Old Navy president Tom Wyatt has resigned to enter the education field, Gap Inc. said Thursday.

This story first appeared in the January 20, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Wyatt will become chief executive officer of Knowledge Universe in Portland, Ore., the parent company of the KinderCare, Champions, Knowledge Beginnings and Cambridge schools and The Grove School, which provide early learning and school-age programs around the country.

His departure means Gap has another big spot to fill. The retailer is seeking a new head of Gap Adult design, which was previously held by designer Patrick Robinson, who was involved in a broad spectrum of categories until being ousted last year.

Searches are under way for both jobs. In the interim at Old Navy, two executive vice presidents, Nancy Green, chief creative officer, and Tom Sands, who runs stores and operations, will lead the business, which has not been performing well. Comparable-store sales were down 4, 7 and 9 percent in December, November and October, respectively. Still, Wyatt is credited with leading efforts to remodel stores, develop the SuperModelquin marketing campaign and lay groundwork for an international expansion. “This was probably one of the most difficult decisions I’ve had to make,” Wyatt said. “An opportunity came my way that allows me to devote myself to helping children get the education they deserve.”

Sources said Gap has been on an ongoing, aggressive hunt for talent for a range of jobs in merchandising and other creative areas, including contacting former Gap executives with good track records. One of its alumni, Tracy Gardner, has been tapped for Gap’s Global Creative Center in New York. Beginning Monday, Gardner will be working alongside Pam Wallack, executive vice president, and the rest of the team, in an effort to improve the product and help turn around the retailer’s sagging women’s business. “She is joining us in an advisory capacity and will provide oversight and guidance on the development of our women’s product,” said Gap spokeswoman Louise Callagy. “They will begin working on developing holiday product for 2012.”

Gardner is not considered a successor to Robinson, since she is a merchandiser and not a designer. Yet sometimes executives who start in consulting roles eventually take permanent positions within a company. Gap had no comment on whether Gardner could eventually take on a bigger role.

Gardner has strong merchandising experience and is considered a solid tactical merchant, rather than someone who would set a new strategic course, though some retail analysts believe that’s exactly what Gap needs. Comparable-store sales at Gap stores in North America were negative 4, 2 and 5 percent in December, November and October, respectively. “This is a key positive for the company given women’s has been a struggling division for several years and could significantly benefit from Gardner’s input,” Jeffries & Co. said in a report Thursday.

Gardner was vice president of women’s merchandising at Gap’s Banana Republic division from 1998 to 2000; led Gap Adult Merchandising from 2001 to 2004 when the business was still on a growth curve, and became president of J. Crew Group in 2004 until leaving in 2010. Currently, she’s a partner and member of the board at social selling Web site StyleOwner. Gardner will be advising on Gap Adult product development, particularly women’s and accessories. Though the performance has not been good, Wallack said in an internal memo that “across global design, marketing and production, we’ve taken a number of steps to bring clarity, resources and focus to our work, and we’re making real progress.”

A year ago, Gap Inc. shook up its Gap North America division, naming Art Peck as president to succeed Marka Hansen. Also, the Gap Global Creative Center, located at 55 Thomas Street in New York’s TriBeCa, was formed. Wallack, who at the time was president of Gap Adult for North America, became executive vice president of the center, which houses design and product development teams as well as marketing, fashion public relations, fabric research and development, and technology services, to serve the Gap brand globally.

Wyatt, 56, joined Gap Inc. in 2006, held top jobs at the Gap Body and Outlet businesses, and became president of Old Navy in August 2008. He has long been passionate about education. “This chance to impact children’s lives through the power of education is an opportunity that presents itself once in a lifetime,” Wyatt said Thursday.

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