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July 29 2014

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Gap’s Creative Director, Rebekka Bay, on the All-American Uniform, Normcore, and the Power of a Blue Shirt

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thegapHow to make consumers fall back into the Gap? That’s the challenge that Rebekka Bay has undertaken since assuming the reins as creative director of the monolithic brand in October 2012.

Before coming to the Gap, the 44-year-old Danish designer founded COS (a subsidiary of H&M) in 2007, which quickly developed a cult following for its directional yet accessible take on modern minimalism. Upon arrival, Bay immediately set about refocusing the design team’s efforts on those core, iconic pieces—building blocks for the quintessential American wardrobe—that the Gap has always been known for.

Bay’s premiere Spring ’14 collection (now in stores) reflects her
back-to-basics approach, which feels in touch with the rise of normcore fashion and the industry’s movement toward a simplified aesthetic. She’s a big believer in uniform dressing and thinks that “everyone looks better in a blue shirt.” Keeping this in mind, the Gap recently dedicated an entire retail space in New York City to blue shirts—ranging from crisp cotton button-ups to soft chambray styles for the whole family.

Style.com spoke to Bay about the new concept space, her outlook for the Gap, American sportswear, her personal uniform, and more.

What have been some of your initial goals for the Gap?

I think what I’d really like Gap to be is that sort of foundation in everyone’s wardrobe. That doesn’t mean that my focus is only on
super-basic pieces. I think it’s initially been about trimming things down to create a new starting point for everything, and going from there and beginning to apply the ideas. I think once you have created that pure expression of an iconic piece, then you can start laying in the fashion or originality.

So what are some of those core iconic pieces you’re reintroducing?

I’ve thought about really focusing on the building blocks of any wardrobe. I think the real American uniform was always about jeans and T-shirts, or khakis and oxford shirts. Beyond that, we’ve really concentrated on creating the perfect little crewneck and then doing iconic pieces of outerwear. For fall, that meant the peacoat and the parka. And spring was very much about bombers and denim jackets, and also variations on the moto or biker jacket.

You mentioned the American uniform. What is your personal uniform?

I’m super boring. I wear jeans, I think, nine out of ten days, with a basic T-shirt or jumper, depending on the weather. Sometimes I get tired of wearing the same jeans over and over, so I’ll shift to a pair that is slightly lower at the hip or has a different crop, but it’s always variations on the same outfit.

I’ve noticed that a lot of fashion designers and creative types also have this formulaic approach to getting dressed—you see them in the same white T-shirt and black jeans every day. Why do you think that is?

I can only speak for myself, by my mind is always occupied by what I’m doing with the new collection, and I’m less preoccupied with how I’m going to wear that. I think you make yourself a blank canvas and you never really get to decorate that canvas because you’re always working toward the next season.

In general, do you think fashion is trending toward a more streamlined, pared-down look? Obviously you’ve probably heard about normcore, but do you think the consumer is really craving simplicity now?

I think the more complicated the world that we live in becomes, the more we feel the urge to simplify and strip down. I think there’s more peace of mind in not being too occupied with the latest trends or fads. Your personality shines through when you’re not really hiding behind what you wear. I think there are different uniforms for different times, and I think we’re currently in a season of high fashion with a more realistic or simplistic attitude to getting dressed. People are more in favor of those iconic essentials now.

Is there a renewed emphasis on improving quality?

I think what’s number one on my list of priorities is improving the cost of the whole, and part of that is improving quality of design, of fit, of fabrications, and also of the store experience—how customers are engaging with the brand overall. I think the simpler the product you’re putting out, the more you demand from it and have higher expectations.

Tell me about the concept behind the new Gap retail space on Fifth Avenue that is dedicated to blue shirts.

I’m constantly looking to engage our customer in new ways. We have been using this retail space like a laboratory for new ideas. We previously showcased our Paddington Bear for babyGap collaboration there, and turned it into more of a lifestyle experience in January. What I really wanted to do with the blue shirt space was to try to focus on just one piece that works for so many people. Gap has always been an American family brand, and I like that we can have a uniform that’s equally relevant across age and gender.

When I think of Gap, what immediately comes to mind is that famous khaki swing campaign from the nineties. How important do you think marketing is to brand positioning?

For Gap, marketing is really important in conveying the optimism of the brand. In addition to revisiting these iconic pieces in terms of design, it’s important to also show customers what the attitude is, how to wear these pieces, and how to make them yours. I think Gap ads have always managed to make you feel good, and we want to continue capturing that emotion.

How do you balance your own creativity with the necessity for commercial appeal?

To be honest, I’ve always seen being commercial as a creative challenge. Decisions are always instinctive above all. For me, being commercial means reaching a big audience and being relevant for a lot of people, and that’s a challenge I really enjoy.

Gap’s blue shirt concept space is located at 680 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10019. It will be open through the beginning of May.

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