Why Vintage Gap Is Hot and Current Gap Isn’t

Of the various vintage Gap pieces Erin Wylie has purchased recently, her favorite is a wine-colored anorak in paper-soft cotton. What she loves are the subtle details: the look and feel of the material, and the little choices like the color-matched silicone stopper on the hood drawstring.

“Really nice little details that you probably wouldn’t see today,” said Wylie, who writes style and culture newsletter Blackbird Spyplane with partner Jonah Weiner and featured the anorak in a recent issue on the decline of savings.

However, to be fair, she admits she’s not the best person to ask what Gap currently has for sale.

“I haven’t been to a Gap in maybe a decade,” she said, “so I don’t really know what’s going on there.”

Driven in part by nostalgia and in part by the trend of young shoppers for 1990s and 2000s styles, people are snapping up products from Gap’s heyday. But those same shoppers aren’t necessarily buying what Gap has in stores now.

On eBay, the number of items sold with “Y2K Gap” in the name more than doubled in May 2023 from a year earlier and items sold tagged “90s Gap” increased by double digits, according to Charis Marquez, vice president of the company. world fashion. Depop, a resale marketplace popular with Gen Z, said it saw searches for “vintage Gap” jump 114% in June.

Yet at Gap itself, sales in the quarter through April were down 13% from a year earlier. The company cited additional challenges, such as selling off its China business and shutting down its ill-fated Yeezy Gap line, but declining revenue is not a new phenomenon for the U.S. retailer. Annual sales are half of what they were in the early 2000s.

In theory, Gap should be in a prime position to benefit from 1990s and 2000s trends. It’s certainly tough: the brand recently tapped Sean Wotherspoon, a designer who made a name for himself the world of sneakers and who is also co-founder of the vintage chain Round Two, to curate a capsule collection of vintage Gap merchandise. An early collection of items such as well-worn button-up shirts and faded jeans quickly sold out.

But the same desire doesn’t seem to translate to Gap’s current offering, in part, critics say, because the brand has lost its identity and quality has deteriorated. In this sense, Gap may reflect a larger shift in fashion, as cheap clothes have proliferated and pressure has intensified on everyone to keep prices low.

“They’ve definitely changed course, which is a lot different than it was,” said Mickey Drexler, who oversaw Gap from 1983 to 2002 and is currently chairman of Alex Mill, which he describes as trying to fill a gap in the market for stylish, quality clothing at great prices.

Call of Vintage Gap

Gap items that attract shoppers include vintage t-shirts, sweatshirts, jeans and more. On eBay, the number of vintage Gap T-shirts sold globally in May was up more than 60% year-over-year. Sweatshirts sold jumped over 50%, and in the US and Canada combined, leather jackets were up around 40%. Other popular items include easy fit jeans and Wylie’s beloved anoraks.

The trend is not entirely new. Depop said there was a peak in searches between November and December 2020, then the biggest surge was between June and October 2022. But the interest didn’t subside. Since the start of 2023, searches for Gap vintage jeans have increased by just over 100%, while Gap hoodies, shorts and t-shirts are the top selling items, with menswear showing a higher growth rate than women’s clothing.

“It’s high quality, it’s well made, and there can be some really cool and interesting pieces,” said Malcolm Rose, vintage dealer and co-founder of the Alma brand.

He said there has always been a demand for vintage Gap items, with some of them fueled by the nostalgia of those who grew up with the Gap. Wylie said part of the appeal of the anorak was that she believed her brother had the same.

Of course, many Gen Z shoppers were too young to remember when the Gap ruled the American teen’s wardrobe. But there are also other attractions. Rose said the pieces had a clear aesthetic direction: a modern, accessible take on Americana. Wylie highlighted how influences from prep and workwear have combined and tie into the current unisex trend.

“For me, I always like pieces that are a bit rugged but they’re well made, and often they have a bit of a patina,” she said.

The quality of the parts may depend on your point of view. Drexler pointed out that during his time at Gap they had tried to offer great value for money, but would never spend more on fancy fabrics and construction techniques that the end customer likely wouldn’t have recognized. or wouldn’t care anyway.

Yet the products were arguably of better overall quality than at present. Jessica Ramirez, senior research analyst at Jane Hali & Associates, an investment research firm, pointed out that the fabrics have changed significantly.

“When you walk into the store and physically touch the product, the quality has really deteriorated over the years,” she said.

Can Gap find the magic again?

Wylie has a theory as to why the quality dropped. When she was growing up, Gap was dear to her family. Often she had to wait for the clothes to go on sale. Sometimes she and her mother would even split the cost and share an item. But today, Gap prices aren’t much different than they were decades ago, even though everything else has gotten more expensive.

This suggests that the company manufactures its garments at a lower cost, which translates to how they look and feel. Right now, for example, the company sells a women’s cotton t-shirt for $9, down from $24.95. Drexler said that when he joined the company in the early 1980s, a t-shirt could cost $15.

The situation would not be unique to Gap. In the United States, clothing prices have not kept pace with headline inflation, making clothes cheaper than they were compared to other goods – the result of decades of brands finding cheaper ways to make and sell their products, driven by forces like globalization. , the spread of fast fashion and the rise of e-commerce. (Second-hand shoppers have been lamenting for years that vintage stores are filling up with cheap clothes made of finer fabrics laden with synthetics, which may not hold up as well to repeated washing and drying over time.) Like everything else. the world, Gap tries to ensure that its products are competitively priced.

“We stand behind the quality of our products, and equating lower prices with lower quality shows a misunderstanding of how supply chains have changed since the 1990s,” a Gap spokesperson said in a statement. sent by email. “They are more global and efficient, taking advantage of new technologies and economies of scale to keep prices affordable for consumers without sacrificing quality.”

However, product quality alone does not explain Gap’s current difficulties. Ramirez pointed out that everyone faces the same competition, and other legacy brands such as Levi’s and lately even Abercrombie & Fitch have managed to pull off some turnarounds. Many of Gap’s problems are his own. She noted that Gap missed trends like the denim resurgence and the 1990s and the Y2K boom.

“For the most part, the assortment isn’t very appealing,” she said. “The way they interact with the consumer is not very modern.”

Gap said in the email that it tries to strike a balance between new and classic styles, and some of its icons like its loose ’90s denim, pocket tees and logo hoodie are featured. among its current bestsellers.

Both Ramirez and Wylie spoke about Gap’s marketing in the 1990s, with Wylie describing Gap at the time as a strong brand that drew people in. Gap has attempted to revive its image, including teaming up with Ye, which has put on a dark, dystopian cachet. on Gap items. But the tie-up has always felt disconnected from the rest of the Gap brand, which is struggling on its own to stand out in the market.

“The identity they hold now isn’t really as strong as it used to be,” said Rose, the vintage dealer. “The clothes reflect that.”

Drexler noted that the most important part of any business today is “the product, the merchandise.” He says he’s always used the same formula and it hasn’t really changed: the goal should be to deliver good-looking merchandise with taste, perspective and a fair price to value.

If nothing else, Gap’s desire for vintage shows that the brand still has a place in shoppers’ minds. He must also find a way to recover their wallets.

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