BY MIKE DESTEFANO
Mark it down. June 26, 2020 will now affectionately be referred to as the #WESTDAYEVER—by Kanye West at least. At 6:30 am, West broke his roughly four-month Twitter hiatus to drop a teaser image of a model wearing a red jacket and unzipping a duffel bag with discrete blue markings that alluded to a new project with Gap. Two hours later, something a bit more obvious hit the timeline: Gap’s signature square logo remixed to read “YZY.” Yeezy Gap is very real, it will be here at the top of 2021, and the first collection selling out seems probable given the multi-hyphenate’s track record with brands including A.P.C. and Adidas over the years. It’s another layer to Kanye’s endless evolution in the fashion space. Both Gap and West are hoping the 10-year deal will produce $1 billion in annual sales by the fifth year. But the question is, will it work?
NDP Group analyst Matt Powell seems to think it won’t. He tweeted shortly after the announcement, without mentioning the deal directly that “When everyone can get one, no one will want one.” With mass production and wider availability, will people still be setting alarms to cop Kanye’s latest product? There’s also the question of if Gap will even be able to sustain this new position in the marketplace, or will it suffer the same fate as names like J. Crew or Forever 21, retailers who filed for bankruptcy amid the pandemic’s shaky retail climate. But the pros seem to outweigh the cons for the Ye x Gap experiment as of now. Here’s why.
The Kanye and Gap connection is authentic. It may seem a bit peculiar for some. After all, it wasn’t that long ago West was calling himself “Martin Louis the King Jr.” when promoting his collection with Louis Vuitton in 2009, ranting about bringing leather jogging pants to Fendi in 2013, or selling $545 hoodies at high-end department stores like Barneys New York as part of his inaugural Yeezy Season 1 line with Adidas in 2015. But Ye’s admiration for Gap and his desire to work with the brand is nothing new. An anonymous designer who worked with Kanye on his infamously canceled Pastelle line said as far back as 2009 the artist’s main focus was a collaboration with Gap. Ye told The Cut in 2015, “One of my dreams was to be the head creative director of the Gap. I’d like to be the Steve Jobs of the Gap … [I want] full Hedi Slimane creative control of the Gap.” He echoed a similar sentiment during his Sway in the Morning interview back in 2013 saying he had approached the corporation about a partnership before. “Our first night [on the Yeezus Tour] we sold $83,000 in tour merch. Imagine if you take these thoughts and connect it with a corporation like the Gap.” Kanye worked at the Gap in high school. The brand has been referenced in his lyrics on songs like The College Dropout’s “Spaceship.” The relationship between both parties runs deep. It’s a partnership that makes marketing sense.
Ye also has a track record of selling lots of products at scale, which works nicely with a mass retailer like the Gap. In 2015, after signing a much-publicized, multi-year endorsement deal with Adidas two years prior, Kanye West said, “Eventually everybody who wants to get Yeezys will get Yeezys.” Fast forward five years and he has kept true to the promise. The Yeezy Boost 350 V2 has become one of the most recognizable silhouettes in the footwear market. Some might even compare it to Nike’s timeless Air Force 1 at this point, an accessible and affordable shoe that still maintains a level of “cool.” Hardcore collectors and resellers might feel some type of way because there are dozens of Yeezys populating the marketplace, but it’s exactly what Kanye set out to do when he signed on with the Three Stripes. It’s the same scaling he wanted to do with his Nike venture that ultimately concluded after two extremely limited and hyped-up Air Yeezy models back in 2013 when he wasn’t given the same type of freedom. According to Forbes, the Adidas Yeezy line raked in $1.5 billion in annual sales in 2019. So it obviously was the right business move, too.
Still, that doesn’t mean the Yeezy line has lost its allure for everyone. West has managed to sell more units of his well-designed product range like the 350 V2 to a more commercial consumer yet still balance it with a selection of forward-thinking designs and moments. For example, those tank-like Sherp vehicles roaming the streets of Chicago in below freezing temperatures this past February passing out QNTMs created the same energy and hype that defined the Adidas Yeezy brand just a few years ago.
West understands what people want to wear before they know they want to wear it. When he first debuted his Yeezy Season line at New York Fashion Week in February 2015, he said he wanted to “absolve consumers of dressing’s daily stress by creating a line of high-quality essentials that can be freely combined in infinite ways—’like Legos.” He streamlined his own wardrobe down to baggy sweatpants, T-shirts, and solid-colored hoodies for the most part. The aesthetic of loose fitting and distressed clothing became the norm for a time even, being adopted by fast fashion brands like H&M and Zara despite initially being panned by many as “homeless people clothes.” The earthy color palettes and some of the athleisure you see in the market can be traced back to West.
But it has never quite felt like he’s fully realized his goals with apparel. With the backing of a massive corporation like Gap, he might finally have the resources to do so, the same way Adidas has given him the proper resources in the footwear space. Only time will tell what the official results will be, but it seems promising. Adidas has helped produce apparel in the past, perhaps most notably the Calabasas trackpants, but Gap’s capabilities expand beyond athleisure. Kanye has a whole new set of tools at his disposal. Expect him to use them to his advantage.
The move also lends Gap a cultural cachet it hasn’t had for a minute, which is something that consumers are becoming more aware of and interested in. There is a reason why Gucci started working directly with Dapper Dan, why Louis Vuitton tapped Virgil Abloh as its artistic director, or why Matthew M. Williams is now creative director at Givenchy. Brands realize it’s not enough to sell good product, they have to connect it with culturally relevant people. Gap is known for its zeitgeisty ad campaigns that have featured the likes of Common, Missy Elliott, and LL Cool J, who famously wore a Fubu hat in his 1999 ad, but Gap hasn’t aligned with the culture in this way ever. West smartly tapped budding British-Nigerian designer Mowalola Ogunlesi as the line’s design director who will work along Ye and company to bring the ideas to life. In 2007, Gap hired Patrick Robinson, a black designer who held stints at Giorgio Armani, Anne Klein, and Perry Ellis. But Ogunlesi is in her 20s, a woman, and a “cool” designer who hasn’t worked for a mass fashion brand. She’s a designer Gap probably wouldn’t have even considered if Kanye didn’t put her in this position. He’s turned the move into a cultural and historical moment that people will want to get behind. But unfortunately, in the midst of this news are questions about Gap’s previous collaboration with another designer, Telfar Clemens, that was announced earlier this year and cancelled due to Covid-19. It’s being reported that Gap has yet to pay Clemens and the Telfar team knew nothing about this Yeezy collab until today. If they want to make a cultural statement by hiring a black female designer, it won’t be authentic if they don’t handle the Telfar collab appropriately.
Additionally, there’s still a question if Gap will even be able to sustain this new position in the marketplace. According to Business of Fashion, the pandemic caused 3,300 stores to close. The company saw a 43 percent drop in first quarter sales in June as a result of the pandemic as well. Gap has used projects like a 2016 capsule with John Elliott as part of GQ’s Best New Menswear Designers in America All-Stars Collection as a marketing exercise, but giving West control over how the product will be merchandised, which has been one of Gap’s main issues, will hopefully have a halo effect on the business. In 2012, the year before he joined the brand, Adidas saw roughly $14.8 billion in annual revenue. In 2015, the year Ye’s first collection with Adidas released, the brand’s revenue climbed to nearly $17 billion. Culturally, West helped make models like the Ultra Boost, billed a performance runner, into lifestyle staples thanks to his influence.
West knows how to bring energy to all types of product. He made tour merch an entire subgenre of fashion, which resulted in people lining up for Gildan T-shirts. And he made this merch feel less like a one-off novelty and more like a lifestyle purchase. That innovative thinking around how to sell and distribute product will surely be carried into this Gap project as well. The interesting part will be what he does with the platform. A tiered system similar to Adidas Yeezy drops perhaps makes the most sense. Offer the quality basics that “everyone who wants will get,” but also have the selections that are more limited—a more premium coat that deviates from the usual Gap product offerings or a special colorway. Appeal to the Gap’s traditional consumer, while still exciting the kid who sleeps in his Jesus Is King crewneck. Above all else, Kanye just needs to wear it. Sure, it sounds simple enough, but Kanye is his own lookbook. One photo of him in a Yeezy Gap hoodie and sweatpants is the best ad campaign. It’s a foolproof method that hasn’t failed yet, so why stop now?
The effects of Kanye’s involvement are showing positive signs already. CNBC reports Gap stocks rose about 39 percent on Friday morning following the announcement. The “Kanye Effect” is in full swing.
Earlier this year he told the Wall Street Journal, “In order to make the Apple of apparel, the next Gap, it has to be a new invention. To invent something that’s so good that you don’t even get credit for it because it’s the norm.” Well, now he is Gap. He can be that norm. You get the sense Ye has been planning how he would create for Gap his whole adult life. Now he gets to actually do it. And chances are, it will be yet another accolade to add to his extensive resume that will influence the fashion and retail industry in a major way.