When LVMH Moët Hennessy chief executive officer Bernard Arnault said of his flagship brand Louis Vuitton in 2022, “it’s much more than a fashion brand, it’s a cultural brand with a global audience,” it was prophetic for the entire industry.
Soon after, the billionaire boss tapped Pharrell Williams to lead Louis Vuitton menswear, which debuted in June with a Pont Neuf runway event and live performance by Jay-Z that garnered more than 1.1 billion views online, while Jay-Z and Beyoncé are burnishing the image of LVMH newbie Tiffany & Co.
Skims just reached a $4 billion valuation led by Kim Kardashian, and Kering is reportedly in talks to buy the CAA talent agency.
Fashion is pop culture, which makes the move of Mattel’s well-connected president and “Barbie” movie mastermind Richard Dickson to chief executive officer of beleaguered American retailer Gap Inc. all the more interesting.
Forget the troubles the Gap brand has had getting fashion right. What it needs is to get back in the pop culture game, and Dickson may be just the man for that. (On Wednesday, shares of Gap rose 7 percent on the news of his new gig and were up another 2 percent on Thursday.)
Let’s not forget Gap’s beginnings. When in 1969 Donald Fisher and his wife, Doris, opened the first location of the retail chain in the old El Rey Theatre in San Francisco, a short walk from the college campus, they sold Levi’s and vinyl records. Even though they soon dropped the music, their association with the counterculture (the name Gap refers to the generation gap) propelled the brand’s success for its first three decades, with well known rebels like Miles Davis, Jack Kerouac and Andy Warhol appearing in ads.
In the high-flying Mickey Drexler years (he was named Gap president in 1983), Trey Laird was responsible for the brand’s creative work, including campaigns featuring the aforementioned rebels as well as LL Cool J, Spike Lee, Joan Didion, Madonna, Missy Elliott and Sarah Jessica Parker.
Sharon Stone wore a black Gap turtleneck to the Oscars in 1996, which is still remembered as one of the best red carpet looks of all time.
For its campy TV ads, offshoot Old Navy hired Carrie Donovan, Barbara Eden and Earthy Kitt, who became silver haired fashion spokespeople in the ’90s, long before age inclusivity was buzzy in the industry.
Gap has been a cultural touchstone in media, too, turning up in a “Saturday Night Live” sketch, as a punchline in the 1994 film “Reality Bites,” and a throwback mall scene in “Stranger Things.”
There’s a lot of history — and a lot of goodwill around Gap right now, with the nostalgia for the ’90s and the early 2000s.
At Depop, searches for “vintage Gap” went up 114 percent in June, according to The Guardian. On eBay, the number of items sold with “Y2KGap” in the listing has more than doubled in recent months.
The retailer has also launched its own vintage Gap vertical online, sourced by collector Sean Wotherspoon.
But Gap cannot rely on khaki-colored nostalgia forever.
Obviously the disastrous tie-up with Yeezy, which ended in 2022, was an effort to begin a new pop culture chapter. But Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic and Athleta need many pop culture touch points, and Dickson certainly has the experience and vision to find them.
At Mattel, he returned Barbie to cultural relevance with the blockbuster film out now and its numerous fashion tie-ins, from Chanel to Ruggable. Mattel has 13 more films in development, including “Polly Pockets.”
Dickson has worked with everyone from Mr. Brainwash to Snoop Dogg, J.J. Abrams to Tony Hawk, Gucci to Louis Vuitton, on collaborations with Mattel’s various brands, including Barbie, Uno and Hot Wheels, which he helped evolve from a die-cast toy into a lifestyle brand with monster truck tours, custom car shows, sponsored skate parks, and an extreme sports brand with skateboards and bikes and gear.
He launched Mattel Creations in 2020 as a kind of laboratory to develop limited-edition co-branded product and capsule collections aimed at a young adult audience. Releases included Uno x The Hundreds (cards featuring the L.A. streetwear brand’s renowned Adam Bomb character, hats and T-shirts); Monster High Skullector x “The Shining” (the Grady twins in two-pack doll form); Herschel x Hot Wheels Land Rover Defender 90 (with mini jeep, backpack and tool kit included), Virgil Abloh x Masters of the Universe (toy figures), and Mark Ryden x Barbie (on accessories and collectibles).
The division was inspired by the origin story of Mattel, which in 1945, started in a garage under the Mattel Creations name, Dickson told WWD in a 2020 interview. “People like Walt Disney came to our garage and worked with our founders originally. It was an amazing place and I thought connecting back to our heritage would be really exciting, while modernizing it by introducing it as a collaborative platform for designers, entertainers and fashion brands that are inspired by our brands selling limited-edition collector’s items, telling designer stories, and essentially building an e-commerce platform where toys become art and art can be inspired by toys.”
One imagines he could do something similar with Gap, creating a collaborative platform for artists, designers and entertainers to play with the brand, and create entertaining content around all of it.
One ringleader who could be a great first partner is Jeremy Scott. He’s available since departing Moschino, and he certainly knows fun — as Dickson does.
“I think fashion companies today are looking for different ways to express their own identity as fashion itself becomes more challenging. Whether that’s through content or other categories like toys and home, how do they stay relevant? Today the consumer can digest an unbelievable amount of content. And if you are not telling a story, if the brand is not expressing its values, interests, opinions and persona, it loses relevance with today’s consumer. You don’t have to appeal to everyone but you do have to appeal to someone, therefore you can’t be afraid to have a brand voice,” Dickson said in the same 2020 interview.
“More fashion brands are extending themselves in interesting ways, and personifying themselves in content, podcasts, collaborations. Moncler has done a great job with the Genius brand and saying the rules are the rules the guest designer applies versus the rigidness of a brand. Brands like IWC have done a great job taking a real heritage brand and deliberately creating great content and collaborations and programs that put the brand in unexpected places. Fashion is starting to stretch the boundaries.”
Dickson has the contacts — and the curiosity. During a tour of the Mattel headquarters in El Segundo, California, earlier this year, he pointed out a Jean-Michel Basquiat painting with a Mattel logo that he tracked down to buy, and then leveraged into a licensing deal with the Basquiat Foundation, that led to a Basquiat Uno game and a Basquiat Barbie.
Gap and Mattel will continue to cozy up; there is already a “Barbie” x Gap collection in stores now, the first out of the gate from a partnership unveiled in April that will also include a Hot Wheels x Gap collaboration later this year.
But overall, Gap Inc. will be facing fierce competition when it comes to transitioning into a culture player, from Louis Vuitton down to its neighbor Levi’s, also headquartered in San Francisco, which has forged ties with numerous music festivals, artists and designers.
Hopefully, there is still room for Gap to play. And who knows? Maybe we’ll see “Gap: The Movie” coming to theaters soon.