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In 2003, with sales just recovering from a deep slump, Gap Inc. () set its sights on the one slice of the market it wasn't reaching: women 35 and older. But executives knew that a new brand had to offer far more than the loose-fitting tunics and pants with roomy waistbands that are already on the market in abundance. "You can get great-designed clothes at Target if you want," says Gary Muto, president of the company's new brand, called Forth & Towne. "We wanted to create an environment that was distinctive, a place where you'd feel inspired, a place where you'd want to spend time."
The goal was lofty: To create a store so well-designed that it would become for busy Baby Boom women a sort of "third place," a destination other than home or work where people enjoy spending free time. Gap wanted the store's physical space not only to facilitate the sale of clothing but to embody the new brand, much as Starbucks and Apple Stores do. In doing so, Gap is placing a big bet on the growing importance of social shopping, the notion that shopping can be transformed into a pleasurable communal experience.
The first five Forth & Towne stores opened in August at malls in New York State and Chicago, with a range of upscale goods from tailored blazers to blue jeans, priced roughly on par with Gap's Banana Republic brand. Before the doors opened, Muto, chief executive Paul Pressler, and other Gap managers spent three years trying to come up with a design vision that fit their business plan. In the process, they abandoned many of the traditional appointments of a mall store. The result: a bold design by New York architect David Rockwell that places in the middle of each store a grand round "salon" of fitting rooms, furnished like a little hotel lobby. At its center are comfortable chairs and a "style table" laid out with fashion magazines, fresh flowers, and bottles of water. Forth & Towne's success will largely depend on whether women in its target demographic choose to linger in that salon.
It's a necessary gambit for Gap, which posted $16.3 billion in revenue last year. After flagging for almost three years, Gap's same-store sales began to recover in late 2002. But with the market almost saturated with Gap's existing three brands -- Gap, Old Navy, and Banana Republic -- Pressler needed a new source of long-term sales growth. Pressler's strategy: Launch another outlet, a move that Gap had pulled off before with the opening of Old Navy in 1994.
It may be an architectural success, but it's still too early to know if Forth & Towne will become a billion-dollar brand. The type of critics Pressler has to face can be rougher than Rockwell's. "I think it will be successful initially because it's new and different," says Todd Slater, director of retail research at Lazard LLC (). "But long-term, I don't think the business has a great chance of succeeding in its current incarnation -- not from a design point of view but from a merchandising point of view. I don't know that the merchandise outperformed the competition."
CREATING BY FEEL
But for Gap, the experiment hinges as much on how women connect with the stores as with the clothes. Pressler, who used to run Walt Disney Co.'s () theme park business, tapped into his former life for his answer. He decided Forth & Towne needed a "wienie." That's Walt Disney's term for a visual magnet -- the ur-example of which is Sleeping Beauty Castle, the iconic centerpiece of Disneyland that guides people around the park. And he knew just the guy for the job. In winter of 2004 he called on Rockwell, who had worked for Disney during Pressler's tenure there. Rockwell designed the Animator's Palette, a restaurant on Disney's cruise ships whose lighting, walls, tableware, and wait-staff uniforms morph over the course of the meal from black and white to color, like a cartoon being colored in.
Rockwell is unusual among architects in that he's more interested in how something feels than how it looks. A low-key, affable man who wears his hair long, his architecture is marked by a sense of theatrical extravagance -- on display, for instance, in the thousands of abalone shells dangling from the ceiling at Nobu 57, a Manhattan sushi restaurant, and the giant red wig in his set for the Tony-award winning musical Hairspray. "The notion was, 'how could we use someone like David to start to think about the store environment as being as important as the clothing?"' says Pressler.
The first step was getting a first-hand understanding of the customer. They invited onto the design team Karen Davidov, the wife of Henry Myerberg, a principal at the Rockwell Architecture, Planning & Design Group, an architect herself and squarely in the target market as a woman in her late 40s. She and Lizzie Sayner, a 31-year-old designer at the Rockwell Group, would visit the Garden State Plaza in Paramus, N.J., to check out the competition -- stores like J. Jill (), Coldwater Creek (), and Ann Taylor (). They would snap pictures on the sly, try on clothes, and hang out. "We all had such empathy for this woman," Sayner says of the archetypal Forth & Towne shopper.
Sayner and Davidov tried to invent a back story for her, shading in where "she" lives, where she shops and gets style ideas, and how she balances work and family. They decided Forth & Towne had to accommodate a woman with myriad impulses, one who was comfortable in urban and suburban environments, a social shopper but often a harried one.
Sayner pulled touchstone phrases and images into a scrapbook, with categories such as "careers," "friends," "worries," and "what I want." It had photos of Ally McBeal, Condoleezza Rice, and the women from Dynasty in the "careers" section. In other sections: a "balanced life quiz" clipped from a magazine; an Amazon.com shopping cart with Norah Jones in it; the cover of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood; and phrases like, "I have zits, a spare tire, self respect, and dignity." In April of last year they gave the scrapbook, like a gift, to Jenny Ming, brand president of Old Navy and part of the small, high-level team shepherding the Forth & Towne project prior to Muto's appointment.
FINDING THE CENTER
With the new store's DNA established, Rockwell and his team now had to design the actual space. No plan would succeed if it cost $500 a square foot to build -- not when hundreds of stores were ultimately envisioned. So there was no room in the budget for giant interactive displays or grand stairways.
As is typical in the design process, the team pondered a variety of possibilities, creating iterations of an idea until it either reached a dead end or was clearly a winner. Execs dismissed a typical mall store's "main street," where racks of clothing are arranged along a central path. They thought of designing "gates," ceremonial entryways to each of the four separate labels of clothing Forth & Towne carries, but that ate up too much floor space.
What every store needed, the designers knew, was an iconic center -- something that played the role of a clock tower, a gazebo, or a village green in a small town. In Disney parlance, they needed a wienie. First, they tried using a chandelier to create a central beacon for the store, recalling the heydey of the department store. But "the overarching frustration that women in this segment have is fit," says Muto. "So if you want to be known for having a great-fitting product, and you want them to go to the fitting room, then why not make that experience the best it possibly can be?" So, gone were narrow, anonymous fitting-room hallways. In came the elaborately decorated fitting salon.
With that key design element in place, in January, 2005, Gap built a full-scale mock-up of a section of the store in a warehouse near the San Francisco airport. Over the next several months, working closely with Gap execs, Rockwell fine-tuned the layout there -- "like a fashion fitting," Rockwell says.
The last, and perhaps hardest, decision was what color the store should be. At first everyone was determined to avoid pink -- fraught with meaning for a generation of women who saw the start of the feminist movement. But emboldened by the recently launched women's magazine Pink -- whose slogan is "a beautiful career, a beautiful life" -- they reclaimed a dusty hue as a statement of femininity come of age.
Pressler will be watching closely to see if the strategic design lures women away from stores such as Chico's (), Talbots (), and Ann Taylor, which all have long-term relationships with their shoppers. But even if Forth & Towne doesn't blossom the way Old Navy did, Pressler says the process has already yielded benefits for Gap Inc. "It's not that I think we would do a center fitting room for the other brands," Pressler says, "but the importance of the fitting room as a destination that people really want to hang out in is certainly something we take away." If the ambitious plans take hold, expect more wienies from Gap.
By Andrew Blum in New York, with Louise Lee in San Mateo, Calif.