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Gap Inc. Opens Row of New San Francisco Test Stores, Co-Labs

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Gap Inc. officially welcomed four new San Francisco stores, along with creative labs for its employees, at its SOMA headquarters on Wednesday. 

The ribbon-cutting ceremony, held outside the company’s Folsom Street entrance, was attended by several company executives, including Sonia Syngal, Gap Inc.’s chief executive officer, as well as Matt Dorsey, the newly appointed member of the city’s board of supervisors. 

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San Francisco Mayor London Breed was also slated to appear, but a last-minute bout of COVID-19 reportedly sidelined those plans. 

The company is “reimagining the retail experience in ways that are going to set the tenor of what retail can be elsewhere,” Dorsey said at the ceremony, and it “has a leadership role to play in how retail is going to be moving forward in the future.” 

Other executives in attendance included Mary Beth Laughton, president and CEO of Athleta; Mark Breitbard, president and CEO of the Gap brand, and Sandra Stangl, president and CEO of Banana Republic, among others. 

For San Francisco, the openings may represent new hope and retail optimism in turbulent times. Like many major metro and other areas, the city’s stores emerged from the pandemic’s existential threat to physical shopping to face rampant smash-and-grab thefts, intense pressure from supply chain problems and waves of closures in the face of sky-high rents — the latter of which has claimed everything from chain drug stores to clothing retailers. Meanwhile, a growing number of vacancy signs seem to stretch across the financial district’s Market Street and other neighborhoods.

Given that context, Gap Inc.’s openings could be seen as the company’s love letter to its home city. That’s how Syngal views it as well.

“San Francisco is still recovering from the pandemic,” the CEO told WWD. “We’ve been here for over 50 years, invested in philanthropy in the community. And [while] our reach is very global, we felt it was important to be part of the revitalization.” 

But the line of side-by-side stores — comprising Athleta, Banana Republic, The Gap and Old Navy — is also something more. These locations are a testing environment for the company, where it can try new products, merchandising approaches and other experiences. 

On opening day, the Athleta store featured styles in colors that are unavailable anywhere else. Old Navy experimented with mixing vignettes and categories. The Gap showcased historic outfits from the brand’s archives, as worn onscreen by Sharon Stone, Missy Elliott and Kim Basinger, with all digital in-store displays. The Banana Republic even featured a bar, where weary patrons can wet their whistle with a cocktail — although it’s not clear if the watering hole will become a permanent fixture or not yet. It’s all part of the experiment. 

That sense of experimentation lives on both sides of the initiative, driving the workshop areas — or what Gap Inc. calls the “Co-Lab” spaces for employees — as well. 

Described as maker studios, these open spaces for creativity and collaboration are built into the ground floor of Gap Inc.’s headquarters and feature everything from sewing machines and silk-screen printing machines to large screens for the many seminars and other programs the company plans to host. It’s a maker space, Gap-style, that’s designed to inspire new projects across product, displays and other experiments. 

The sensibility informs Co-Lab’s physical features too, with large open windows facing the street to tease and intrigue the public. “As we’ve been opening, people knock on the windows, wondering what goes on in there,” said Sarah Holme, executive vice president of design for Gap Inc. and Old Navy.

For Holme, the Co-Lab was built to encourage a spirit of “messy play,” and so “if you’re curious and want to engage in creativity, you should come and join the Gap,” she said. Recruitment would be a fascinating upshot of this project. 

The tour of the space revealed another clear window — this time situated between the lab and The Gap store on the other side. At one point, a small child was viewable through the glass, as he laughed and sat on the floor of the store, playing with one of the products. It was the perfect symbol of the transparency that the company wanted. Also, perhaps, that spirit of messy play.