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

Article excerpt

Byline: ANNABEL RIVKIN

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. 'I turned a grey, pleated school skirt into a ra-ra skirt - my mother was furious.' But fashion design wasn't considered a respectable career for a provincial girl in the Eighties. 'Oh, you can imagine how it went down in Sunderland,' she says. 'I remember one teacher telling me to be an accountant; art and design was for people who have no other options.' She didn't listen and soon she had graduated from Newcastle Polytechnic's prestigious design school. Remarkably, at the end of her fourth year, her entire collection was bought by a Newcastle art gallery which wanted to add it to their archive. 'I was probably the only graduate I knew who actually had money in the bank.' She used the money to travel round Europe and ended up in Paris working for a midrange label, Apostrophe.

'Paris was an interesting time,' she says.

'Parisians are not the easiest of people. In one sense it was incredibly inspiring and yet in many ways life was so hard. I'm thrilled that I did it, because I think if you can work for a French house you can work for anyone, but the French give you no leeway from a language point of view and there was certainly a question mark over whether an English person could design or not.' Eventually, Paris lost its lustre and Trotter moved back to England where she took a job at a forecasting company called Bureau, designing for different international contracts before moving, in 1992, to work for Whistles. This was where her genius for understanding the woman on the street really came into play. She joined as a designer but was soon working in close partnership with Lucille Lewin, the founder and then owner of Whistles.

Together they transformed the small boutiques into a powerful, high-end, high-street chain that not only stocked cutting-edge designers but boasted its own wearable, directional in-house label. Lewin sold the company to Karen Millen in 2002 and Trotter says, 'Once the dynamic of Lucille and me working together was gone it became a lot less interesting. It was very easy to move on.' She had always wanted to work in America, so when Calvin Klein called, offering her the post of creative director of CK Jeans womenswear, 'I packed up my house, packed up my husband - he's a small Japanese guy [the photographer Yuske Tanaka] so he can be packed up fairly easily - and came to New York.' Although Gap contacted her almost as soon as she touched down, she wasn't interested as she was looking forward to working with Calvin.

Unfortunately he sold the business six months after she arrived and she entered into talks with Gap - then in some trouble and just beginning to regroup.

'As a Gap customer I always loved the optimism of the brand,' she says. 'I loved the fact that Gap is so iconic and I think it's very honest, authentic - all of those things I really respect and value.' Indeed, some of its current success had been attributed to the fact that, as a brand, Gap has got soul. 'I get really inspired by people on the street, how they put themselves together.

I love looking at personal style and not just catwalk style. I've always wanted to dress lots of people.' Is this true egalitarianism or utter megalomania, I wonder. 'Listen,' she explains, 'it's fabulous that people like Tom Ford love our clothes - I'm a personal fan - but what is really great is to hear that stuff is selling out. That, to be frank, gives me more of a buzz.' I bet the accountants love her.

There was work to be done but it had to be delicately handled. Gap may have been down on its luck but it still had over 30 years of brand-building behind it and you can't buy heritage.

'The basics were part of that heritage,' says Trotter, 'but it's about making sure those basics are relevant and desirable. I remember when I first went to Gap, looking around the stores and finding myself stumbling from the women's into the men's department and only knowing the difference because the sizes were bigger. I felt passionately that Gap could be feminine.' Ferlisi, Trotter and the accessories designer Emma Hill (senior designer of accessories at Marc Jacobs, Marc and Calvin Klein collections) needed to come together in order to give Gap what Louise calls 'a handwriting. We work closely and see our work as being holistic.' And Pina Ferlisi oversees the lot, ensuring that a comprehensive collection emerges four times a year. So now the famous Gap cargo pants may be a little passe, but their 'iconic' (in the words of the Gap design team) metal buttons appear oversized as a signature on bags every season.

The neat little floral shirts (which often read as twee) are no longer flooding the shop floor, but the lining of a well-cut trench or blazer may be piped with a cheerful print.

The fabrics have been looked at, cashmere and silk introduced, and basics are, according to Louise Trotter, to be viewed as 'wardrobe builders - the foundation to your wardrobe. But they need to evolve just as fashion evolves.

I think the white shirt you wore last year is different from the one you want to wear today, based on how proportions have changed, how you're wearing it and what you're wearing it with.' Bags are washed leather, summer flatties are on their way and if you have a little girl aged between 18 months and six years, Gap kidswear looks like adult Marni. I wanted it all, but sadly was only able to buy it for Eleni, my two-year-old friend.

Of course, some fashion people will never accept what they see as a bland, homogenised excuse for style. While Bay Garnett, cofounder of cool thrift magazine Cheap Date, admits that 'the new campaign is clever and clearly the creative director is very talented and it's a great idea to put Sarah Jessica Parker in jeans', she states firmly: 'Personally I would never go into Gap... I just wouldn't do it. For me, Gap represents more than anything else what has killed individuality on the high street. It's just generic, just normal.

Great if you have little interest in clothes, want a colourful jumper and haven't got much money.' Alexandra Shulman, editor of British Vogue, merely says, 'I don't actually have anything to say about Gap.' But Tom Ford has recently been heard singing Gap's praises and Pop magazine, edited by Katie Grand, adviser to Miuccia Prada and creative director for Giles Deacon, collaborated with Gap on an unwaveringly positive feature in its autumn/winter issue.

Last year, this brand built and corn-fed on the American dream recruited SJP, urban style's ultimate poster girl, to reflect a newly refined, delicately pitched Gap, an evolving, glowing Gap selling not merely the clothes that we need, but the clothes that we want.

Last autumn's snap of Sarah Jessica, self-styled in a neat, nipped little tweed jacket, had the public inhaling the items from every store across the country. It was the season's musthave and it left not only the style-conscious woman in the street but fashion editors and pop stars alike scrabbling to get their hands on one.

Gap's fortunes have perked up. Net sales have increased by three per cent on last year from $14.9 billion to $15.4 billion. And Bay Garnett need not despair completely: Trotter assures me that 'the UK market is more adventurous, more daring, more eclectic; it's the American customer that tends to be more head-to-toe.' So imagine, if you will, a world without Gap, You can't. And it looks as though, for the foreseeable future at least, you won't have to. That thought makes me feel happy, buzzy, positive - in fact, I seem to have come over all Gap.