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Sidestepping the Gap

The home of khakis and T-shirts, of clean sexiness and sexy cleanness, is experiencing the unthinkable: financial trouble. What does one wear to the Apocalypse?

About Wall Street's retail analysts: They would rather eat live kittens on CNBC than speculate _ even playfully _ about a world in which the Gap ceases to be. It's heresy. It's too wild to even think about. Nonetheless, the Gap is in trouble.

"I'm sorry, but we can't help you," an analyst replies, icily, when asked to suppose what it would take to drive the company out of business. "You aren't operating in reality."

Fine, let us operate in fantasy. The Gap has always been about a sort of altered reality anyhow, a wearable Prozac, a 100-percent-cotton illusory veil. Everything's fine in Gaperica. (And everybody's in leather.)

But here are some very real numbers, the distressed denim: Last week, Gap Inc. reported a 14 percent decline in August sales, significantly worse than the 5 percent drop analysts had predicted. Sales figures for Gap's Old Navy armada are worse, down 25 percent in many stores. The Gap's stock price has fallen sharply, to less than half what it was a year ago.

This isn't the end of the Gap _ nowhere near. But it's different from bad news about some widget industry. This is the Gap, after all, in which so much of not only our wardrobes but our national style psyche is invested. If the Gap can't make it happen and its executives forebodingly allude to slumpy sales ahead, then what does the end of the world look like? (What does one wear to an apocalypse? Something, you know, casual.)

"It's the orange," gripes a griper on the Motley Fool's message board, a Web site where investors go for high-fives or group therapy. "Nobody wants to wear that kind of orange."

"The Gap is coasting," complains a stockholder. "It has no real image anymore, does it? The Gap is losing it. I now consider them to be a khakis store and that's about it."

Causes, cures: The stores are too big, except the ones that are too small. There are too many (3,348 and growing still), except where there are too few. Overseas shipments were delayed (those darn sweatshops), making the stores seem empty for a while. The new colors (burnt orange and Pepto pink and babypoo green in Gaps right now; a superfluity of Joker purple in the company's Banana Republic stores) are dictatorial and off-key. Something is "not sexy or clean enough," an analyst tells Smart Money. (Clean and sexy _ that's the real trick, isn't it?)

No one will say it's over.

No one can say it's over.

Because it's not over for the Gap. Except for the little problem of it feeling over. Something can feel over and no spreadsheet can touch it or explain it or fix it.

Feeling over is the long preamble to being over. The Gap's world feels over even as you sit there in your relaxed flatfronts, even as you sashay along in that strappy little top. The sexy cleanness! The clean sexiness! It was the antidote to the previous generation's polysleaze. (The polysleaze, otherwise known as the 1970s, was a panacea to the Silent Generation, who all wore hats and nylons and fought a war.)

The cure takes a couple of decades to work, and the medicine that the Gap gave to the generations who nicely gathered around it (Garanimals for grown-ups) is now wafting away, its potency likely gone. All of it could be gone, in a way, the minute the next thing bubbles up as slow and sure as the Gap once did. The bleached wood floors and white shelving: gone. The gleaming smiles and can-I-help-you-find-something clerks. Fifty dollars in the Gap: This a rite, a sacrament. It is the ideal uniform, the steady availability of a disciplinary Mommy who dressed us so well, so reasonably, wherever we went.

The Gap is 31 years old, and for about 16 of those years the American shopper dutifully listened to its beat. Sixteen years is not a bad stretch, and when it comes to what people wear, it's far too long to stay out front.

But the commercials, you protest: so smooth, so inspiring. You wanted to run down to the mall and leap around and snap your fingers in your own West Side Story. You wanted to stand hip-slung and lip-sync Depeche Mode songs with a sulky look on your face. You wanted to go-go and swing dance in your khakis.

Apparently this was great, but this was wrong. The analysts say that you did not want these things after about 1998. (What did you want that the Gap stopped bringing you?)

Death is not unthinkable for the Gap, or Banana Republic, or Old Navy. They could be purchased by rivals, consolidated, retinkered by the entire kingdom of market research. Ten years from now, imagine this commercial, a Sears-like plea to come home: "Come see the New Gap. We're lookin' smarter than ever." You might go, but your kids won't touch it, unless their school is having a '90s Day.

It's the hipster conceit, this inability to imagine your trendiest thing falling into oblivion. Yet we are so laughable, the Tony Maneros of our day, afflicted with our own Saturday night fevers: the ubiquitous khakis, the shoulder bags, the black-on-gray, the straightened hair.

"Look at what you're wearing," someone in the future squeals, someone horribly smart and young, flipping through your digi-display of family photos. "Did every single one of you shop at the Gap?"

There'd be some panic in a world without a Gap. The potential threat of individuality would at first seem like terrible news, the taking away of mass identity. The bankruptcy sales would become a national grief session, and a bargain melee. We spent decades perfecting the black T-shirt; moving on from it will require years of work, and it's already begun.

The stock price can bounce back, but what the Gap can never have back, not really, is a distinct October afternoon in 1992 when you bought your girlfriend that skirt, or 1987, that yellow plaid oxford, which was your favorite, which was stolen from that Laundromat in Boulder; a summer Saturday in 1994, when you picked up that ribbed, white shirt you wore to nightclubs, or the lunch hour you flaked off in 1988, swinging a blue bag from the Gap: look at my new stuff, look at my new stuff, look at my new stuff. Stopping only when the response was this: I have that one, too.

The Gap can never again be new, and this is not fit talk in the retail world.

One analyst, Jeffrey Klinefelter of US Bancorp Piper Jaffray, told Smart Money that the problem, essentially, was that people were forgetting the Gap and the Gap was forgetting the people: "It needs its national ads," he said, "to keep the brand fresh and remind people to come to the stores."

So it's come to this. People need to be reminded to go into a Gap. That they might no longer wish to go into one is a blasphemy too far gone.