The Bland Leading The Bland

As part of the Gap’s partnership with (Product) Red, a new AIDS–related charity, the company has produced Individuals, a collection of advertising campaigns past and present, the profits of which will go to the charity writes Tim Nelson. At $20 a copy, the book stands to make a sizeable contribution to this Bono/Bobby Shriver initiative to persuade US companies to help in the struggle to control AIDS and HIV in Africa. The Gap is also committed to donating half its profits from a new range of clothing to (Product) Red, but the aims of the book go beyond charity towards a continued promotion of the Gap, celebrity in America, and the national dream of success.

Gap cover

As part of the Gap’s partnership with (Product) Red, a new AIDS–related charity, the company has produced Individuals, a collection of advertising campaigns past and present, the profits of which will go to the charity writes Tim Nelson. At $20 a copy, the book stands to make a sizeable contribution to this Bono/Bobby Shriver initiative to persuade US companies to help in the struggle to control AIDS and HIV in Africa. The Gap is also committed to donating half its profits from a new range of clothing to (Product) Red, but the aims of the book go beyond charity towards a continued promotion of the Gap, celebrity in America, and the national dream of success.

Available in six “vibrant” colours, Individuals is a hefty clothbound tome that documents Gap advertisements over the past three decades and also demonstrates the inexorable rise of celebrity culture over the same period, although the Gap seems to have been left behind in the process. For while the book claims to feature “virtually every icon from every artistic field,” the identity of the famous actress on the front cover (Kim Basinger, again, one of six choices) eluded me for several minutes, although I could remember that she once bought her own town. Ignoring the 80s hairstyle, the picture could be any Hollywood starlet from any point in the last twenty-five years, and the generic quality of this image calls into question the relevance of the book’s title. Despite the presence of genuine mavericks within the book, the Gap’s approach here generally works to debase the term “individual”.

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William Burroughs (l) and Jeremy Irons photographed by Herb Ritts

Effectively, this is a collection of advertisements with the price tags taken off. The emphasis is entirely on campaigns since 1988, when the company first started using black and white images of celebrities wearing Gap clothes mixed with other labels, and the book includes the work of many famous photographers, including Annie Leibovitz, Steven Meisel, Herb Ritts, Peter Lindbergh , Albert Watson and Gus Van Sant Jr.

The collection is almost entirely black and white and studio-bound, although a few painted images from more recent campaigns have snuck in. And while some individual portraits (the opening profiles of Andree Putman and Michael Richards or the portrait of Miles Davis) are striking, funny and intense, it’s not long before fatigue sets in and reader interest shifts towards discovering which celebrity will be next to be whipped into mainstream monotony.

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Andree Putnam (l) and Michael Richards, photographed by Annie Leibovitz

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Isabella Rossellini photographed by Steven Meisel (l) and Miles Davis by Annie Leibovitz

In terms of the book layout, a number of opportunities have been missed. The decision to ignore chronology denies the reader any chance to evaluate how the campaigns have evolved year-by-year, instead further emphasizing the iconic and, yes, “timeless” quality of the images. Similarly, when interesting images (such as those of William Burroughs or Louise Bourgeois) do present themselves, the possibility for a telling juxtaposition is generally ignored. Both these problems are symptomatic of a more general failing with Individuals, however, which lies in the collusion between the celebrities, the photographers and the clothes company.

While the actual items of Gap clothing are entirely secondary, at a subtler level, personality has certainly been subordinated to the brand. Similarly, for all the photographers’ technical flair, innovation has been undermined by the demands of the client. The fallacy of the book’s title is also mirrored in the celebrity essays that punctuate the portraits, especially Tama Janowitz’s comment that each celebrity has made these mass-market clothes “unique.” The Gap’s version of realism is of the MTV Unplugged variety: a high-gloss, ticket-only world in which the rawness of real folk has been relentlessly excised, however much denim is on display. While Janowitz claims that “all you have to do is look at the eyes in the pictures to see an inner strength that all these people have in common,” it seems more likely that the celebrities are looking at the money.

If this republication of the Gap’s campaigns charts the continuing collusion of photographers in celebrity saturation, it also indicates the ways in which the company has now been left behind, less “timelessly” up-to-date than old and tired. Celebrities now tend to be used in harder sells than that offered by Gap, while Leibovitz herself has recently professed her own disenchantment with celebrity photography, wishing “it had more meaning, more substance.” It may be merely symptomatic of the distortions of the A-list that there are hardly any Asian or Hispanic people featured here, but it hardly reflects well on the company or the book. Neither, it might be noted, are there any celebrities from the public sphere (excepting Bobby Shriver). On the other hand, the omission of Bono might be considered a blessed relief.

The familiar yet wearingly self-aggrandizing tone of Gap supreme Don Fisher’s foreword describes the company as “an icon on the American apparel scene”, but the company and its various offshoots has always been resolutely middlebrow: the kind of place you might go to buy an outfit with a minimum of fuss, secure in the knowledge that whatever you might come out of will be predictably inoffensive. Much the same might be said of Individuals.

Individuals is available from Gap stores. There will be an exhibition of the Gap portraits at the National Portrait Gallery, London, from February 14, 2007, for three months.

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