Fashion Statement

When Modernista! got a phone call last year from Amy Schoening, head of marketing for the Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic, the Boston shop was less than a year old. But Schoening remembered principal Gary Koepke from an interview years before, and she was impressed with the award-winning work produced by Modernista! co-founder Lance Jensen at Arnold. She hired the agency without a traditional review to craft a November 2000 holiday effort.

The assignment marked the first time the Gap had gone to an outside agency for TV advertising. A year later, what began as a one-time project has evolved into a creative partnership that’s produced some of the more entertaining ads of 2001. And the account has become a flagship for the now-hot Modernista!, which last week broke its fourth image campaign for the San Francisco-based retailer.

“They wanted us to put vigor and freshness back into the brand,” says Koepke of Modernista!’s original mission. “They wanted people to feel like they could get standard clothes there, but still come out looking like an individual.”

The Gap, which spends about $90 million annually on ads for its lead brand, had previously crafted all its advertising in-house, including the “Everybody in the Gap” series. Its creative team was run by Lisa Prisco, who left to pursue a career directing commercials. Modernista! was brought in shortly thereafter.

Last year’s holiday campaign featured unexpected images such as a dance party inside a light bulb, hip takes on Yuletide classics and plenty of twentysomethings adorned in Gap wear. This year it’s all about rock stars. Seal, Alanis Morissette, Dwight Yoa kam, Robbie Ro b ertson and others young and old, all wearing Gap sweaters, perform the 1970s Supertramp classic “Give a Little Bit.” The tagline is “Give your gift.”

At the shoot, says Koepke, “Robbie went up to Dwight right after Robbie’s shot and said, ‘There’s going to come a moment, Dwight, that you’re going to say to yourself: “I’m singing a Supertramp song for the Gap!” ‘ It was really funny.”

Koepke, the shop’s point man on the account, says the idea for the new ads came about without detailed research or focus groups. “I was thinking about the holidays and exchanging gifts,” he says. “I thought the Gap could do an uplifting commercial. We wanted to make people feel good, and the Gap liked the idea of a singular song and a clear message.”

“This campaign is about the true meaning of the holidays, about giving and sharing of yourself,” says the Gap’s Peter Hempel, executive vice president of marketing.

From the start, Modernista!’s campaigns have built on the momentum of past Gap efforts—such as the West Side Story-inspired number that promoted capri pants—retaining the signature striking images with memorable music but adding a greater sense of emotion and individualism.

For its first Gap ads, the agency turned to music video and spot directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. “Kiss” showed a man and woman slowly approaching each other, a beam of light shining where their hearts meet. In “Light Bulb,” hipsters danced on the curved walls and the ceiling of the room, revealed to be the interior of a blue holiday light bulb. Another ad showed Gap-clad models floating through space like snow flakes. Rather than a single tagline, various title cards such as “Decorate yourself” and “Give and receive” were used.

“The challenge was to take a good but simple idea and [make it] have an emotional impact,” says Dayton.

The Gap signed up Modernista! for more seasonal work throughout the year. Spring spots, directed by Johan Renck, featured models and actresses grooving in Gap fashions to beats from Tricky, Ziggy Marley and The Thievery Corporation. The spots stated simply, “Spring is here.”

The intent was to “invoke a feeling that, hallelujah, spring is here,” says Koepke.

For the fall, Paul Hunter directed celebrities and promising up-and-comers who wore denim and talked about their “first love.” One memorable spot featured actress Juliette Lewis dancing with the French disco/techno duo Daft Punk, who dressed like robots. The words “girl” and “love” scrolled across their visors. “We wanted to get into the idea of who would be Daft Punk’s first love,” says Jen sen. “We needed someone with a lot of energy.”

The singer Cherokee performed a version of AC/DC’s metal anthem “Back in Black,” revealing its lead singer, Angus Young, as her inspiration.

Print ads featured celebrities including Ray Liotta, Giovanni Rib isi and Oscar winner Marcia Gay Harden. “They’re interesting people wearing [Gap] clothes and making them their own,” says Jensen.

“Even if you don’t know them, they lend more of a sense of depth” adds Koepke. “We select [actors] based on people that we like—or just appreciate and have made a contribution to their craft.”

The pair also often choose music based purely on their personal tastes. “Sometimes they think of a song and work from there,” says Dayton.

Though the Gap’s in-house marketing department continues to handle Gap Kids, Gap Body and Baby Gap, the retailer now officially describes Modernista! as “creative partner” on its adult TV and print advertising. “I would say they’ve found a comfort zone with us,” says Koepke, who works most closely with the Gap’s Hempel and senior director Kyle Andrew.

Despite Modernista!’s efforts, the Gap’s in-store sales numbers and stock price have shown a steady decline this year. Last week, the company’s stock was trading around $13, not far from its 52-week low of $11. Last week the Gap reported a 2 percent drop in third-quarter sales to $3.3 billion compared with the third quarter last year.

Heightened competition, a failure to keep up with trends and the sagging economy are the likely culprits. “You can’t get an old mare to win a horse race—I don’t care what you do,” says Kurt Barnard, president of Barnard’s Retail Trend Report. “The old mare was once upon a time faster than anyone else. It was unique—it no longer is.”

It’s unclear whether the advertising will change course in re sponse to the flagging numbers. “I think the Gap should stay the course, fine-tune some things and continue to be the Gap that everyone loves,” Koepke says. Future spots may promote products more aggressively “while keeping the brand equity,” he says.

One constant will be celebrities, who will continue to drive the creative. “I would love to do a spot with Bowie,” says Koepke, but the rock icon has already turned him down. Other stars he’d like to feature include Moby, Thom York of Radiohead, Jack Black, Julian Schnabel and Fatboy Slim.

Koepke summarizes the Gap as “tireless, classic and cool”—values any brand, including Modernista!’s, would be happy to own.