Jason Ferro Interview
I was 15 when Gap hired me as a sales associate. That was a mistake. The legal hiring age was 16, but I suppose that my rehearsed performance during the interview and genuine excitement for all things Gap convinced the hiring manager that I was worth waiting for. That was not a mistake.
I spent three years (not a bad ROI for them) greeting customers, asking “what size are you looking for?” (open-ended questions, as I was trained) and molding myself into the perfect customer-centric employee — today’s retail urban legend. And I loved every second of it. This was, after all, post late-’90s, when Gap made every student choose advertising as their major, when everybody was in cords and being mad about Saffron was cool. Gap was relevant.
Gap: Letting Go Of The Past
Remember the last time you walked into Gap and felt that same excitement about the brand? The resounding answer: sort of. The hits and misses over the years beg the question of whether Gap is aware of all this. “Very much so,” confirms Jason Ferro, head designer for Gap 1969 men’s denim. “I think that’s why they started to work with Ogilvy [Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide]… and hired Seth [Farbman] as the new marketing president, just because they knew they needed to start being relevant again and… start getting that new generation.” “Keeping the old generation too,” he adds.
Blast from the past: Gap’s famous “Khaki Soul” commercial from the ’90s.
“It’s such a big ship, so it takes baby steps. That’s the biggest challenge. Big companies seem to get stuck and be safe. They’re like, ‘Oh, I can’t do this because I’ve had that thing for seven years and it sells.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, it’s seven years old and it’s time to move on.’ So, it’s really letting go of the past and moving forward, which is the biggest challenge.”
In 2011, this big ship threw a few men overboard, including fashion-industry favorite Patrick Robinson, whose same-store sales in North America reportedly declined for 14 of the 16 quarters during his stay. Glenn Murphy, CEO, made the announcement that Gap will be closing 200 of its 900 stores (worldwide) by 2013; he added that the brand’s efforts to attract ethnic minority customers stateside were inadequate. Blurgh.
Jason Ferro: Gap’s Savior
Today, in another attempt to breathe new life into the brand, Gap is rolling out a few strategies. This includes building a fashion clientele, who Ferro admits the brand lacks, and pushing its premium denim line, 1969 (named after the first store opening in San Francisco by Don and Doris Fisher), which happens to be the focus of Gap’s Fall 2011 ad campaign. The campaign is a series of videos profiling various 1969 team members (ethnic representation: check), including Ferro, offering behind-the-scenes looks into how they’re moving Gap forward.
Ferro, 38, who’s been with Gap since last August, tells me he has made a career of helping brands launch and relaunch denim brands, some of which include Levi’s, Guess? and Abercrombie & Fitch. He’s also launched a company along the way called Squeeze Box, a private development design firm. Upon joining Gap, Ferro quickly identified what was lacking in the line and proceeded to make changes that we can see in-store as we speak.
Jason Ferro in Gap’s Fall 2011 video ad campaign.
“It [the men’s line] was lacking the fashion, and it was lacking the fabrication and the washes — you know, the premium fabrics… It was really missing the beautiful Italian, Turkish, Japanese fabrics that make premium denim so special,” explains Ferro, who’s wearing black Prada boots with the Gap drop-crotch jeans — his creation — and a T-shirt. “It was missing the fashion fit. Missing some of the more fashion-forward fits, like the super-skinnies, the drop-crotches, the crops — just stuff that’s more street, less mass, you know? I wanted to give it more of a street attitude, make it just a little bit cooler and a little bit more sophisticated and better. I thought it was kind of too rooted in the same kind of thing that a lot of companies get stuck in doing when they’re so mass: They stick to their basics and then just keep running things over and over and over for years and years, so… I wanted to update,” he says, laughing.
The (Not So) New Kid On The Premium Denim Block
Gap is also trying to set its merchandise mix of basics apart by balancing premium quality with price. The first step was leaving its San Francisco nest to open a design studio in downtown Los Angeles, which happens to be one of the top premium denim manufacturing areas in the world. “It’s only a 20-mile radius, so we wanted to be here, we wanted to be part of that. This is where all the premium brands come and work. I think being part of that culture can really implement you to be tried and true. We’re sticking to the guts of what the denim industry is about — and it’s in L.A. I think that’s why they really wanted us to be here, to make sure that what we’re doing is authentic.”
A scan of Gap’s premium denim men’s line revealed the most expensive pair at $89.95 — not bad for a market that operates on much higher price tags. “What the customer will start seeing is that premium brands that you’re paying $200 and up, they’re not going to look better than what we’re selling for $69. We’re using the same fabrics, we’re using the same laundries, if not better. Especially with my experience, I think we can do it better than most premium brands and we can do it at a price point that’s affordable, which is the catch. That’s the beauty of it. It’s really going to start affecting the premium market and helping them build their credibility back in the denim world.”
Gap’s Five-Year Plan
But will Gap’s new strategy and the world’s reemerging interest in one of America’s mass clothiers be sustainable or just another miss? Not even Ferro can answer that, but he does say that in the next five years Gap will become more relevant again by capitalizing on social media, blogs, collaborations, and launching artist formats, with a particular emphasis on music. Makes sense seeing that Gap was originally a store that sold LPs. (In fact, I recall regularly discovering music while listening to the store soundtrack on the sales floor, like tracks off Black Eyed Peas’ Bridging The Gap. Pre Fergie. When they were good.)
Ferro, who, as a member of the band Whitley Heights, will be releasing a rock ‘n’ roll/country blues album by November, just might be the perfect guy to make Gap cool again. His left arm is a canvas of tattoos that are an ode to Art Nouveau and to his favorite sculpture artists. “It is like a mosaic, snakes, with this Goddess woman, like a lion challis, with this kind of Medusa sculpture, and there’s going to be all sorts of other stuff that I’m putting on there, too.” He pauses. “It’s turning out pretty good. I’ve got long ways to go.”