NEW YORK — Gap recently let 30 Rhode Island School of Design students loose on its new classic spring cardigan, then stood back and waited for the results.

This story first appeared in the February 26, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Gap creative director Patrick Robinson gave the students only one instruction: to use their imagination. Otherwise, they were free to incorporate the materials and techniques of their choosing. The 30 one-off deconstructed and reworked garments, priced at $68 each, will be available starting Friday at Gap’s rotating concept space adjacent to its Fifth Avenue and 54th Street flagship. Besides showcasing the RISD students’ designs, the shop will sell Gap cardigans for $44 each in a range of bright and bold spring colors in stripes and solids.

Gap Inc. has recorded 11 months of consecutive sales declines. Chairman and chief executive officer Glenn Murphy has said the company’s top priority in 2009 is driving traffic. “We are keenly aware of our current productivity levels and they’re not acceptable,” he said in October. Collaborations such as the RISD cardigan project, though small, can bring an added element of interest to Gap.

While Gap has worked with young Council of Fashion Designers of America designers, Robinson said this was the retailer’s first experience with college students. “Our job is to keep putting things into Gap’s arsenal to keep it fresh,” he said. “This is what we should all be doing, promoting out-of-the-box thinking and talking about emerging designers. It’s times like these when people’s creativity has an opportunity. If this does work, we could create other projects like this.”

One reason Gap chose RISD is because “we got students with a range of disciplines — furniture designers, apparel designers and industrial designers and those studying printmaking, so the cross-pollination was really interesting,” Robinson said.

Students treated the sweaters as blank slates for embellishment, using beaded pearls, embroidery and appliqués. They sliced, shredded and burned sweaters to edgy effect and sewed sweaters together to make dresses and skirts. One student used bleach to create a motif of birds on a branch and two students wrote a poem in Italian all over a sweater. Materials such as tulle, hand-rolled beads made from recycled paper and vintage lace were used for decoration.

Donna Gustavsen, head of RISD’s department of apparel design, said Gap wanted the sweaters to be wearable, but gave the students no limitations. “In some cases, they were redefining the definition of the sweater,” she said. “[The project] is really just a display of the creative mind of the RISD student.”


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