So long, Gap: how the American high-street favourite fell out of fashion

As the brand reveals it will switch to online in the UK and Ireland, we look back at the highs and lows of its style legacy

Gap, the brand that brought preppy American fashion to the British high street, has announced it will shutter all its 81 stores in Ireland and the UK by the end of this year, shifting exclusively to online.

Anyone who lived in the UK during the 1980s might well have mixed emotions after hearing the stalwart will soon have no physical presence. Once such a familiar sight, not having a Gap on the high street seems unthinkable. Yet, by the same token, many of us will be glad to see it go.

Let me explain.

It may seem incredible now, but when Gap arrived in the UK and Ireland in 1987, it was greeted with rapture, as a dazzling new voice in the marketplace.

Raised on a diet of US television – think Mork & Mindy, The Muppet Show and Miami Vice – teenagers of the decade yearned for the preppy clothes seen in Diff'rent Strokes and Happy Days, that felt a world away from that of grim, grey Thatcherite Britain.

With its loose-cut hoodies and sweatshirts, Gap smacked of all-American cheeriness; of sports jocks, cheering on the bleachers and the exoticness of American football. Even the fabric – jersey – was something wondrous, impossible to get outside of specialist sportswear. As a teen, this author longed for a sweatshirt in marl grey, until then the sole reserve of professional boxers.

Gap delivered whole stores filled with sweatshirts, and entire walls of T-shirts – just like in America! – in every colour under the sun. As we raced to grab red, yellow and orange clothes, we momentarily forgot we lived in a land untouched by sunshine, and that the shades so wonderful on Californian skin would only make us seem paler in comparison.

Instead, we hauled our Gap purchases on holiday, to better show off our hard-won Spanish tans.

More fun than Benetton, with its endless politics that seemed a bit, well, exhausting, and more exciting than Marks & Spencer, Gap offered young, summer-filled clothes, all year round.

We imagined ourselves hanging out on beaches in Gap sweatshirts, with our surfboards nearby, ignoring the icy numbness of the North Sea and the reality of endless rain.

To wear Gap was to embrace skateboarding and Americana, in one brightly hued bundle. It was a statement. Gap was daring.

A victim of its own success, however, that little piece of "new" was suddenly everywhere and, in too short a time, Gap went from daring to dreary as it popped up on every high street.

Swamped with Gap-ness, we instead looked for something else, buying it only for our children, enjoying the miniature bright colours we no longer wanted.

Inevitably, the copy-paste design of its produce that had once sent us into raptures, felt dull and predictable and we watched, disappointed, as it kept hawking the same goods year after year.

High streets became facsimiles of one another, with the same stores often in the same order, and Gap was instrumental in that dumbing down. What once felt rebellious now feels unimaginative and impossible to escape, with a Gap store seemingly on every corner.

In a bid to turn things around, in June 2020 Gap signed a 10-year deal with Kanye West and his Yeezy brand, betting on the rapper's ability to trigger frenzied shopping.

The collaboration's first offering, a unisex blue puffer jacket, sold out almost instantly last month, and hinted at a brighter future for the company. While it will come too late to save stores across the UK and Ireland, it may well signal a return to form.

West clearly seems intent on making customers wait, which for Gap could prove to be a good thing. Having been too often surrounded by a sea of blue and white logoed shopping bags, and that name arching across every chest, it will do us all good to have to search it out again.

Without stores, of course, there will be no queuing around the block to grab the newest launch, just endlessly hitting refresh at midnight before it's all gone. While that may seem like taking much of the fun out of it, it will also be simpler than queuing in the rain, a feat no one past 40 has any appetite for.

Instead, as the new generation looks to the 1980s and '90s with a sense of vintage nostalgia, West may well mange to turn Gap's fortunes around and make it desirable once again.

Updated: July 2nd 2021, 4:36 AM
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