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At Gap Inc., Building Employee Pathways to Creative Excellence

BoF discovers how Gap Inc. — the parent company of the Old Navy, Gap, Banana Republic and Athleta brands — is renewing its focus on developing creative teams and talent.
Gap Inc. designers deliberating ideas.
Gap Inc. designers deliberating ideas. (B.HUST)
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With over five decades of creative and cultural heritage to build upon, Gap Inc. — the parent company to American brands Old Navy, Gap, Banana Republic and Athleta — is leaning into their creative teams to drive the business forward in innovative ways.

The San Francisco-based portfolio of brands is looking to support their creative teams in accessing, engaging in and realising their potential. Looking to develop diversity of thought and the professional experiences of its creative employees, Gap Inc. leadership teams have invested in robust travel programmes, development and training opportunities, and external speaking events that connect forecasters, trend analysts and designers — such as London-based The Future Laboratory and the New-York based Eileen Fisher team — with design teams to inspire and build for the future.

Additionally, the company has introduced a Creative Advisory Council, with the likes of trend forecasters Li Edelkoort, Philip Fimmano from Trend Union and designer Jonathan Cheung, to advise design leadership teams and challenge conventional ways of thinking. BoF sits down with Old Navy’s executive vice president of design, visual merchandising and styling, Sarah Holme, and Gap, Banana Republic and Athleta senior designers, Seon Lee, Delontè Hailstock and Nina Sturmfels, to hear more about how Gap Inc. is investing in and building design talent.

Sarah Holme, Executive Vice President of Design, Visual Merchandising and Styling. Old Navy.

Sarah Holme — Executive Vice President of Design, Visual Merchandising and Styling — Old Navy

Having worked for Gap Inc. for nearly eight years, Holme today heads up design, visual merchandising and styling teams at Old Navy and is the executive sponsor of Gap Inc.’s Create with Audacity movement — an initiative that seeks to support and unite Gap Inc.’s creative teams in unleashing their full, untapped potential.

How is Gap Inc. investing in creative talent?

We are actively creating opportunities for our talent to stop and engage with their own creativity, and challenging teams to tap into their own perspectives and intuition. This has created an ecosystem of dialogue and ideation, and sparked creativity and conversation like never before.

For example, we have facilitated access to external speakers and influencers, from trend analysts, design, sustainability and ethical fashion leaders. We formed a Creative Advisory Council which partners with our design leadership to challenge our perspectives and drive us to be better.

We are creating a robust travel programme for inspiration trips, allowing our employees to travel within the US and internationally to explore textiles, colours, patterns and new techniques from global artisans, to challenge conventional methods of design thinking while expanding our creative lens.

As a designer, what makes working at Old Navy unique?

The scale of Old Navy is our greatest differentiator. Whether it’s a best-selling product or a values-led initiative, the positive impact and reach that we have is meaningful. It makes me proud to come to work with integrity, and in service and respect to our customers. I feel it brings purpose to what I do.

The scale of Old Navy is our greatest differentiator.

What excites you about Gap Inc.’s future

It’s highly motivating to enable initiatives such as our Create With Audacity movement. The idea is to challenge conventional methods of design thinking and to expand the team’s creative lens, investing and nurturing our creative talent to be inspired and to be inspiring.

We have brands with a strong heritage that are loved and trusted by our customers. Couple that with design intuition, creative confidence and talent, I believe we are positioned to grow while breaking into untapped areas and categories.

For example, we have been working with design and consulting firm IDEO on developing an educational training programme, focused on building skill sets to allow teams to develop their language around vision, inspiration, intuition and sensibility, which is launching later this year.

Seon Lee, Senior Designer of Kids and Baby. Gap.

Seon Lee — Senior Designer, Kids and Baby, Gap

Lee started as a junior designer at Baby Gap in 2009. Now, as senior designer, Lee is part of the Gap Inc. Colour Proud Council – a cross-brand, employee-led team that brings diversity to the bottom line of product and customer experience.

How has Gap facilitated your career interests and growth?

I started at Gap as a junior designer and now I am a senior designer. As I have evolved in my career here, I have been able to approach my design process with a bigger picture in mind.

Sustainability has become a focus for me, often inspired by our speaker sessions.

For example, Gap Inc. invited the Eileen Fisher ‘Waste No More’ team in 2021 to speak on how unused or unusable material scraps can be transformed to create one-of-a-kind designs, which was valuable and inspiring. This resonated with me as Gap’s design team has worked on multiple sustainability projects, such as backpacks made from recycled plastic bottles and recyclable flip flops with sustainable packaging. We also worked on the Generation Good launch in 2020 — a line made of organic and recycled fabrications.

Tell us about the company culture at Gap Inc.

I work with teams with highly diverse backgrounds which creates a unique dynamic to come up with creative and diverse solutions. At Gap Inc., we have “Words To Live By” that best represents the company culture. “Do The Right Thing” is the one I most value, where we commit to doing good for our team, company, society and planet.

Gap Inc. is a place where diversity is valued. Last October, I joined the Colour Proud Council, a team founded to further embed diversity and inclusion strategies into Gap Inc. The Council implements strategies that impact both product and customer experience. I am inspired by the passion of the council members and it has enhanced my approach as a designer through an inclusive lens.

What new skill sets have you developed while at Gap Inc.?

I feel like we are more agile as a workplace now than we were pre-pandemic. We have increased our adoption of 3D technology — 3D renderings, 3D fittings and 3D knit downs. At the start of the pandemic, we were learning new techniques and technologies on top of the work that we are already doing every day. Now, I feel we can allow ourselves flexibility, to think big, and familiarise ourselves with new ways of working.

Delonté Hailstock. Senior Designer at Banana Republic.

Delontè Hailstock — Senior Designer, Soft Wovens — Banana Republic

Hailstock first joined Banana Republic in 2016 before becoming senior designer of dress, skirts and jumpsuits. He was part of Gap Inc.’s Colour Proud Council in 2019, which launched the True Hues collection, dedicated to “skin and size diversity.”

How have you evolved as a designer while at Banana Republic?

I was always a super rigid planner. Since everything has changed over the past two years, I’ve learned to become flexible in my role at Banana Republic. The leadership team encourages creativity and trust. I’ve been fortunate enough to work with encouraging and supportive people who have helped me grow and thrive. I began my career fifteen and a half years ago so, at this stage of my life, to develop more confidence and trust in myself has been awesome.

Tell us about the company culture at Gap Inc.

I believe there is a real, authentic commitment to inclusivity in our products and our teams.

As a Black, queer designer, growing up I didn’t really know where I fit in into the industry. I now feel like I am at a company that listens to my voice and trusts my opinion. For example, I was on the Colour Proud Council. The first initial collection where we helped to create more diverse products was on an essentials line, ensuring we had a range of colours that worked on diverse skin types and a variety of shapes for different body types. It was challenging, but it ultimately led to the Banana Republic True Hues Collection.

There are exceptionally talented people that work here. The company does a really good job at bringing us all together in different moments. To be a small part of an awesome group of amazingly talented people is inspiring in and of itself.

What excites you about the future of work at Gap Inc.?

We are remodelling our San Francisco headquarters with plans to have actual stores on ground level for all four brands. Working in the same building that we sell product gives us the chance to see things come to life from sketch to store. Also, I am excited about this new way of hybrid working — I have been seriously creative at home and to see Gap Inc.’s openness to that mix of working is awesome.

Nina Sturmfels, Senior Designer of Outerwear and Wovens at Athleta.

Nina Sturmfels — Senior Designer, Outerwear and Wovens — Athleta

After freelancing for Athleta in 2017, Sturmfels was hired permanently in 2019 as an associate designer, owning performance lifestyle and supporting the knits, and woven bottoms and outerwear design. Sturmfels has since held designer and senior designer roles.

What epitomises the design team’s approach at Athleta?

Our approach to design is highly focused on the customer. We take the time to read reviews online as we have vocal customers who are loyal to the brand. It’s so inspiring to receive that feedback and hear from our customers — and what motivates me to open my email every day.

Tell us about the company culture at Gap Inc.

I feel like I can bring my true self to work. Everyone supports new ideas and the ability to speak your mind, and it’s also an incredibly collaborative place between teams and even brands.

For example, I work specifically on our Hike and Commute products. If a designer from our Training department has designed a waistband for a yoga pant, I might put it on a City Pant I’m designing. Then, you can tell a story to the customer about multiple end-uses for a product. We even have “Sweat and Shares” where we all work out together and see how our designs perform first-hand. That’s a lot of fun.

There are also opportunities to travel, even if it’s just domestic. For example, I moved from the Midwest to San Francisco a few years back, although my team is based in New York. However, last year, I was able to go to New York to meet my creative director, boss and teammates.

What career development opportunities have you received at Athleta?

I have had a lot of opportunities, including the ability to take risks throughout my tenure at Athleta. One example is when I presented virtually on a major product milestone meeting to a group of 50 people at the start of the pandemic. That type of exposure is often challenging for me, but having that experience while working from home was empowering. I don’t feel I’ll ever have to stop learning while working here.

I believe Gap Inc. is at the forefront of continued flexibility at work and willingness to change as the world changes.

We have been adaptive in the way Gap Inc. handled the pandemic — I have found it empowering. We were fast in figuring out how to keep working and creating best-in-class products while being mindful of health policies in place.

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State of Fashion 2023
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State of Fashion 2023