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The Gap Inc. Design Archives: ‘A living, breathing expression of who we are’

Design, PeopleTara R. Hunt and Kelly Flanagan, Gap Inc. bloggers1 Comment

Nestled underneath Gap Inc.'s New York City headquarters, the Gap Inc. Heritage and Design Archives serves as a safe room for the company's nearly 47-year history.

Framed on the wall, you'll find wildly patriotic, red-white-and-blue patterned pants, which company co-founder Doris Fisher wore in the early Gap days. Nearby, you'll find a red-carpet-worthy version of the Gap mock turtleneck Sharon Stone wore to the Oscars in 1996. Dig a little deeper and you'll also spot the clothes from famed Gap brand ad spots featuring Missy Elliott and Sarah Jessica Parker.

"Some people think of an archive as a dusty, musty repository of clothes," said Michael Chiabaudo, Senior Manager of the Design Archives. "But nothing can be further from the truth, this is really a living, breathing expression of who we are. Looking at a history that's really accessible, seeing things you might have worn — you get a great reference for that history here."

The archive has been around since 2002, but its currently impeccable organization and curation is thanks largely to its caretakers: Michael Chiabaudo and Olivia Mueller.

Split into two parts — Gap Inc. heritage, which is more of a museum; and design inspiration, which is more of a resource library — the archive is also a point of pride, a catalog of the company's rich history. But it's as much a crystal ball for upcoming seasons as a wayback machine.

A "well-catalogued brand story" via a company archive helps design teams look forward as well as allow them take stock of the past, as The Globe and Mail described in a 2015 article. Even as the brands evolve, the stories of "Gap-ness" or "Banana Republic-ness" woven through each of their histories is contained and preserved here.

If you're looking for a designer bomber jacket, the archive has a whole rack of them. Vintage Product (RED) from its beginnings in 2006? That's there, too. If you're looking for vintage Banana Republic product to influence an upcoming holiday collection, there's a whole rack of it set aside for perusal upon request.

"It's more than just inspiration from a certain decade or era," Michael said. "It is the 10-button tee or henley from Gap, or the Banana Republic photographer's vest."

The archive actively accepts donations, but Olivia finds a lot of the collection online or in vintage stores, purchased with the brand filters in mind, and not just anything "vintage" will make the cut. For instance, there is an entire curated corner and work table in the archive dedicated to denim.

Laura Foos, Sr. Designer of Men's Denim for Gap, has designed in several categories over her career with the brand — and she's turned to the archive as a trusted in-house resource no matter the product.

Designers, especially new members of the team, are encouraged to go "shopping," looking for trim, fabric, print or color. For denim specifically, they tend to look at wash and fabrication, comparing them against current trends and forward-looking ones.

"Whenever we're looking for inspiration for a new season, we'll go down there and have a look," Laura said. "We'll always see different things we haven't seen before, or see familiar items differently.

Sometimes that means revisiting a removable liner in a coat from the 1980s and incorporating it into a new design. Other times, it means pulling all the shorts and chambray shirts from the 1990s because both are coming back in a big way.

The archive treasures are occasionally modeled to reference classic fits — which happened with peacoats one season.

"If you want to see how a lapel actually looks on someone, sometimes you have to put it on the model instead of just looking at it as a piece of clothing," Laura said. "Maybe you'll decide it's too dated, or maybe you can take that pattern and apply it to something else in the line."

In addition to partnering with the brands and shoring up the archive's tangible cache, Michael is also shoring up the digital library — featuring prints and fabrics from the company's history — to which any designer has access.

"This is what we've built, but now how do we use it? How can everyone and anyone visit, regardless of where they are? That's next."