I HAVE rarely seen someone as crazy and as determined as the Italian mother who jostled me in the Gap flagship store in Midtown. She bumped into me as she snatched up a pair of tan cargo pants. She went over to her teenage son and threw them at him. He exhaled furiously — the international sign for "God, Mom, whatever!" — and went to the dressing room. Then, to my right, a Frenchman wheeled a baby carriage onto my foot until I moved out of his way.
There must have been 100 Europeans in this store: men wearing sweaters tied around their shoulders, women wearing sunglasses inside, entire families chattering and pointing. All of them had rapacious looks in their eyes because they knew time is money. They needed to buy as much as possible before the increasingly global financial meltdown turned their powerful euros into a currency as pathetic as, well, the United States dollar.
But ... Gap? At first it was difficult to understand why the Eurofolk were so intense about this place. It leaves the bland taste of the 1990s in my mouth. I see the square blue sign, and it calls to mind Helen Hunt on "Mad About You," sitting on a puffy couch in comfy khakis and a big, shapeless chambray shirt, holding a huge mug of tea with both hands. When Gap was at its peak of influence, Seinfeld was a style icon. Blech.
But Gap is on a mission to lure us back, hiring the sharp, youthful designer Patrick Robinson to revamp the line. His designs started showing up in stores last spring. Maybe the Eurofolk are on to something.
Walking into the giant store, I could see the revamping effort. The space was brightly lighted, cool music was playing, huge photos of Hugh Dancy and the sexily scarred hockey star Sean Avery were on the walls, and the mannequins wore hip outfits in layered combinations I wanted to wear — especially one tweed jacket, sleeves pushed up.
A lot of the merchandise invites you to try it on right there on the floor, like a warm charcoal cable knit cardigan ($138), a leather bomber ($298) or a hip-length cargo jacket on sale for $49.99. This was a total of about 360 euros, and if I were a literature grad student visiting from Strasbourg, I would have bought all three and then gone home and worn them while smoking loose tobacco cigarettes and reading Houellebecq.
Mixed in with those updated items were some gross familiars from yesteryear: baseball hats with the word GAP sewn on the front ($16.50) and khaki cargo pants with lumpy thigh pockets ($44.50). One look at those items and I wanted to breathe into a paper bag.
But then I slipped on the gray tweed blazer ($108). Unfortunately it bunched up at the shoulders and looked a little less svelte on me. I selected a bunch of other garments to try on and headed back to the dressing rooms.
In the big bright room, I could tell the clothes had Robinson's touch. A T-shirt ($16.50) in an emerald color had a nice bicep-hugging upper body. A pair of slim-fit dress pants ($68) would look clean and impressive on a first date. A white button-down fit adequately, and for $39.50, it was a perfect purchase for someone who works in catering or an office and needs at least to pretend to care about his job. I liked the way a cashmere V-neck fit (on sale for $29.90), although it had a strange seam along the sides as if it were inside out.
Before I made any decisions, I went to Gap Kids on the top floor to scout for future Kooky Uncle Mike gifts. Boy's crew-neck waffle shirts were on sale, two for $25. In Baby Gap a cute cotton cable-knit pullover was $34.50, and an adorable tweed toggle coat with a wool-lined hood was $54.50. Perfectly dressed mannequins appeared amid the racks and tables, as well as illuminated photos of happy children in quirky poses. As everywhere in the store, I found the sales clerks busy folding and helping out customers — they seemed helpful, alert and in surprisingly good moods.
IN the women's section on the second floor, two Spanish ladies gesticulated wildly over a trench coat, while four women who seemed to be from an exotic cash-rich country known as Texas had exhausted themselves with browsing. "Whooee, I'm going to sit down right here," one of them in big gold earrings said. (Gap astutely placed the women's and kid's sections on the upper levels, understanding that most men will exert as much effort browsing for clothing as it takes them to open a bottle of beer.)
As on the first floor, the mannequins were puzzlingly stylish and sexy. The female form displayed by Gap Body, the brand's line of soft, cottony feminine warm-up styles, looked like a shapely yogic zombie of Christy Turlington, still walking after she was beheaded. Somehow, the striped henley she had on looked gorgeously fitted.
Upon closer inspection, I realized that the mannequin's shirt was tucked in the back to give it the illusion of a slimmer fit. I ran downstairs to the male mannequins. Nearly all of the garments were meticulously gathered into a pleat in the back, even the tweed jacket I had tried on. I pulled at the jacket and the form went from svelte to normal in two tugs.
I've noticed this tactic in other stores: clipping or tucking the clothes to make the garments seem as if they are gloriously tailored, and it always drives me crazy. It is my hope that during the next presidential administration I can form the Truth in Visual Merchandising Commission and put an end to this travesty. Be warned, retailers: End this deceitful practice now! Either stop clipping or tucking your clothes, or get fatter mannequins!
Even so, I ended up buying two slim-fit shirts: a light blue oxford for $39.50 and a plaid button-down on sale for only $12.97. They actually fit nicely on my human-shape torso. Then, I walked out onto Fifth Avenue, crowded with European shoppers, and listened to the lilting cadences of the many Romance languages. I bet all of them were talking about the exchange rate.