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Rebekka Bay's Departure From Gap Is Sad, But Not Surprising

It's time to give up on Gap, guys. It's never going to be what we want it to be.
A Gap store in San Francisco in February. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A Gap store in San Francisco in February. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

On Thursday, Gap announced that Creative Director Rebekka Bay was leaving the brand, and that her position was being eliminated. I am not, in any way, surprised. 

When Bay, the creative who helped launch H&M's much-lauded minimalist label Cos, was recruited by Gap in 2012 to reverse the specialty retailer's decade-long aesthetic decline, there was a lot of enthusiasm around her appointment.

I had hopes that Bay's leadership would fix Gap's biggest problem: that it was no longer a brand, but a vehicle for mediocre product. Like many people born in the 1980s, I have a personal affinity for Gap. For much of my teenage years, I was devoted to the brand's puffer vests and khakis and boot-cut corduroys and rainbow-striped sweaters. Why? Because they looked great, they weren't crazy expensive, and, well, the advertising was fantastic. Back then, I bought into the sentiment, and wanted to feel some of that magic once again. 

But I reported on Bay's arrival with plenty of skepticism, because the experts weren't convinced she'd be able to pull it off. And really, neither was I. This fall, when I heard a rumor that Gap had laid off some of its creative team, I figured Bay's time was up.

After all, it had happened before. When Vogue-approved designer Patrick Robinson was hired by Gap in 2007 to revive the brand, which had been struggling since the early 2000s after the departure of current-J.Crew CEO Mickey Drexler, his first few collections were lauded by fashion insiders. (I still wear the "popover" dress from Robinson's debut.) But he clashed with merchandisers, as many designers do, and the merchandisers won out. (To be clear, merchants are the picker of products. They decide what goes in each store, based on things like weather and customer data. They will often push a certain hot silhouette into production. At many big retailers, the creative team is not involved in those sorts of decisions.)

By the time Robinson was fired in 2011, there was nothing left to say about the actual clothes. They had lost all meaning.

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Bay's first collection debuted in 2013, and while editors were excited about what they saw at Gap's seasonal previews, many of those items were available online only -- like a denim dress I bought last summer. The truth was that there was no discernible difference between majority of product that hit stores after Bay's arrival and what was available before. 

Bay's moment was over almost before it started, when she made an off-handed comment in a Businessweek article regarding the American customer's penchant for color:

“The first time I presented colors, the designers were like, ‘Oh, they’re not very clean.’ ” Bay was used to colors that were murky, moody, European, and had to adjust to an American sensibility.

Oh man, so wrong. Don't listen to them, I thought. 

Apparently Bay did not want to listen, and clashed with much of Gap's longtime team. It is possible for creatives and merchants to work together -- J.Crew does a good job of this, probably because Drexler understands both sides. Banana Republic, which is also owned by Gap, is heading in the right direction with Marissa Webb at the helm, and executives appear to be pleased with her performance. But Banana is an elevated concept: it needs a strong voice. At Gap, merchandising appears to take precedence over design.

That's why I don't think it's a terrible idea for Gap go on without a creative director. CEO Glenn Murphy -- who is officially being replaced by digital head Art Peck in February -- is good at cutting costs, and Gap's business has continued to post impressive profits. While Murphy and co. recognized that a strong creative team was important to brand affinity, it wasn't going to make or break the company financially in the near term. Who cares about the Gap anymore? Nobody. But as long as the numbers are good quarter by quarter, shareholders will remain satisfied.

What's more, specialty retail is in a terrible place right now -- stores are closing, and even the greatest brands are struggling -- and when you're a public company, your first obligation -- for better or worse -- is to you shareholders. If Gap thinks it'll be able to deliver bigger profits and higher sales with a more streamlined design team, then that's what it should do. As uninspiring as it sounds. 

Does it make me sad to think the Gap's magic is really, truly gone? Yeah, of course. But the company has moved on from nostalgic 30-somethings like me. Let's pour one out for "Mellow Yellow," and do the same: