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Why Gap Is Courting the Art World

What place does a mass retailer have a high-end art fair?

Frieze Art Fair plays host to some of the richest and most famous art aficionados in the world, who come to New York seeking new pieces for their collections. So what place, then, does a mass market American retailer like Gap have there?

The brand is hosting the "Gap Lounge" at the fair's center on Randall’s Island. With walls covered in a metallic version of Gap’s signature blue, the space not only serves as an area where fairgoers can hang out, it also doubles as a pop-up shop selling Gap’s latest round of artist-designed t-shirts with the art and fashion concept Visionaire.

The shirts feature artworks by Alex Katz, Yoko Ono, Richard Phillips, Ugo Rondinone, Peter Lindbergh, Francois Berthoud and Roe Ethridge, and change color when exposed to sun, thanks to the UV-sensitive inks used to produce them. “We’re retailers and that’s what we do — we sell stuff," Gap Creative Director Rebekka Bay tells us. "Because we already had the Visionaire collaboration going, I thought it was a happy meeting of the three.” 

Although the move looks like a way for the company to further position itself as a brand hip with artists and makers, Gap is no stranger to the art world. Its founders, Donald and Doris Fisher, have been active collectors since founding the label in 1969, housing a large portion of their art collection — which includes works by Andy Warhol, Gerhard Richter and Alexander Calder — at the company’s corporate headquarters in San Francisco. In 2009, they announced a partnership with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art to display their works when it reopens in 2015.

So in a sense, Gap is returning to its roots, which is what Bay — who already had a connection with Frieze because her former company COS sponsored Frieze London while she was at the helm — intended. “It really felt like there was an opportunity to do something together, but then to also figure out how to do something that’s a little bit more than just the sponsorship,” says Bay. “How do we have a presence?”

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While it’s no secret that these sophisticated tastemakers of art and fashion had lost interest in Gap prior to Bay's takeover, Bay says that if the lounge gets their attention at the fair, it’s an additional benefit of the sponsorship. Bay says that Gap’s objective is, “always to stay relevant, to be involved in culture.” 

"If there’s a new customer out there that takes note of what we’re doing, that would be an amazing side effect of something that we really wanted to participate in,” she adds.

Bay reiterates her hope that the new Gap will find its way into people’s closets as the building blocks of their wardrobes -- but that she also wants Gap to have a more dominant voice and start trends. “I want Gap to have an opinion, so I think I’m trying to do both and push both,” says Bay. “On one hand to create a perfect, accessible brand that’s relevant to everyone, and at the same time be directional, to have an opinion, to kind of push into what’s the next thing coming.”

The creative director also said to expect more cultural collaborations from the brand, which will also partner with Frieze London in the fall. “For me it’s just the beginning,” she says. “I think there’s so much we can do, there’s so much we can improve on.”

The Gap Lounge is open at Frieze New York through May 12.