VMSD: You have called Gap and Polo “the two most formidable brands in the world.” In light of a decade of problems, is Gap still a formidable brand?
Brady: Yes, without question. Gap has always stood for something: a strong American brand with a consistency of image and presence. But consistency can be a trap if you don’t evolve. You have to see what’s changing around you – culturally, socially, economically – and figure out how to stay relevant.
What made Gap relevant?
Gap has always been a mainstream in one’s wardrobe. You could take an item, like a Gap t-shirt, and wear it with anything else for any style. Like Sharon Stone wearing a white Gap woven shirt to the Academy Awards in 1998.
What’s going on today?
Right now we’re transforming Athleta, which was originally an online concept for women’s yoga, swimming and activewear, into bricks and mortar. And Piperlime, another online venture, will open its first store in SoHo this fall.
And apparently, much of the excitement is overseas. Isn’t that what you’ll be talking about at IRDC?
Yes. Two years ago, we opened a two-level Gap and Banana Republic store
in Milan, right under the shadow of the Duomo, built around a period marble staircase that’s the center of the store. Last year, we opened in an old bank in Rome. Last Christmas, we brought our first Banana Republic store to Paris, on the Champs-Élysées.
So the European market is your fastest-growing market overseas?
No, Asia’s growing even faster. China has been enormous for us. We opened more than 20 stores there last year and 30 more this year – in Shanghai, Beijing and some outlying provinces. And we just opened a major flagship on Queen’s Road in Hong Kong.
What’s the key to your success in China?
There’s not a lot of competition in the children’s fashion market in China, so our kids and baby businesses are very strong. In Europe, the high-end kids’ competition is enormous – you can spend $200 for a 2-year-old’s dress. But the Chinese are still price resistant, so the Gap product has been even more desirable.
You worked twice in your career with Ralph Lauren, first as creative director and later head the home division. What do you admire most?
I’ve known Ralph since I was 18. We sold his ties and Polo shirts at Britches of Georgetown. From then until now, he’s been the steward of his brand, the visionary. He has remained involved in everything and he’s always open to new things, but everything must fit his notion of the Ralph Lauren brand. He never deviates from that.
A Life in Retail
A few of the notable stops along Stephen Brady’s career path:
• Britches of Georgetown, creative director in charge of store design, decor, marketing and visual merchandising
• Macy’s Herald Square, overseeing visual direction
• Ralph Lauren, creative director
• Gap Inc., director of visual merchandising and store design
• Williams-Sonoma, senior vp of design, launching Williams-Sonoma Home