New Generation; Who Would Have Thought That a Girl from Sunderland Could Make Sarah Jessica Parker Fall in Love with Gap? Annabel Rivkin Meets Louise Trotter, the Womenswear Designer Who Has Turned the All-American Brand from Purveyor of Bland Basics to Darling of the Fashion World Cut

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Imagine, if you will, a world without Gap: a world where you're always hunting for the perfect white T-shirt, where you have to panic about finding a cute present for a newborn baby, where you know you need colourful cords but you have no idea where to start looking.

Gap has infiltrated the British cultural landscape so profoundly that it has become an unavoidable pit stop on the pay-day/ Christmas/pre-holiday circuit of the high-street shopper.

The Gap was founded in San Francisco by real-estate developer Donald Fisher in 1969. He couldn't find a decent pair of blue jeans and every stockist he visited was disorganised and poorly stocked. He opened his first store in August of that year and was poised to name it 'Pants and Discs'.

Pants referred to the jeans he would be selling, discs because he felt that stocking records would attract the younger market. Happily, his wife Doris hit upon 'The Gap', referring to the generation gap springing up culturally between young Americans and their parents at that time. It launched in England in 1987, later changed its name to just 'Gap', and there are now more than 1,700 stores worldwide.

So far, so global. Except that in late 2000, the rise and rise of the chino store, with its ecstatic dancing ads, had ground to a halt. The brand seemed to have gone too far in one direction and not far enough in the other.

Signature brightly coloured cords were cropped to Capri-pant length, disappointing the classically dressed purist; the iconic white T-shirt began to flood the stores in all manner of fluorescent mistakes; the turquoise suede skirts displayed in the windows felt too try-hard and, anyway, they were available down the road at Topshop better cut and half the price.

Equally, the everyday, hardworking staples had become less Ernest Hemingway and more Middle American tourist: they were clunky, the seemed careless and the faithful Gap customer began to walk away. Somehow Gap had become too high-fashion and yet not fashionable at all.

During 2001, Gap Inc shares crashed on Wall Street from $50 to $9 as investors and customers alike lost faith in the brand.

Tyler Br-le, founder of Wallpaper* magazine and presenter of BBC Four's slick new media news show The Desk, points out that 'it is doubtful that America still provides the benchmark for style and culture that it did 15 years ago.

Gone is the attraction of the post-preppy era and, on the flip side, the competition is also tougher.' And so it makes some sense that the woman to help turn the plodding purveyor of the khaki basic into the darling of the fashion world would be British.

Gap needed a miracle. Or a dream team. A new CEO, Paul Pressler, formerly of Disney, took the helm; his aim to transform the company into one that nurtures great design. He hired Pina Ferlisi, who had made her mark as creative director of Marc by Marc Jacobs, as his executive vice-president of product design. And the key job of vice-president of womenswear was offered to a softly spoken Brit from Sunderland.

Louise Trotter may not be a household name, but when it comes to influencing high street trends, she's as influential as it gets. 'Basically, I run womenswear from a design perspective,' she explains. 'Really I'm in charge of all the women's design - concept, colour, fabric and style.' Trotter, at 35 the same age as the brand itself, grew up firmly focused on fashion design.

Although her father was an engineer and her mother a housewife, her grandmother was a seamstress. 'I used to make new clothes for all my dolls because I thought the clothing they came with was disgraceful,' she recalls, 'and I remember my grandmother explaining to me how to make a shoulder - that you had to slope it because real people have sloping shoulders rather than shoulders which come out at a right angle from their neck.' By the time she was eight, she had started on her own school uniform. …


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