NEW YORK — At Banana Republic, it’s about lightening up — both the color palette and the attitude.
This story first appeared in the March 27, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The flagship opening today on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan’s Flatiron neighborhood is the latest expression of the brand’s makeover, led by the wispy creative director, Marissa Webb. The $2.9 billion, 700-unit division of Gap Inc. has been stalled over the past few years due to increasing competition and a collection that got stale, so it’s seeking to increase its relevance and growth rate.
The two-level, 27,892-square-foot flagship here, with 14,338 square feet for selling, breaks from the brand’s monochromatic, all-too-serious careerwear image with an infusion of color and a greater variety of casual clothes intermixed with some of the longer-standing looks suitable for work. Bing Crosby-style straw fedoras, Superga sneakers and blush moto jackets, as well as Banana’s “Heritage” cargo jackets and linen sweaters, bring a broader appeal and a touch of playfulness. In men’s, softer, less-constructed blazers are styled with linen sweaters, scarves and T-shirts, and paired with chinos or denim. For Banana Republic, a palette that was predominantly black and white has been invigorated this season with peaches, teals and mustard yellows.
Located at 105 Fifth Avenue near 18th Street, the flagship showcases men’s and women’s styles under one roof, and replaces the separate men’s and women’s stores that had been on Fifth Avenue two blocks south. Right at the entrance, there’s a lengthy display of third-party vendors, and through much of the space, there’s a whimsical approach to the visual display.
Is it the prototype for the future? “Not necessarily. The goal is to make each individual store feel unique,” said Webb, during a walk-through Thursday morning. “This is the beginning. Not the big ta-da.”
Some of the merchandising and decorative elements could appear in existing or new stores. “It’s still open to conversation,” Webb said.
“It’s a big space,” and not necessarily what Banana Republic thinks ideal for the future, Webb acknowledged. “One of the things we are looking at going forward are smaller spaces — more intimate spaces that have personality. This flagship is boutique-y in a big space. It’s divided into little sections. Each area has a different personality.”
At the entrance, a 20-foot-long bleached-wood table exhibits women’s products unique to the Flatiron flagship, either created by Banana Republic or sourced from third-party vendors and designers that manufacture in America. There’s gold jewelry from Odette and home decor from Izola (two vendors from New York City), custom hand-painted denim from Banana Republic, as well as third-party notebooks and sneakers that Banana staff hand-painted. With the third-party assortment, Webb said the criteria is “if it feels organic and fits in with what we are doing and has an interesting story behind it…we are not trying to force it. I’m about supporting artisan brands. They add a different level of engagement.”
Moving further into the store, there is women’s apparel, accessories and footwear. Deeper in, there’s a canopy supported by wrought iron bars which creates a shops-in-shop feel to highlight colorful women’s apparel and accessories. Further back are the cash registers and a jewelry table, enhancing the boutique ambience. Off to the right are petites and fitting rooms. All product in the store is for summer, which is Webb’s first collection for the brand. She joined Banana Republic 10 months ago.
Upstairs, the men’s floor mixes and matches chinos and suiting with casual knits and denim. In the center is a glass-walled shops-in-shop displaying Heritage pieces and some third-party items such as Damn Handsome skin care and TM 1985 leather goods. On either side of the structure, there are additional men’s apparel and accessories separated by trend.
Though the flagship has been in development for two years, long before Webb arrived, it still reflects how she’s transforming the brand. In tapping Webb and taking a stake in her own line, Gap surprised the industry. Now Webb is the face of Banana Republic, though she reports to Andi Owen, who became president of Banana Republic last January.
Webb said she’s involved in “anything that is customer interfacing,” from designing the collection to the marketing, merchandising, store design and even window display. Those quirky slogans on the flagship’s walls, like “I’m OK with my crazy” and “I have absolutely no desire to fit in” are all Webb’s. The approach extends to the spirited display and props, like dripping paint cans and vintage hangers set amid the sportswear and accessories. While the assortment is noticeably casual compared to years past, “Every section of the store has a dressed-up element. We are mixing the two elements together,” Webb observed, as she ascended the grand chrome staircase leading from women’s wear to men’s wear. “There’s variety. It’s not over-assorted.”
The site, a former Barnes & Noble store, also features contrasting white walls and dark wood trim, oversize display tables that make the merchandise very accessible, and artwork from employees on the creative team including Bruce Lee Lewis. “We don’t want to be part of a corporate veil,” Webb said. “We are tapping into our creative teams to do more things.”
She’s changing up the image of the brand and the creative process. “Gap Inc. is a huge corporation but we are still people. We can choose to operate differently.” Webb said, adding, “I love being able to interact with everyone in the company. I have an opinion. It’s not about control.”