how the gap shaped kanye west

As Yeezy opens up about his time working at the Gap in 'Paper,' we look at the brand’s cultural legacy.

by i-D Staff and Rory Satran
21 April 2015, 4:50pm

Photography Kate Owen

Among the revelations of Kanye West's essay for Paper magazine was the nugget that, like many Americans, he worked at the Gap in high school. Being Kanye, he interprets that in a psycho-semantic kinda way ("It's funny that I worked at the Gap in high school, because in my past 15 years it seems like that's the place I stood in my creative path - to be the gap, the bridge."). But West spills a lotta internet ink on his moment as a sales assistant with the classic San Francisco brand, reminding us of the fashion impact the company has had for so many Generation X-ers.

West credits the brand for his interest in fashion: "When I was working at the Gap at 15, I don't think I had any desire to actually make clothes, but I always felt like that's what I wanted to be around. I loved the fabrics, I loved the colors, I loved the proportions. Abercrombie [& Fitch] was too expensive for me and the Gap was too expensive for me." Although it's hard to remember as the company struggles to find its creative and financial footing, it was once a symbol of stylish prosperity. First as a much-loved purveyor of clean basics, then as an example of bland uniformity.

West starting working at the Chicago Gap in 1992, when the brand was at the height of its cultural impact under retail genius Mickey Drexler. One year later, seven Cooper Union students formed Art Club 2000 and created iconic imagery of exhausted, preppy kids surrounded by Gap shopping bags. In Emily Spivack's interview with Patterson Beckwith of Art Club for Smithsonian, he describes the "in your face" nature of Starbucks and the Gap in the early 90s. Gap ubiquity may have reached its apex in 1994, when Janeane Garofalo played sardonic Gap manager Vickie in Reality Bites, wearing chambray by day and 70s vintage frocks by night.

Still from Reality Bites (1994, Universal)

Like West, Opening Ceremony founder Humberto Leon has credited his time with the company as influencing his vision and work ethic. He began working at his local Gap in Los Angeles at age fourteen, working his way up from sales assistant to lauded visual merchandiser responsible for the look of Old Navy. The children of the 80s and 90s who grew up shopping and working at the Gap are now cultural influencers wondering what happened to the company.

In February, West told that he wanted to be the "the Steve Jobs of Gap," sending a typically subtle message to the retailer in the wake of creative director Rebekah Bay's departure. While we're not sure West (or anyone) would be able to inject the company with the magic juice of the 90s, his obsession with the brand feels timely. The original all-American vibe of its heyday is being felt in brands like Brooklyn-based Highland and even, subtly, in the logo sweatshirts of Hood by Air. Could the Gap be resurrected on this current wave of nostalgia? 

Opening Ceremony
Think Pieces
Hood By Air
The Gap
Reality Bites
Paper Magazine
art club 2000