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Architecture + Branding: Inconsistent design and location first approach ultimately dilutes GAP’s questionable built design equity

1-Tough slog

It has been rather difficult slog for fashion retail in the last few quarters. Canadian retailers MEXX, and Jacob, have shuttered their operations. In early 2015, Wet Seal, Aéropostale, and Deb Shops have announced that they will be shuttering stores, or will be ceasing operations altogether. (source: retailndustry.about.com, cnbc.com).

20150705_081235 - GAP - MEXX 4190 Rue St-Denis at Rue Rachel Montreal QC

Photo: MEXX, front 3/4 view, 4190 Rue St-Denis (at Rue Rachel), Montréal, Québec, Canada

Not immune, in June 2015, GAP Inc. announced that it would be closing 175 of its namesake stores in North America (source: cnbc.com, forbes.com, gapinc.com, globeandmail.com, nytimes.com, npr.org, theatlantic.com, biv.com). When the dust settles, GAP Inc. expects to operate roughly 500 GAP stores and 300 GAP Outlets (source: fortune.com, cnbc.com, gapinc.com).

The latest setbacks for GAP Inc. add to those experienced in 2011, when it downsized, shuttered over 20% of US stores, and undertook a massive turn-around effort (source: businessinsider.com, 247wallst.com, forbes.com).

20150525_074917 - GAP - H&M 418 N Peters Street New Orleans LA

Photo: H&M, front 3/4 view, 418 N Peters Street, New Orleans, Louisiana

Having surrendered ground and market share to fast-fashion retailers such as H&M and Forever 21, GAP Inc. has definitely lost some of the relevance it once enjoyed.

DSC13106 - GAP - Forever 21 Pine Street and 6th Avenue Seattle WA

Photo: front 3/4 view, Forever 21, Pine Street and 6th Avenue, Seattle, Washington

2-Cred, white and blue

In 1969, when the first “the gap” store opened on Ocean Avenue in San Francisco, California, it was original, innovative, and disruptive. Founders Doris and Don Fisher’s unique store stocked with jeans, and music, would go on to influence retailing and pop culture (source: gapinc.com). Growing far beyond the first outpost, GAP stores currently number over 1,700 retail locations, spread across several countries (source: gapinc.com).

Looming large in 1980’s and 1990’s fashion trends, the gap brand grew into a global fashion icon principally on the strength of its “classic American fashion” repertoire of khakis, denim and simple white shirts (source: gapinc.com, nytimes.com, npr.org, theatlantic.com). Awash with fashion cred and strong demand for the brand’s preppy-leaning comfortable clothing, the gap rode, and influenced, the workplace trend towards “casual Fridays” (source: forbes.com). In the mid-80’s, at the height of its popularity, the gap unveiled a new blue and white logo/wordmark (“blue box” logo), and a shortened, simplified name (GAP) (source: wikipedia.org).

GAP - GAP Logo 1969-1986

GAP Logo 1969-1986 (source: wikipedia.org)

GAP - GAP Logo 1986-2010 2010-current

GAP Logo 1986-2010 2010-current (source: wikipedia.org)

GAP - GAP logo October 2010-2010

GAP logo October 2010-2010 (source: wikipedia.org)

The white and blue colour scheme became prevalent across most of the GAP’s imagery, marketing and corporate communications. And, as with the logo, the blue and white colour scheme became a part of the brand’s built environment.

3-Framed openings

Devoid of any semblance of a prototypical or standard store, GAP stores lack any consistent footprint, geometry, size, dimension, length, width, or depth. Likewise, no rhyme or reason can be gleaned from height, roof style, parapet profile, marquee, balconies or canopies across locations. However, the two-colour (blue and white) scheme largely binds the story together for GAP.

By nature, retailing is inherently tied to “story-telling” or narrative, as much as showcasing goods in the most compelling manner possible to encourage purchase. As such, expansive, high-visibility, high-transparency storefronts serve to display goods and to communicate the brand message.

As can be expected, most GAP stores have large storefront glazing surfaces, which also act as a stage to display its wares. The storefronts consist primarily of glass, with minimal interruptions clad in white.

20150705_072019 - GAP - GAP 4210 Rue St-Denis at Rue Rachel Montreal QC

Photo: GAP, front view, 4210 Rue St-Denis (at Rue Rachel), Montréal, Québec, Canada

20150705_071937 - GAP - GAP 4210 Rue St-Denis at Rue Rachel Montreal QC

Photo: GAP, front 3/4 view, 4210 Rue St-Denis (at Rue Rachel), Montréal, Québec, Canada

20150705_071726 - GAP - GAP 4210 Rue St-Denis at Rue Rachel Montreal QC

Photo: GAP, side view, 4210 Rue St-Denis (at Rue Rachel), Montréal, Québec, Canada

Aiding to define the limits of the store frontage, as well as differentiate GAP from other retailers, the glazing is framed in from the top, sides, and bottom, effectively bookended and capped by white trim.

20150713_171850 - GAP - GAP GAP Kids St-Laurent Centre Ottawa ON

Photo: partial front view, GAP and GAP Kids, St-Laurent Centre, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

20150713_172012 - GAP - GAP GAP Kids St-Laurent Centre Ottawa ON

Photo: partial front view, GAP Kids and GAP, St-Laurent Centre, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Incidently, mall storefronts and street-facing locations apply much of the same formula, liberally, even indiscriminately applying a swath of white to define and sketch-out the store envelope end extent.

GAP - GAP Briggate Leeds West Yorkshire UK

Photo: GAP, front view, 135 Briggate, Leeds, West Yorkshire, United Kingdom (source: wikipedia.org)

Although not always highlighted, the entrance may receive a punch of colour by way of a blue surround that reinterprets the popular blue box logo.

20150705_160611 - GAP - GAP Centre Rockland Montreal QC

Photo: GAP, partial front view, Centre Rockland, Montréal, Québec, Canada

20150705_160613 - GAP - GAP Centre Rockland Montreal QC

Photo: GAP, partial front view, Centre Rockland, Montréal, Québec, Canada

Alternatively, the entrance may also be recessed, or located off from centre.

DSC12966 - GAP - GAP Pine Street and 5th Avenue Seattle WA

Photo: GAP, side 3/4 view, Pine Street and 5th Avenue, Seattle, Washington

Clean, crisp and bright, this rudimentary back-to-basics approach is akin to taking a few high-quality clothing pieces that can be re-purposed and re-assembled to make a complete wardrobe. Unfortunately, the slim selection of design elements with which to mix-and-match results in limited brand-specific design equity in the built form.


In some instances, applying its bright white and dark blue colours to existing building elements simply will not suffice. Some GAP stores simply choose to ignore the building features, instead opting to “paper over” the seemingly offending construction.

Like an outstretched outer skin, the bright white second skin is visually tightly bound to the base of the building. Creating a real and perceived break in material and composition, the sparse, tense and serene facade seems doubly so when viewed from a distance. Alleviating most, if not all, of the “design busy-ness” of the upper floors, the stoic, clean, white sheet frontage dulls much of the surrounding cacophony.

DSC11720 - GAP - GAP Sixth Avenue and West 34th Street NYC NY

Photo: GAP, front 3/4 view, Sixth Avenue and West 34th Street, New York City, New York

Draped snugly, like an unfurled banner pulled tightly across the face of a building, the result can be  resoundingly effective, ghostly, and visually complex.

DSC11505 - GAP - Louis Vuitton 5th Avenue and West 57th Street NYC NY

Photo: Louis Vuitton, front 3/4 view, 5th Avenue and West 57th Street, New York City, New York

Nevertheless, a building wrap remains largely ineffective in generating immediate recognition or instant “assignability” to a particular business entity without it being emblazoned with the brand name, logo, trademark, or having its signage affixed to the façade.

5-Location first

Critical observation could support the argument that nurturing a built design language, or architectural identity, that can be attributed solely to GAP, seems to be an unintended and/or undesired goal.

A company that once challenged the status quo now seemingly opts to insert itself into locations where design is often dictated by developers and landlords. Appearing to play it safe, the brand’s timid and lacklustre efforts to not rock the boat with any suggestive, loud or unconventional design betrays its influential and disruptive origins.

Blending in, perhaps too well, into desirable or prized neighbourhoods and shopping locations, GAP adopts the diverse formats of the various shopping mall or commercial/retail development.

DSC07475 - GAP - GAP 673 Collins Avenue Miami Beach FL

Photo: GAP, front 3/4 view, 673 Collins Avenue, Miami Beach, Florida

Essential elements such as brand colours are often jettisoned as a consequence, leaving differentiation and identity achieved primarily through signage.

GAP - GAP 435 North Harlem Avenue Oak Park IL 2 https___maps.google

Photo: GAP, side 3/4 view, 435 North Harlem Avenue, Oak Park, Illinois (source: maps.google.com)

GAP - Old Navy 417 North Harlem Avenue Oak Park IL 2 https___maps.google

Photo: Old Navy, side 3/4 view, 417 North Harlem Avenue, Oak Park, Illinois (source: maps.google.com)

Lacking repetition from location to location, GAP stores can be wholly unrecognizable from one another.

GAP - GAP 10720 Preston Road Preston Oaks Dallas TX 1 https___maps.google

Photo: GAP, side 3/4 view, 10720 Preston Road, Preston Oaks, Dallas, Texas (source: maps.google.com)

With few defining, defensible, design features to their stores, and fashion’s ephemeral quality, former GAP stores in the most prime locations will likely transition towards miscellaneous retail or perhaps be replaced by a newer, in-at-the-moment, fashion retailer. Although the store closures will be costly, difficult, and painful for those directly affected (employees, landlords, vendors, etc.), it is questionable whether it will be a substantial built design loss. Never quite visually distinct enough, GAP often embraced the sameness and blended into its design surroundings, amongst other interchangeable retailers.

20150712_134042 - GAP - GAP Factory Store South Keys Ottawa ON

Photo: GAP Factory Store, front view, South Keys Shopping Centre, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

Whereas the original GAP store sported a facade with flashes of colour and some whimsical character definition, the crop of newer stores resemble a motley collection loosely held together by brand signage, and at times, brand colours. Frustratingly inconsistent, yet not overly interesting or brand reinforcing, GAP stores plainly lack an overarching design theme to tie the whole neatly together.

GAP 1001 Lincoln Road Lincoln Road Mall Miami Beach FL 1 https___maps.google (2)

Photo: GAP, front 3/4 view, 1001 Lincoln Road, Lincoln Road Mall, Miami Beach, Florida (source: maps.Google.com)


Disclaimer: All brands and trademarks are property of their respective owners.


About marc lortie

marc lortie is an Architectural Designer (Technologist) currently based in Ottawa, Ontario (Canada). marc has several years of experience working in Canada and the USA on various projects, including commercial shopping centres, big-box stores, industrial plants, educational facilities, warehouses, storage facilities, intermodal facilities, hotels, offices, and residential developments. marc is a graduate of Carleton University, Algonquin College and La Cite Collegiale.


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