For the first time in 12 years, Gap Inc. is launching a new division, Hill City, targeting the men’s active market.
It’s a collection geared toward men of any age seeking a wardrobe with fewer, more versatile pieces and a casual aesthetic. Hill City blends performance characteristics and style in many of the 50 to 60 items in the initial collection. The puffer jackets, executives suggest, are suitable for hiking or to wear to work, and there are shorts designed for running yet look sufficiently fashionable for cocktails by the pool.
Hill City features fabrics that repel water, wick away sweat, have stretch and have some innovative detailing such as hidden zippered pockets, and a patented stretch waistband on shorts and pants that isn’t elastic-looking. There is also a sustainability component with renewable, recycled fibers used to create performance fabrics.
Hill City launches in mid-October with its own web site, Hillcity.com, and a tab on the Gap Inc. web site.
In addition, Hill City will be “showroomed” inside 50 Athleta stores. About 20 items (accompanied by photos, catalogues and branding) will be displayed for online purchase only. Athleta is the women’s activewear division of Gap.
No Hill City stores are planned, though executives don’t dismiss the possibility of a brick-and-mortar play sometime in the future, if online sales gain traction. For now at least, it’s a “digital-first” approach, executives said.
In the U.S., there are only a handful of men’s-only specialty chains, among the biggest being Brooks Brothers, Men’s Wearhouse and Jos. A. Bank. In April, Nordstrom opened a men’s-only store on 57th Street and Broadway in Manhattan, and Saks Fifth Avenue operates a men’s-only store in Brookfield Place in lower Manhattan.
But Hill City is taking a highly specialized tact.
“Hill City brings a new perspective to men’s apparel that is complimentary to our iconic portfolio of brands,” said Art Peck, Gap Inc.’s president and chief executive officer. “Active is a key growth area for Gap Inc. and Hill City is our response to consistent feedback from customers looking for a premium men’s product that combines highly technical fabrications, performance and style.”
As Noah Palmer, general manager of Hill City, sees it, the men’s market is filled with products that don’t put it all together. They either have technical fabrics and don’t look particularly stylish, or have a cool look while lacking performance characteristics. “Hill City is a blend of the two,” Palmer said.
“Men’s lives are evolving,” Palmer said. “We no longer want to dress as either an ‘athlete’ or an ‘outdoorsman’ or a ‘businessman’ — we are all of those, and we’re also fathers, friends and active members of our communities. We don’t want a different look for each aspect of our lives. That’s why our team set out to rethink men’s apparel with one brand that could fill a man’s entire closet with versatile, high-performance pieces that can take him from activity to activity without sacrificing a sense of style. We are targeting a psychographic rather than a demographic.”
In an interview last week, Palmer previewed the collection for WWD, at one point requesting that a guest try on a Thermal Light Shirt Jacket with stretch. It felt light as a feather yet warm.
“There’s everything in the collection you need to build a wardrobe for your closet, with a casual sensibility,” Palmer said, though he noted that shoes and suits are not part of the collection. “Our intention with a lot of these styles is that they should be seasonless, designed to wear for more days during the year. We’re not trying to be prescriptive by telling people when they can wear something. But we are saying we have styles that you can hike in or go to work in,” like the lightweight reversible puffer jacket.
Just under two-thirds of the products are priced at less than $100; 95 percent are priced under $150, and the average price is $80. “We’re in the premium space,” said Palmer. The X-Purpose Shorts are priced at $68 lined, $58 unlined. The Thermal Light Shirt Jacket with stretch and PrimaLoft insulation is priced at $158.
With brand start-ups, the $15.9 billion Gap Inc. has a mixed track record. The retailer’s last start-up was Piperlime in 2006. The web site sold high-end lines such as Kate Spade and Cynthia Rowley, and had a 10-year run before Gap shut it down in 2015.
In 2005, Gap launched Forth & Towne, which was aimed at selling to women 35 years of age and older. Nineteen stores opened, but the business was closed after just 18 months.
Gap’s most successful start-up was Old Navy, founded by Millard “Mickey” Drexler in 1993 as Gap Warehouse. A year later, Drexler changed the format’s name to Old Navy. The division continues to be the corporation’s cash cow and main growth vehicle.
Athleta was acquired in 2008 from founder Scott Kerslake. Though on a much smaller scale than Old Navy, Gap is steadily rolling out Athleta, and its success was a major factor for launching Hill City. According to Palmer, customers shopping Athleta were asking for equivalent men’s products.
Gap Inc., founded by Donald and Doris Fisher in 1969 with Gap stores, also operates Banana Republic, which it acquired in 1983 from Mel and Patricia Ziegler, and Intermix, acquired in 2013 from founders Khajak Keledjian and his brother Haro.
At Gap’s San Francisco headquarters, Hill City has a small team of 18 people involved in design, brand marketing, creative, photography, videos, technical designers and fabric research and development. They tap into Gap’s infrastructure, including the supply chain, e-commerce, logistics and finance functions. The team was established by the 6-foot, 3-inch Palmer, a former college and professional soccer player who joined Gap’s retail management program in 2007 and has worked in Old Navy boys and men’s merchandising for 10 years.
The Hill City name was chosen, Palmer said, because it evokes the very hilly topography of San Francisco. It also is intended to reflect the juxtaposition of life in the city from the great outdoors.
“The motivation for starting Hill City was clearly driven by Athleta customers asking us when are we going to a version of this for their husbands, their friends, for the guys in their lives,” Palmer explained. “It was also driven by the growing men’s active category. It’s at $22 billion in the U.S., and growing at a rate of 6 percent annually for the last two years.
“But we have also built a brand with ourselves in mind and betting that there are a lot of guys out there like ourselves,” Palmer added. “It feels like it’s our baby. This is our passion brand.”