What the Liberals have in common with the Gap

Once upon a time, they were classic and iconic

Yesterday, struggling clothing retailer the Gap fired its star designer, Patrick Robinson.  In his failure, we might find some sense of just how big a struggle lies ahead for the Liberal Party of Canada.

First, let’s look at the Gap, whose problems don’t seem to have much to do with the talent it is throwing at the problem. Robinson is a huge talent, one of the most respected in the business. But here’s how the Times outlines his challenge:

Beyond the buzz, Mr. Robinson had a difficult job: trying to figure out what Gap should sell. After pretty much defining American basics in the ’80s and ’90s , the chain had floundered. Competitors like Abercrombie & Fitch and J. Crew, and fast-fashion brands like H&M and Zara, were offering sharper takes on trends.

This has been the Gap’s problem for ages: It is caught between higher-end competitors on one side, and fast-fashion or mass-market brands on the other. Nothing more perfectly captures the Gap’s problems than its standing in its own company, where it is being squeezed between the more successful Banana Republic and Old Navy.

As James Twitchell argued in his book Branded Nation, this dynamic is at work in a number of industries and disciplines, including religion (niche worship versus megachurch) and higher education (mass state schools versus high end private colleges). In each case, one might well assume that “most customers are in the middle”, and that there is room for a big-tent centrist retailer or service provider that gives a bit of class and a bit of mass. But that’s a mistake. Ultimately, customers are pushed in one direction or the other, while those trying to work the middle are left without any firm identity or direction. Here’s more from the Times:

Introducing one of his first Gap collections, Mr. Robinson said he wanted to “take the classic, iconic heritage of the company and make it relevant.” His Gap designs produced some popular items, particularly skinny cargo pants and a revamp of denim. But tops never seemed to go with bottoms, and dresses and outerwear were puzzling, too. Gap’s merchandise today is an unlikely mix of pants in khaki and olive green, and floaty, ruffly tops in peach and beige.

Does this sound familiar? It’s pretty much the conundrum of the Liberal Party of Canada. Once upon a time, it was classic and iconic, but lately nothing seems to fit properly. Its policies are an unlikely mix, the top never seems to go with the bottom. The problem isn’t with leadership or talent, it’s with positioning.

In a related post, colleague Geddes wonders if the new parliament means that Canadian politics is about to become more polarized. John notes that the NDP and Conservatives each succeeded by largely tempering its ideology. But if that is right, it means that there is no middle of the road for the party to occupy. Like the Gap’s ongoing failures, the noises the Liberals are making about attempting to recapture the middle might be totally misguided. The party tried to win the last election by making itself look like the NDP. Perhaps it should have instead tried to discredit it.