commitment to philanthropic efforts,” said Bob Fisher, adding that the family was “comforted in the knowledge that my father’s legacy will live on in the spirit and passion of the millions of people who have worked over the past 40 years for the company he founded.”
Fisher served on the boards of trustees of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and recently had signed and announced a pioneering agreement with the museum which would provide the Fisher Collection — one of the world’s leading private collections of contemporary art — with a home upon completion of SFMOMA’s planned expansion. Amassed over 40 years, the collection includes more than 1,100 pieces, including works by Alexander Calder, Chuck Close, Willem de Kooning, Roy Lichtenstein, Brice Marden, Agnes Martin, Richard Serra, Cy Twombly and Andy Warhol.
Donald G. Fisher was born Sept. 3, 1928, the oldest of three boys who would later become the father of three sons. His great-grandfather, Samuel, moved to San Francisco in the 1860s, following the Gold Rush. He watched the Golden Gate Bridge go up as a child and became an expert swimmer who would eventually serve as captain of both the swimming and water polo teams at the University of California at Berkeley. His mother Aileen’s family had a cabinet business that included Macy’s among its customers, but Don Fisher opted for real estate after service in the U.S. Naval Reserve.
In addition to his wife, the former Doris Feigenbaum, he is survived by three sons, Bill, John and Bob; two brothers, Jim and Bob, and 10 grandchildren. The company said funeral services will be private. In lieu of flowers, the family requested donations be made to the KIPP Foundation and Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco.