Thursday, July 21, 2011

Fall Into The Gap

I went to The Gap the other day in search of some summer bargains and found myself right in the middle of a retailing horror land.

I looked around bewildered, desperately trying to figure out what market this company was targeting. Teens? Tweens? People who will go to the store in late July searching for some bargain that they’ll wear a handful of times at most, then donate to Salvation Army because it’s impossible to justify the drawer space for those “boyfriend shorts” that are cut like a potato sack and, frankly, even less attractive than a potato sack? (Full Disclosure: I own said potato sack shorts—Salvation Army, you’ve been warned.)

Aside from the disappointing clothing selection, there was the unkempt look and feel of the stores, like I’d happened on some indoor yard sale. Most location are packed with so many racks of so many clothes that so many don’t want that the stores have an unpalatable flea market feel to them. There are others, like the one I went to on the east side of Manhattan, that have a certain, weird ’70s downstairs den feeling—the kind you don’t want to spend any time in whatsoever.

All of which is supremely disappointing, I’m guessing to Gap shareholders—of which I’m one. Gap stock, to put it in retail parlance, has a huge, ground-in stain…a seemingly unfixable tear…a split seat. Really, there isn’t a metaphor powerful enough to illustrate the fashion faux pas that is Gap stock.

I actually thought the investment was a good one at the time—the shares had been dressed down by Wall Street, and the clothing line was roundly rejected by those in the know. Simply put, I was banking on a turnaround. After all, Gap had done it before, ascending from its retail ashes into a khaki and denim phoenix that soared above all other retailers. It was the late ’90s and the company, left for dead in the retail sector’s sales bin, was resuscitated by the indomitable Mickey Drexler. The stock soared. Of course, did too back then, but there were actual sales and earnings behind Gap’s heady ascension.

Thing is, there is no Mickey Drexler this time around. And before we lose all semblance of perspective, it’s worth noting that there was a time too when Mr. Drexler’s charms no longer worked on The Gap—its rapid expansion and increasingly lackluster workaday offerings eventually caught up with the company and it was time to go shopping for a new CEO.

Which brings me back to the sorry state of Gap affairs today. With sales lagging and the stock once again in the sales bin, the company fired its global design guy in May. Then, inexplicably, company executives threw all of the company’s oddly flowered and buttoned garments in one heaping pile and danced around it chanting in an attempt to exorcise some haberdashery devil. That last part I don’t get, and, for the record, was not disclosed on any SEC filings. But, you know, people talk.

For all the doom and gloom, however, there is one bright spot in Gap’s portfolio. One beacon of clothier light: Athleta. For those who aren’t familiar with this athletic line, Athleta is known for terrifically made clothing at—this is the best part—a fraction of the cost of some other trendy lines. It is the reasonable person’s lululemon. Does it have the cache? Not like lulu's. But every active woman I know not only swears by this line, they’re devoted to it.

Now, do I own anything from Athleta? No, and this is why: Until recently, it’s been a catalog-only line. That is, until they opened up a retail store in California last year—to huge acclaim. Next month, two more locations are opening: one on the west side of Manhattan and one on the east side. To which I can only applaud loudly, and then yell over my own applause: WHAT IN THE NAME OF ALL STRETCHABLE FABRIC TOOK YOU SO LONG, GAP?

My disappointment at how Gap has handled its Athleta clothing line cannot be overstated. Why oh why didn’t they try something like a pop-up store somewhere to build excitement? Or maybe host a trunk show of sorts in an existing Gap location—something that could goose those limp same-store sales? Why didn’t you, company executives, take your noses out of your PowerPoints to see that what real people want you, amazingly enough, have? But I digress.

While The Gap has been late, and not in the fashionable sense, of harnessing the power of its Athleta line, at least it’s doing something proactive now. And it’s got lululemon in its sights—a smart move, I think. Lulu might be yoga wear for the trendy set who have loads of disposable income to spend on stretchy workout gear, but Athleta, with its more varied portfolio of active clothing, is for the woman who’s not only athletic, but who also understands the reality of things: She’s going to be working her tukus off in her fashionable gear, so it really isn’t necessary to spend $128 on cute pants that are mere sweat holders. The Athleta gal will spend a fraction of her fancy lulu counterpart, and have enough money left over to buy, oh, I don't know, Gap shares at a discount.

I'm still betting on a turnaround at The Gap. Athleta is a good first step, and I couldn't be more excited to go shop at the new stores next month. That said, there is still loads of crumpled, unfocused clothing lines in Gap's closet. Time for company executives to purge and donate what it can't sell. You know, like those boyfriend shorts.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Fine Dining Postscript

I've just returned from dinner out with my dear friend. And I've returned with what might be the best restaurant calling card ever:


Rosemary, thyme and basil! It's practically a Simon and Garfunkel song in my pocket!

Now, I know what you're's not deodorant. Still, I'm happy to report that I'm not in the least disappointed.

Fine Dining

I used to eat deodorant.

Now, before you become completely alarmed and, yes, repulsed, let me say in my defense that it wasn’t last week that I was sitting down to a stick of Secret solid with a knife and fork. This was years ago—decades in fact.

It was the ’70s, and I was a young slip of a thing who played softball, climbed trees and, every now and again, licked my parents’ deodorant. Don’t ask me how or, better yet, why I started doing this. At some age kids are supposed to stop putting things in their mouths—I was apparently left unsupervised in the bathroom before this maturity set in.

To this day, I remember how that Arid Extra Dry tasted. I don’t know if they even make that brand anymore, but if they do, I’m sure the formula has changed so it’s lost its lemony metallic tang. It was the kid of tanginess that made your taste buds tingle and stand at attention. There was a ZING! that let you know you were doing something a little secret, a little forbidden.

Of course, now that I think back, it’s more than a little unsettling that the same glistening roller ball that I used to surreptitiously lick was the same one that was lavishly worked around my parents’ armpits to keep them smelling fresh. Sometimes, I swear, retrospective thinking does no good at all.

In the name of all that is private...God, and embarrassing, why am I telling you this?

Oh, I know why, because I’m going to dinner at a new restaurant tonight—one I’ve been wanting to try ever since it opened. It’s restaurant week here in New York, and that has me thinking about all the great meals I’ve eaten over the years. And, yes, for whatever reason, I’ve been thinking about my food appreciation and how it all developed.

Food has been such a big part of my life that my first journalism job a zillion years ago was at a foodie magazine. My first book focuses on food and meals cooked with family. My entire life is punctuated by food moments—what I’m cooking, what I’m going to cook, what I’m eating, what I’m going to the greenmarket for so then I can cook it and eat it.

A foodie’s life is one that’s always growing; you’re always learning, always creating, and always savoring the bites, morsels and tastes that are as unexpected as a cartwheel or as familiar as a cozy pair of slippers. Even, as in my case, if your appreciation started with some secret licks of deodorant. Sometimes, the most inauspicious beginnings are the ones that eventually lead us to the greatest fulfillment.

Unless, you know, I develop some rare brain tumor from all that deodorant aluminum I ingested. Then screw all that inauspicious beginnings crap.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Magical Me

I’m an unabashed Harry Potter fan, have been for years.

When I picked up the first book, it was a simple curiosity. Back then, I was working as a journalist, sometimes pulling 13-hour days that began at 7 a.m. sharp, and supremely unhappy in my personal life. I had an ardent desire to escape from the daily grind, and a kid’s story about witches seemed to fit the bill.

To my delight, it did just that. From platform 9 ¾, I was whisked away to another place, far from my adult reality. There, amid witches, potions and staircases that moved, I found solace in this new, mystical world. It was not New York. It was not a never-ending reporting job that started before I could get a cup of coffee in me. It was not a relationship that was flimsy and unfulfilling, with unrequited emotions and frustrations. It was pure, escapist enchantment. It was magic and discovery. Most of all, it offered a delightful, youthful comfort to a weary young adult.

As I slipped into that world every night before bed, curled up in my sleeping loft with a book that was meant for a 10-year old, I felt the heaviness, the seriousness of my day fall away. The burdensome clothes of a young adult trying to make it in Manhattan were replaced by a witch’s wispy robes. I became lighter ensconced in my make believe world. I grew happier in the presence of magical mysteries. I was transformed into a kid without a care in the world.

It’s such purity, that feeling like you’re little again, where everything is fresh and full of magic. Kind of like when you’d spend a summer’s day flitting through the sprinkler in the backyard, the heat of the midday sun drying your bathing suit while you eat a popsicle and giggle with your sister. A single day spent like that, wrapped up in the sparkly happiness and lightness of childhood, that’s the kind of powerful memory that rejuvenates you. That’s what reading Harry Potter was like for me.

It’s been more than a decade since I cracked open The Sorcerer’s Stone. That first book, the one that served as sort of teddy bear or security blanket, has since been thrown away. By mistake of course, and not by me. In a flurry of cleaning and thinning of the bookshelf one day, my husband mistakenly disposed of it. I was crushed when I realized what had happened. That was the book that had allowed me to go to sleep with lightness in my heart instead of angst. But I realized that sometimes those are the books we should let go of—the ones that are so saturated with memories. Sometimes those are precisely the books that are meant to leave us after they’ve done their duty, as that first Harry Potter book had.

After all, I’m not in the same place that I was in the late ‘90s, professionally or personally. That’s not to say there isn’t a need for Harry Potter anymore, or that I’ve somehow outgrown him. Quite the contrary. When you’re trying to become a published author yourself, there’s a certain amount of angst and loneliness that can creep in from time to time, no matter how strong your Patronus charm. Turns out, I still need that delicious slice of escapism that J.K. Rowling can provide.

Which is why my husband, the one who disposed of the memory-laden first book, gave me the entire Harry Potter series. It was a new start of sorts. My reasons for falling into Hogwarts are different, you see, but that doesn’t make them any less important. And it’s something that my wizard husband, while never having read any of the books himself, somehow, quite magically, gets.