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Flashback: When The Gap Defined Cool

A recent blog storm erupted over advertising online and its impact on journalistic ethics and, as expected, many decried the corruption of the pristine internet with base advertising. But — as with anything — ads aren’t always a bad thing. Sometimes they’re even transcendent. Back in 1997 there was a golden moment when advertising and culture fell into perfect alignment. This is how I wrote about it, then. The ad in question can be viewed at the end of the article…

 


30 seconds of perfection and, yes, soul.

 

The best of the new Gap Khaki campaign is an ad called “Khaki Soul”. The irony of the name is almost killing: it suggests that khaki-colored cotton cloth made up into loose-fitting pants can have soul or, at least, be a brand of soul. That takes some marketing balls. I can hear the rabid ad-busting anti-capitalist drones in my audience seething already: “How dare they devalue the word soul by association with a pair of pants!” Yadda, yadda, yadda. That they dare, and succeed, is why I love the ad so much. Unlike the other ads in this campaign, the dancers here dance (for the most part) alone — well, almost alone. They look right at you and it’s that intimacy maker (they’re sharing with you or you are peeping at their dance epiphany) that cements the bond with the audience. It is at the same time the most artificial of intimacies and, happening in your home in your head, most real — like a lot of what happens between you and your TV. The ad is a little cultural artifact of music joined to motion that conveys a vision of expression and style that very effectively touches the soul of its audience. Blasphemy.

Reaching out of the corporate box into the street, Gap enlisted the formidable talents of Hype Williams to do the work of translating a business objective into artistic voice. Williams, who started out as a graffiti artist, is a post-category media whirlwind. At 26, he has already directed upwards of 200 videos, a feature film and runs his own production company. His Khaki Soul is a tight little 30 second music video where the motion is perfectly joined to the music, the look is pure, the sell is mercifully soft and it’s the peripheral qualities of the dancers (i.e. what they are wearing on their butt) that pays the bill. The video/ad is really no different from those listings at the back of the fashion mags, where you have to go to find out what all the beautiful models in the photo spreads are wearing. But what Williams does on the way to the logo is a lot more fun. Do you want to look as beautiful as the girl with the spiked hair, as cute as the boy with the hand-to-the-face move? You can. This commercial can’t be accused of selling an unreasonable expectation to the kids who watch it (personally, I think the current Army recruiting campaign that represents the military as a big video game is the worst offender in that department…) — if you are young and healthy and wear what they wear on the commercial, you are them.

Dry as ash fussbudgets quibble that advertising creates false desire. WRONG! Advertising like the Gap’s mines the desire to create a common vocabulary of style. (Somebody stop me before I say advertising can be a force for world peace…) Anti-consumerist, anti-advertising ideologues would have us walking around in no-name sweatpants and army boots. Or, perhaps, “creating our own style from scratch”. Who the hell has time for that? I’ll take a pair of Gap khakis any day, thank you. The best ads help create a space where, along with the benefit of well made clothes, we can experience a kind of connection through style in a world that fractures along cultural schisms a little more each day.

Fashion is one of the essential subjects for advertising and marketing: there is little more to sell than the association of desire for style, coolness and connection with others of like mind. One of the reasons Levi’s rode so high (sorry, no pun intended) for so long was that they sold the quintessential functional garment, heavy cotton jeans, as an attitude, an expression of a lifestyle for the lumpenprole. It was a uniform for a society of individualists who are never really all that comfortable being too individual. Granted, in the same family as the Mao jacket — but you donned it without a Youth Guard rifle pointed at your head. Gap has appropriated the qualities formerly held by blue jeans and updated them for a culture with a little more money in their pocket.

This ad campaign is the brainchild of Gap creative director Lisa Prisco and Executive VP for Marketing Michael McCadden. In 1997, with CEO Mickey Drexler announcing that khakis would be the company’s next big product push, Prisco envisioned kids dancing in khakis to different genres of music. Brilliant in its simplicity, the idea allowed the product to adapt to various sub-targets, via their music and dance tastes, while maintaining a strong brand consistency (the dancers might be doing a jitterbug or a Texas line dance, but they are always everywhere wearing the same gap outfits set off against an empty white set) — the result was the first breakthrough ad, Khaki Swing, which was notable for its timely use of the swing revival tune “Jump, Jive and Wail” and the introduction of a new freeze-frame camera effect that snagged viewers’ attention.

It’s been up from there. Gap stock has been buoyed by surging sales across the Gap empire of Banana Republic, Old Navy and their flagship stores, public awareness of the brand is high and they have, apparently, been successful at differentiating their khakis from other brands. Levi’s really is hurting not to have seen this potential market — they wasted their big guns firing Dockers down the throats of middle-aged yuppies and never apparently saw the potential market among kids. Is there still room for more? Are we going to have a rebirth of the jeans craze of the Seventies? I don’t think so. Although Gap has been phenomenally successful over the past couple of years (the company’s value increased 82% in the past year alone) there are spooky portents out there: sales in the main Gap stores are about 5% below last year and inventory is stacking up. Not that I’m a financial guru, but I think this will continue and it has to do with the limitations of the product itself and the upscale price you pay for it.

Khakis popularity won’t be as pervasive as the blue jean simply for that basic reason that people buy clothes in the first place: to cover their butt. Blue jeans last forever and as they age go through an evolution of usefulness: from brand-new, wear em out on occasions, to faded and soft knock about with friends, to only-wear-at-home, to something you use to scrub the bathtub. In short, even at inflated designer prices, jeans are a better bargain. The life-cycle of khaki is a lot shorter: especially with light colored khaki, they start picking up incorrigible stains around the ankles in short order and after a few too many washings lose their shape and get shiny. At Gap prices, they are probably a little too expensive to replace often, but, by the time the current crop of young consumers get wise to this, the Gap machine will have had fire sales on khaki and moved on to create the next cool thing.

 

 

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