Barbara Lippert’s Critique: Gap Rocks The Denim

To be honest, I didn’t see the “directors’ cut” of the new Gap spot with Sarah Jessica Parker and Lenny Kravitz when it aired on the MTV Video Music Awards. Maybe within that staged and monitored extravaganza (Usher was the only one allowed to show his nipples) the spot seemed amazingly fresh. (Kravitz also performed during the evening—synergy in action.)

But watching the DVD, I found the 90-second piece so over-the-top forced and stylized that I was kind of embarrassed for S and L. Sure, strategically it makes sense for Gap: Despite all his personal problems lately (he just canceled part of his tour for “family reasons”), Lenny’s cool, and for this ad he got to redo his Hendrix-like guitar riff from “Are You Gonna Go My Way?” (released in 1993) and mix it with his new song “Lady” to promote his latest CD, Baptism. Plus, he’s got quite a unique personal style and is one of the rare rockers not pigeonholed to a single musical style—just as the Gap wants to erase the memory of uniform khakis or “Everyone in suede.”

Parker, whose size-zero body appears in many different outfits in Gap’s cute mix-and-match print ads, can still work the up-to-the-minute fashionista connection from Sex and the City to make selected pieces of Gap-wear seem seem mix-worthy with Manolos (well, with the right stylist around, almost). But together, rocker boy and the artist formerly known as Carrie B. seem to have no real chemistry—it’s just a guy in shades whaling on his flying V, while as many as six different Sarahs revolve around him like groupies. The Sarahs offer a range of dances and outfits: One tips her black fedora, Bob Fosse-style, which I find really creepy, although I loved A Chorus Line. Another, in white bucks, starts doing what looks like the mashed potato. The rest pull would-be erotic moves worthy of Seinfeld’s Elaine (Sexless and the City?).

Gap’s pairing of Madonna and Missy Elliott last year was highly forced and stylized, too (and also blended old and new music). Yet there was a basic energy and competition there that came through all the fakeness and seemed more direct (even, if inadvertently, funny).

Perhaps I’m just still confusing Sarah with Carrie. Columnist Carrie was known for her sharp wit and hot bod, but Parker’s gift for physical comedy humanized her beyond the bad puns and odd outfits. When Carrie had to walk down that runway in the flimsy top and hotpants, she did it—strutted proudly, looked fierce, then fell off the stage.

And that’s what’s missing here—some element of humor.

I guess the director’s cut was going for something more music video-ish—like the late, great Robert Palmer with all his female clones around him, stroking fake guitars. That was amusing because the women were anonymous models—not a major star like Sarah Jessica Parker, who would seem, post-Sex, to have Hollywood at her feet. So why is she dancing awkwardly at Lenny’s feet?

Happily, the 90-second spot was only for the award show, and three 30-second versions running now prove that less is more: They are much more entertaining in small doses, as the intricate architecture of each one becomes apparent: As with the spots introducing Volkswagen’s Bugs and Apple’s iMacs, they are colorful and eye-pleasing: the pink, blue, yellow and green square doors in the background beckon like candy. (In some of the ads, Parker comes out of the doors, let’s-make-a-deal style, which seems intriguing to have rooms within rooms in your TV.) She also seems more in charge, and moves better when it’s only one or two dances with Lenny.

Part of the appeal is subconscious—there’s always something new to see in the various Sarahs (and in one spot, multiple Kravitzes), and you start to appreciate the editing.

Indeed, what the Gap is trying to pull off here is quite layered and smart, like the clothing: Instead of multiple persons in different outfits, it’s one person multiplied. The customization thing is huge, starting with the mother of all customized brands, Starbucks, and its multi-ccino empire. It seemed that the Gap was offering the same sort of customized looks last year, with Madonna and Missy and the big black gothic M’s sewn on their pants, along with elaborate grommets and such. But that never really seemed to take off (and what ever happened to the bedazzler?).

In several shots, Parker has a velvet ribbon sewn down the side of her jeans (really pretty). In another, she has the jeans cut off at the knee with a bow at the hemline (not so much). In any case, Gap is holding a series of “customization events” and created to follow the “Show Us How You Wear It” tour coming to various shopping malls.

But let’s not forget Lenny. He’s got grommets and a new Prince-like straightened ‘do with wings—half Al Sharpton, half Kate Jackson. In one of the print ads, he stands smiling, wearing an open denim shirt over jeans, and a big, floppy, furry newsboy cap. He seems beyond gender, and beyond sex. Then you have Parker, whose popularity is certainly beyond the city. Which, of course, translates to getting this look at your local mall.