A Big Gap

On the images plastered over the store windows, featuring lithe models in mostly blue denim garments, Gap proudly tells you that it is “born to fit together”. Curious claim aside, the question is, will it fit you? By fit, I don’t mean how well the clothes hang on you, but how well they match your lifestyle, your taste, your office decor, what your friends wear. If what most shoppers don this evening at CentralWorld was any indication, the basic tees, shirts, and jeans may be, to them, amusing at best.

Gap, once considered America’s top clothing brand that generated sales of USD14.5 billion at its peak, has finally arrived here, 40 years after it was born in San Francisco and 23 years after it opened its first outside-the-US store in London in 1987. It debuted in CentralWorld over the weekend, long after it has planted itself elsewhere in Asia: Japan, Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia.

When I walked into Gap on level 1 of Bangkok’s “largest mixed-use complex”, where the store sat on the stretch of prime space that G-Star Raw and Sasch have curiously vacated, I was struck by how brightly lit it was: a traditional intensity that is supposed to be welcoming. A mountain of mannequins outfitted in mostly white and light blue clothes greeted me, so did staff who eagerly chirped “sawadeekrab” without making eye contact with the entering shoppers. What caught by attention was the chambray shirts that the male sales crew wore: they were women’s–the placket opened from the left!

I gravitated towards the clothes. The store was not packed, so there was no need to jostle with other customers to examine the merchandise, which was not the stuff that makes the heart pump harder. On the parent company Gap Inc’s website, the brand is touted as one that “offers iconic American style…” The interesting question is, do Thai’s, who look to Japan and Korea for their fashion education, care about “iconic American style”? And what, by the way, is so iconic about pocket tees, plaid shirts or denim jeans?

In the 1990s, it was, interestingly, such basic clothes that made Gap what the rag trade calls a mega-brand. On top of the said garments, white shirts, sweatshirts, khakis, skirts, dresses were added to the mix. So successful was Gap, especially it’s multi-store spread across US cities, that it dramatically impacted the US retailing and consumer culture of the decade. Every business wanted to be like Gap, whether they’re selling coffee, books, office supplies, or home-improvement products. By the mid-Nineties, Gap was so omnipresent that not only could it provide “iconic American styles” (i.e. urban uniforms) to the masses, it could also offer shared shopping experiences since all stores looked identical and are stocked similarly.

Gap is as American as Starbucks, but while the latter is the first on many Bangkokians lips when they think of a modern coffee shop, Gap is hardly a name that one associates with a modern boutique. The Los Angeles Times wrote in 2008 just when Patrick Robinson was installed as head designer that Gap “has been floundering soullessly for years”. Despite what Mr Robinson has done to “talk about how Americans are living today” and sell abroad “an interpretation of how Americans live”, as he told The New York Times last year, Gap may have lost some relevance in these times of post-American-led recession.

To bridge this possible gap, also generational, the store was launched this evening with a fashion show (right) that stood out as much for its young and youngish celebrity models (the usual hi-so suspects that included movie-star-in-the-making slash ex-tennis ace Paradorn Srichaphan) as its lacklustre choreography. When the show was over, and the participants stepped into the public spaces, it was easy to tell, even with the heavy-handed makeup, who were more fashionable. You’re not wrong to say the unaware shoppers.

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