The fabric hang tag with The Gap logo unravels  and falls apart.
Illustrations: Guillem Casasus

This Is How The Gap Dies

It’s possible America’s most iconic retailer might not survive this

Rob Walker
Marker
Published in
14 min readApr 29, 2020

Once upon a time, The Gap was the brand. The brand that Spike Lee and Madonna and Missy Elliot and Picasso would all front for in ad campaigns. That Sharon Stone would wear to the Oscars. It was a generational reference point — of course that’s where Janeane Garofalo’s character worked in Reality Bites — and it somehow made khakis cool. At its peak, circa 2000, The Gap morphed from a mall retailer hawking T-shirts and denim into a new vision of affordable “casual chic,” and no less than “an international arbiter of style and a global megabrand.”

But that world, of course, has been fading away for a while, and now looks to be ending altogether. This past March, an estimated 250,000-plus non-“essential” stores closed en masse across the country in the second half of the month, a catastrophe for retail. The apparel category in particular was brutalized, with sales down over 50%. And here’s the thing: April will almost certainly be worse.

The pandemic crisis has accelerated a brick-and-mortar “retail apocalypse” already in progress. Traditional retailers closed something like 9,000 locations last year, and well-known brands are already filing for bankruptcy.

So just how bad can it get? Could even The Gap disappear?

Late last week, Gap Inc. warned that it had blown through about half that cash, thanks to its largely idle store fleet, and had thus raised $2.25 billion in secured (junk-rated) debt and other financial maneuvers.

Just a week ago, the question might have seemed outlandish. The Gap brand is a ubiquitous and iconic presence around the world. And despite the onset of the coronavirus, its parent, Gap Inc. — whose other brands include Old Navy, Banana Republic, and newcomer Athleta — had a balance sheet judged to be “in decent shape,” compared to some of its retail brethren. As recently as an April 9 investor conference call, the company noted that it entered the quarter starting in February carrying $1.7 billion in cash.

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Rob Walker
Marker

Author The Art of Noticing. Related newsletter at https://robwalker.substack.com