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Inside Gap Inc.’s Development Programme for Upcoming Design Talent

BoF talks to senior and entry-level designers at Gap Inc. to learn about the Design Apprenticeship Program and its career development opportunities for underrepresented talent across the company’s brand roster: Gap, Athleta, Banana Republic and Old Navy.
Gap Inc. apprentices, class of 2023.
Gap Inc. apprentices, class of 2023. (Gap Inc.)
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A skills gap continues to grow for emerging talent looking to enter the fashion workplace today. Already a highly competitive job market, entry-level job specs often specify skills that far exceed entry-level experience or graduate training.

This skills gap looms larger still for emerging talent from typically underrepresented identities in the workplace, as detailed in the CFDA x PVH State of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in Fashion 2021. Some 38 percent of Black survey respondents reported they were “not at all equipped” for their first job search versus 19 percent of white employees. What’s more, it found that 68 percent of Black employees reported greater inaccessibility to the fashion industry versus 37 percent of white employees.

To that extent, Gap Inc. — parent company to Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic and Athleta — established the Design Apprenticeship Program to support upcoming design talent in the early stages of their professional journey. The programme is sponsored by their Create With Audacity movement — an internal initiative that seeks to support and unite Gap Inc.’s creative teams by providing them with the space, tools and resources required to unleash their creative potential.

By partnering with ICON360, the non-profit arm of Harlem’s Fashion Row that supports Black designers and fashion programmes at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), the Design Apprenticeship Program recruits apprentices from typically underrepresented backgrounds in fashion. The programme aims to strengthen educational opportunities and help make fashion, and Gap Inc., more accessible, as well as infuse new insights, diverse perspectives and ways of thinking into their creative teams.

Through the programme, apprentice designers are placed across nearly 20 design teams across the group’s brand roster. The apprentices spend a year learning from their team leaders and honing their skills while supporting critical design processes, receiving specialised training and development, and building lasting career connections.

Now, BoF sits with Banana Republic senior designer and a lead of the Design Apprenticeship Program, Momoko Sato, and current apprentices Nia Pennington, supporting Athleta, and Vante Thomas, supporting Gap Specialty, to learn more about development opportunities at Gap Inc.

Momoko Sato, senior designer at Banana Republic.
Momoko Sato, senior designer at Banana Republic. (Gap Inc.)

Momoko Sato, senior designer at Banana Republic and Design Apprenticeship Program guide

How does the Design Apprenticeship Program nurture and support emerging talent?

MS: First and foremost, Create With Audacity challenges outdated hiring practices, with a lot of the talent now coming from pools we have built purposeful partnerships with, like HBCUs. It is an intentional way in which we are bringing in new people, new points of view, and industry disruptors.

This programme is highly integrated into that growth mindset, whereby apprentices learn to refine, adapt and build, as well as have frank discussions with leaders to make necessary structural changes. I believe it is a programme that will change the future of our company.

Secondly, there is the mentorship programme. Part of my role as a guide is to help Create With Audacity apprentices in essential skill building, such as how to behave in a corporate space, how to write emails — day-to-day, transferable skills that will lend themselves to their career forever.

Apprentices also receive on-the-job training. They are here with us, they shadow, they are pattern-making, draping, sketching. It is all integrated. Apprentices and mentors also go off-site to visit museums and get inspired. Gap Inc. is intentional and mindful about inspiring creative talent.

How ingrained are the apprentices in the creative process?

MS: An important thing for my team was making sure the design apprentice would be able to identify where we are in the development cycle, from prototypes to adoption. We hold ourselves accountable for the information we pass out through shadowing, and we encourage our apprentices to reach out and collaborate with peers.

I lean on my team as well as on cross-functional partners to help train the design apprentice. For example, our apprentice has one-to-one meetings every Friday to meet new people, and we hold her accountable for that. Gap Inc. is a huge company, so there is lot of opportunity to explore career directions and build networks across functions.

Apprentices learn to refine, adapt and build, as well as have frank discussions with leaders to make necessary structural changes. I believe it is a programme that will change the future of our company.

But learning is a two-way street. When they ask us questions, it is a chance for us to reflect on why we do certain things, whether it is for a specific reason or maybe we only do it that way because that is just what we have done historically. We get a moment to stop and say, “Maybe there is a better way to do things,” and that is really valuable.

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

MS: We need new eyes with a global perspective to gain insight into what young people want today, and you cannot do that without young people. It is one thing for me to say ‘Create With Audacity,’ but it’s another thing to hire this cohort and change the culture from the inside. That is really exciting.

There is a big mystery around what fashion designers do. We do not sit around and doodle all day — we are strategic and pragmatic. We take abstract ideas and develop them into beautiful, tangible, functional product for our consumers to buy and use as a form of self-expression. It is an honour and a privilege to be a designer. And so being able to dive deep and teach what a designer does is a moment of pride for me.

Nia Pennington, design apprentice at Athleta.
Nia Pennington, design apprentice at Athleta. (Gap Inc.)

Nia Pennington, design apprentice supporting performance and outerwear at Athleta

Why did you apply for the Design Apprenticeship Program?

NP: When I applied to the apprenticeship programme, I had just graduated from my master’s in Sports Product Design at the University of Oregon, and had no idea what the design role was about. I realised this opportunity would allow me to continue to learn and grow outside of my education, as well as get real-world experience.

How has the programme benefitted your professional development?

NP: Working with Athleta and the Gap Inc. brand enabled me to gain more confidence in myself and in the learnings I attained in university, as well as bettering my skills with certain softwares such as Adobe Illustrator.

It also taught me how to work cross-functionally, since I have been able to shadow different teams and people outside of my team to explore what I am interested in and see how they all come together.

What is the significance of the Design Apprenticeship Program to you?

NP: I have stepped into many rooms where people do not look like me and attended Predominantly White Institutions for my education. The impact this programme has had on me has been significant, especially as a woman of colour in an industry where we are very few and far between.

Being part of that young cohort of people who come from similar backgrounds allowed us to learn from each other and navigate this space together.

The programme put me in a space of young people of colour from different backgrounds, including HBCUs. We are now able to come together and form a community where we can figure out how we fit in and the ideas we want to bring to our teams. Being part of that young cohort of people who come from similar backgrounds allowed us to learn from each other and navigate this space together. It has been rewarding and comforting because representation matters, and I am honoured to work alongside them every day.

What advice would you give someone joining the programme?

NP: Do not be afraid, be authentically you and take the leap. You have so much opportunity to grow and build yourself within this programme, not only as a designer but as a person.

I have definitely grown as a designer, realised the designs that I want to make and communicate to the world, but I have also learnt a lot about myself in the process, about how I operate and what I want to learn. The programme gives me a lot of space to do that — you do not need to know everything, and you have so much opportunity to continue to learn.

Vante Thomas, design apprentice at Gap Concept.
Vante Thomas, design apprentice at Gap Concept. (Gap Inc.)

Vante Thomas, design apprentice supporting denim and concept at Gap

Why did you apply to the Design Apprenticeship Program?

VT: I graduated last year and saw an opportunity through the Gap Inc. and ICON360 partnership. Through that funding, I discovered Gap Inc.’s diversity initiative and was encouraged to apply. I thought it would be a great opportunity to get into the industry and gain experience.

Working for a brand like Gap is great because of its global reach. You are not just thinking about a specific type of customer, but rather you have to generally think about everything, which is good in the realm of design because you can take an insight and put it into product elsewhere and have it resonate on a global scale — that is a great learning experience.

How has the programme helped with your professional development?

VT: Concept was a brand new role for me. It is the first stop in the design process — we trend forecast, look at the runways and form how we want our season to look and feel, the storytelling behind each season. We make sure we are looking at the global landscape, not only in trends but the economics. For instance, considering the buying power of consumers. Then the designers can map out how to execute what we present to them.

Since starting here, I have received amazing training and experience, but I’m also happy to bring value through my own perspective and taste, and be able to speak candidly in meetings.

I enjoyed my time doing it because I had not thought about fashion through this lens — how the world influences fashion.

How have you contributed to your team’s way of working?

VT: Since starting here, I have received amazing training and experience, but I am also happy to bring value through my own perspective and taste, and be able to speak candidly in meetings. If there is something we disagree on, a conversation is held.

I have been able to bring my own brand knowledge to meetings, as well as things I am into personally that I feel have some breadth in fashion that they may not have known about, which is fun and interesting for me as well because it is as if I am sharing a piece of myself with the team that is super receptive. I am able to have a voice and it is respected — and I believe that shows through the product.

What advice would you give someone joining the programme?

VT: Be present, be in the moment, never stop learning and believe in yourself. You have a voice and a perspective that no one else has, which makes you relatable to someone else. One of our company values is “speak with candour” — speak to what you believe in — and they give you the space to do that.

Creating with audacity means being yourself, unapologetically. Gap Inc. understands that they have amazing individuals on every level of the board, and they want those people to be audaciously themselves, and that is the beauty of it all.

This is a sponsored feature paid for by Gap Inc. as part of a BoF partnership.

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