Gap's Athleisure Line for Men Is a Healthy Stretch

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- As its namesake brand continues to struggle, Gap Inc. is trying a new tactic: building a new brand from scratch.

The apparel giant announced Thursday that it will soon debut a concept called Hill City, a men’s active-wear line that is something of a companion concept to the company’s fast-growing women’s chain, Athleta. Hill City will launch as an e-commerce brand, selling clothes made of technical fabrics that are meant for workouts and everyday dressing.

It’s about time Gap realized it needs to take this kind of chance.

I have long argued that it was missing a major opportunity by not cooking up fresh brands. The company readily acknowledges its Gap and Banana Republic chains are “mature” businesses. And while Old Navy has been a savior for the wider business and Athleta is growing quickly, it’d be helpful for Gap to have more engines for growth.

Gap's Athleisure Line for Men Is a Healthy Stretch

Shoppers are gravitating toward boutique-like brands that have a feel of being small-batch and unique. There are loads of examples across a variety of consumer categories. Just look at Glossier, the booming beauty startup that raised $52 million earlier this year, or Everlane, the upstart clothing company that is attracting customers with its promise of “radical transparency” around its supply chain. Or consider Nestle SA’s Wildscape line of frozen foods, with offerings that look like they came straight from the local farmer’s market.

Hill City is just the kind of vehicle Gap needs to tap into that customer behavior. (Apparel stalwarts such as Express Inc. or Ascena Retail Group Inc., should be doing more in this realm, too, but that’s for another piece.)

It helps that Gap will have some important advantages as it works to get Hill City off the ground. Thanks to Athleta, it already has a well-developed supply chain for manufacturing workout clothes. And if it ever decides to build brick-and-mortar stores, its recent work pruning its fleet of Gap and Banana Republic stores should give it a leg up in determining which malls are best-suited for a newcomer.

While I think Gap has the right idea with Hill City, I want to see how the company executes on it before I give executives too much credit for it. 

The press release says this apparel brand will include “high-performance pieces that can take him from a hike to a dinner out.” That means it will be competing directly against some of the most formidable players in the wider apparel industry. Lululemon Athletica Inc. has been a retail rock-star lately, delivering a gangbusters 20 percent increase in comparable sales for two consecutive quarters. One of the cornerstones of that chain’s plan to get to $4 billion in revenue by 2020 is to rev up its men’s business.  

Gap's Athleisure Line for Men Is a Healthy Stretch

Plus, Nike Inc. appears to be getting on steadier footing after some challenges in its home market. Meanwhile, a startup called Ministry of Supply has carved out a niche for clothes that have technical attributes but look like ordinary workwear.

If Hill City is to score on that playing field, Gap is going to have to bring its A game. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Sarah Halzack is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the consumer and retail industries. She was previously a national retail reporter for the Washington Post.

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