Hill City Gap

Gap Inc. might be approaching half a century, but its story is still being written — notably with a new chapter called Hill City, the men’s activewear business that made its debut in late September.

Launching a brand can be tricky at any time, but perhaps particularly so for a company that is scrutinizing its overall store count. While Old Navy and Banana Republic showed growth in the third quarter, its eponymous The Gap brand stumbled.

But so far, none of that seems to affect Hill City, founder Noah Palmer or his 18-person crew. They don’t appear to bear any of the parent company’s weight or worries.

Without a track record or a historical pattern to rely on, the company has to take numbers — and encouragement — wherever it can get them. In this case, it’s from Hill City’s wear testers, a unique program conceived with dozens of members in mind.

Instead, as many as 30,000 hopefuls stormed the company, asking to join the program. At this point, most wind up on the wait list.

“We’re just at the very early stages of the wear-tester program,” Palmer told WWD. “But having so many people interested I think is a really good indicator that we’re onto something now.”

That something is a penchant for premium ath-leisurewear, community-driven design and attracting customers who aren’t just interested, but passionate about influencing product development.

hill city gap

A look at Hill City’s in-office showroom in San Francisco.  Adriana Lee

The company also chose to communicate with them in ways modern consumers find most comfortable — via chats or direct messages.

“We don’t have legacy communication channels. We didn’t have e-mail; we didn’t have a web site,” said Eric Toda, Hill City’s head of marketing. “But if we were to take leaps and bounds into the future of where this guy is, he’s pretty dominantly texting.”

Scaling a feedback program that still feels personal could have been daunting for the company’s minimal team. But instead of manually managing messages, it uses chatbots for Facebook’s Messenger and Twitter.

“If you talk to legacy brands, sometimes you’ll hear them talk about the e-mail like it’s the most important piece of information you have on a customer,” said Amit Kumar, founder and chief executive officer of Notify.io, which built Hill City’s chatbots. “But if you think about today and then moving forward, the reality is the ability to engage with a customer through messaging is really significantly more powerful. And it’s really where your customers are today and it will continue to grow.”

Otherwise, the premise is similar to nearby Silicon Valley’s beta testers. Hill City’s wear testers try out products and submit problems, offer feedback and make suggestions regarding fit, detailing and other aspects of the garments.

Their recommendations are taken seriously and, when it makes sense, actually show up in the clothes.

Palmer pointed out a pair of pants during a tour of Hill City’s in-office showroom in San Francisco. He explained that the visible pocket had another hidden compartment. Turns out, it was a suggestion from a wear tester who wanted a better safeguard for his personal effects.

Hill City Gap

Hill City’s wear testers have been responsible for garment features like this hidden “pocket in a pocket.”  Adriana Lee

Like the testers, Palmer and his team “are also passionate about Hill City,” he said.

Think of it as a bid for minimalism: “We want to create fewer, better things that are more versatile so that you’d need to have less things in general,” Palmer added. “I think everyone’s a little bit overwhelmed with how much stuff is available. We want to contribute as little as possible to that sort of feeling, so you can have a whole closet and really have it packed into just a few items.”

It’s the classic “quality, not quantity” argument. The work to smooth seams and move tags, so they don’t irritate the skin, or add secret pockets likely adds complexity to the design and production process. But the founder believes that matters less for the customer territory Hill City has staked out.

“I think with women, what we typically see is a little bit more tolerance of fit if something looks amazing,” Palmer said. “Guys have no tolerance for something that doesn’t fit them exactly as they want. And this is especially true when you think about performance apparel and apparel that’s, like, at a premium price.”

Indeed, Hill City is not meant to be another Old Navy. If it has a spiritual sibling, it would be Athleta. Its shoppers often requested a male-oriented version for their husbands or sons. So it makes some sense that the company would introduce Hill City by placing products inside Athleta stores.

For an online brand, that brick-and-mortar presence is a rare asset. But it’s limited — intentionally so. The public can check out the merchandise in person, but when it’s time to actually purchase, customers have to pull out a phone or use the in-store kiosk. Either way, people aren’t going home that day with the products.

Hill City Gap

Hill City logo above a rack of clothes.  Adriana Lee

On the surface, this approach might look like a risk. Then again, today’s shoppers are accustomed to window shopping in physical stores and then buying online anyway. One could argue that this is merely another example of working with consumers’ existing behaviors.

For parent Gap Inc., it’s certainly an experiment worth trying, among others.

A rocky third quarter for The Gap saw same-store sales fall 7 percent, a particularly striking downturn set against the successes of Old Navy and Banana Republic, which showed growth of 4 and 2 percent, respectively. Now it plans to shrink the armada of The Gap’s brick-and-mortar locations.

Perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, Gap Inc. had already entered into a partnership with Microsoft earlier this month to bring its public-facing apps and internal systems to the tech giant’s Azure cloud platform. The update, it wagers, will make the company more efficient and fuel better customer experiences in stores and on online platforms.

That may be something Gap’s newest brand can help shed light on. Because its successes and failures will likely inform The Gap and its sibling brands across the board.