Gap Collection Exemplifies Art for the Sake of Relevance

Last Updated Jul 22, 2009 8:15 PM EDT

The recent moves Gap has made to improve sales and reestablish its relevance in casual fashion don't quite add up to a turn around strategy yet, but it's only fair to acknowledge that the company, with its new artist edition (PRODUCT) RED t-shirt collection as an example, is doing more than just bunkering down for the recession.

The company is pushing the art angle in the collection's launch. The roll out includes designs by established and emerging artists James Jean, Geoff McFetridge, Non-Format by Kjell Ekhorn and Jon Forss, Deanne Cheuk, Keiko Itakura, Kari Moden, nomoco, James Joyce, Stephen Kelleher, Stina Persson, David Hollier and Celia Calle. To frame the product line, Gap will feature a pop-up art gallery of original works by 10 of the artists in a rotating concept site that the retailer is operating adjacent to its flagship Fifth Avenue store in New York. The space, now dubbed the Gap RED Art Gallery, will mount exclusive examples of its artist's t-shirt designs at a relatively moderate $28 amid original paintings, sculptures and sketches. The new exhibit debuts Saturday and remains open through Aug. 10.

In another move that blends art and commerce, Gap is selling select t-shirts in the collection through the Whitney Museum of American Art. A selection from the collection also will be available for review at gap.com, naturally enough, and the entire line will sell through the company's stores.

Gap has never been a designer retailer, yet, in its launch of a one-time children's collection by Stella McCartney announced just weeks ago and slated for the holiday season, it seems as if the company is interested in how it can associate itself with names that won't outshine but would rather illuminate its own brand. Of course, the McCartney name is pretty well known, but in running her label through the store as a one-off deal, Gap gets the luster without getting lost in the glare.

Of course, when you think about it, the emerging strategy, if that's what it turns out to be, is a lot like what Target has done successfully for years, churning fashionable names and collections through stores to enhance its own cachet. More successfully before the recession than now, perhaps, but this might not be a bad time for Gap to gauge just how much interest an association with some evocative names can generate. After all, if consumers express an interest in artful t-shirts now, those tops or something like them just might become trendy and, in a recovery, downright popular.