Barbara Lippert’s Critique

By now, it might be considered the ultimate version of the emperor’s new clothes: In the last two years, amid steadily declining sales, Gap advertising has been in-house, out of house (at Modernista!) and back in-house while waiting for a new agency to get up to speed. Under wraps for so long, the rescue campaign for fall is here from Laird + Partners, and it’s … pretty much the same stuff.

There’s white space, and a variety of celebs and soon-to-be’s singing, dancing and mugging for the camera while wearing various combinations of jeans and crisp white shirts and denim jackets. Shocking! You could even say that it’s exactly what Will Ferrell parodied in a Gap commercial last fall, when he appeared in said white space, in jeans and jean jacket, doing his Neil Diamond impression.

That was the only funny spot. Most of the others were dense and conceptual and sometimes pretentious—Juliette Lewis dancing like Elaine on Seinfeld in front of Daft Punk in their robot disguises, for example. For all that simple white space, the spots were as tricked out as the grommet-and-metal-stud accessories Gap was promoting then.

Conversely, the spring commercials, featuring a dazzling array of high-priced directors and early-twentysomething star talent, were such a stylized, clean take on the ’60s and ’70s that they were almost invisible. With the exception of the Dennis Hop per spot, they could have worked for Estée Lauder … I was just waiting for the free gift with purchase.

So I understand the need for returning to some of the original Gap iconography, and the strength of the cross-generational pull. The difference this time is that the TV spots were directed by fashion photographer Peter Lindbergh, and they are less like music videos and more like heightened fashion portraits that pop with palpable color and texture. They’re simpler, and they work better. (The print insert, meanwhile, looks great, but the grid thing is getting old, and with 50 “personalities,” it’s on celeb overload.)

Each spot starts with a pan up a denimed leg. In the first, we’re surprised to see that the tibia is Willie Nelson’s. In full hair braid and Indian-necklace regalia, he does an acoustic version of Hank Willi ams’ “Move It on Over.” He’s great, and you can’t miss with those lyrics: “Move it on over, ’cause the big dog’s comin’ in.” He’s joined on the other side of the generational divide by singer Ryan Adams, who tackles the song with an electric guitar.

This contrast/combo thing for age, gender and race works well without being hokey or forced. That’s totally the case with Marianne Faithfull, the ultimate rock chick now in her 60s, who performs “I’ll Take You There.” You’d think she’d have the spastic moves—she’s earned them—but she’s self-contained compared with the women who share her white space, singers Taryn Manning and Tweet.

If there’s one thing advertising doesn’t need, it’s another white man dancing in white space. But the spot with British dancer Will Kemp manages to transcend bland ness and dumbness. Similarly, I wasn’t thrilled to see another supermodel moving around in her stretch den ims, but former ballet dancer Shalom Harlow’s moves are enchanting; and when she teams up with African model Alek Wek to “Bend Me, Shape Me,” there’s a combustible energy.

My least favorite spot features Jakob Dylan performing “What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Understanding.” I was a major Wallflowers fan, and Elvis Costello gets my vote for greatest songwriter, but the spot comes off as kind of screechy and kind of preachy, particularly at the end when he says, “Keep your standards.” It’s a pun on standard jeans, of course, but since we haven’t seen the guy in anything but commercials for the past two or so years, who’s he to talk?

While the spots are not a big stretch, they do effortlessly transcend age, gender, race and the usual fashion attitude, and some even capture that elusive feeling from “Khakis Swing”: that America is alive and uniting.