Gap’s real Yeezy problem

As many expected from the get-go, Gap’s tie-up with Ye has gone awry.

The once-iconic brand’s collaboration with the fashion designer was supposed “to be a robust creative partnership with multi-season product development,” as parent company Gap Inc. said in 2020. But on Tuesday, after a year of piecemeal drops and weeks of troublesome behavior from Ye, also known as Kanye West, Gap followed Adidas in pulling its remaining Yeezy inventory.

Ye’s antics were in character, but especially problematic. After sporting a “White Lives Matter” T-shirt at his Paris fashion show, Ye took to social media, podcasts and television interviews to spout antisemitism, conspiracy theories and other offensive commentary. 

“In September, Gap announced ending its Yeezy Gap partnership. Our former partner’s recent remarks and behavior further underscore why. We are taking immediate steps to remove Yeezy Gap product from our stores and we have shut down,” the company said in a statement. “Antisemitism, racism and hate in any form are inexcusable and not tolerated in accordance with our values. On behalf of our customers, employees and shareholders, we are partnering with organizations that combat hate and discrimination.”

But Gap announced the end of the partnership last month only after Ye himself did. Brand chief Mark Breitbard said then that already planned Yeezy Gap launches would continue, much to the chagrin of several customers, who took to social media to demand the drops end, too, as Ye carried on with his rants.

Gap’s announcement that it would pull its remaining Yeezy merchandise came just hours after Adidas declared its own years-long Yeezy partnership over, a decision that will cost the sneaker giant $246 million in profits this year alone. But the two statements were worlds apart, experts say.

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“Adidas absolutely did it right. I wish they had done it sooner, but their statement reflected a values-driven position on business, and that’s increasingly what many of us are looking for,” Jo-Ellen Pozner, a professor at Santa Clara University’s Leavey School of Business and an expert in organizational misconduct and reputation, said by phone. “Adidas did a beautiful job articulating its values and its boundaries, and in making very clear what it’s willing to give up to do the right thing. That’s really powerful. And Gap did not do any of those things in this decision.”

Ye reap what Ye sew

The hip hop artist’s track record of inflammatory statements in public and in his music was established before Gap ever inked a contract with him. He said that Black people chose slavery, for example, two years before Yeezy Gap was unveiled. Gap’s decision to pair with Ye nevertheless, and its slow-motion response to his most recent provocations, reflect the desperation of a brand that has lost its way, experts say.

“What is Gap? Who is it for? Over the last several years, they’ve been really struggling to find their way. I honestly cannot remember a time when I knew what Gap stood for,” Deb Gabor, CEO and founder of Sol Marketing, said by phone. “If you want to align your brand with somebody who is designed to bring relevance to that brand, be thoughtful about who you choose. Kanye West is a professional provocateur, and whenever you hang your brand on a human billboard, you get saddled with that person’s entire brand essence whether you like it or not.”

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This underscores how important it is for any brand to thoroughly vet their celebrity partners, according to GlobalData Managing Director Neil Saunders.

I honestly cannot remember a time when I knew what Gap stood for.”

Deb Gabor

CEO and founder, Sol Marketing

“Although there is room for some tension in fashion, this must never cross the line of decency and basic respect for humanity,” he said in emailed comments. “Companies or brands that fail to heed this will get stung, especially if they become overly reliant on a difficult personality to drive their business.”

Even the Wells Fargo analysts who two years ago predicted that Yeezy Gap could become a billion-dollar brand saw significant risk. While they anticipated attention and sales from younger consumers, they acknowledged some existing Gap customers were turned off by what would inevitably be a “polarizing” new label, which they estimated could cost Gap some $290 million in sales.

“Gap must now look back at the decision to partner with Ye and wonder what it was thinking,” Saunders said by email. “It must also regret the fact it made such a big play of the deal rather than having it as part of a much wider strategy of reinvention.”

Taking out the trash

Over the summer, Ye’s decision to display Yeezy Gap clothing in literal trash bags drew the kind of inflammatory attention that Gap presumably signed up for. Now the brand faces the prospect of what to do with heaps of unsold merchandise.

“Removing the product will come at a cost as Gap will likely need to write off the inventory,” Saunders said. “It is also the latest stumble in a partnership that has become increasingly problematic and that was forged more out of desperation than because of a true alignment of interests.”

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“Gap must now look back at the decision to partner with Ye and wonder what it was thinking.”

Neil Saunders

GlobalData Managing Director

Unlike Adidas, which will reportedly sell Yeezy designs without the Yeezy label, Gap’s Yeezy designs are disconnected from its core assortment. This leaves Gap with the very problem that its partnership with Ye was meant to solve: how to regain its place in American fashion.

Ye arguably made the brand cool again, at least for a niche audience and for a short while, but without him it has no standing in the culture, according to Frankie Margotta, strategist at brand experience firm Siegel + Gale. By contrast, because Adidas has its own cultural bona fides and a history of successful collaborations, it will continue to be relevant, he said.

“I don’t think they ever really took a hard look at — ‘How does this impact our Gap brand, and are we reemerging as something else? Are we pivoting? Does this already play into the brand that we are today?’” he said by video conference. “It was really just the association with Ye that made them cool. And now that they don’t have that, because they didn’t really do the work on their brand, you have this massive hole.”

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