Gap's denim revamp

The chain's new line of jeans is designed to compete with $200-a-pair designer models but costs a lot less.

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By Suzanne Kapner, writer

Gap's Sexy Boot jeans retail for $59.50.
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NEW YORK (Fortune) -- Gap is making a big bet for fall that it can woo customers back to its stores with a new line of jeans designed to compete with pricier models sold at trendy boutiques and upscale department stores.

The new jeans for men and women, which arrive in stores Thursday, are called "1969" for the year Gap was founded. They cost just $59.50 yet contain many of the same details and styling as premium denim, which can cost $200 and up per pair.

"We wanted to reinvent Gap as a place of authority on denim," says Marka Hansen, the brand's president.

Reinvention is something Gap has been trying continually since stumbling at the end of former CEO Mickey Drexler's tenure in 2002. Despite management changes, including the hiring of Glenn Murphy in 2007 as the latest CEO for the parent company, and the tapping of Patrick Robinson, a fashion world darling as head designer for the brand that same year, Gap has yet to regain its spunk. Gap Inc.'s (GPS, Fortune 500) sales at stores open at least a year have been flat or negative in every month since April 2004.

Getting denim right could be a step out of the morass. "The denim launch could be very meaningful to sales," says Betty Chen, an analyst at Wedbush Morgan Securities, who estimates that denim accounts for as much as 30% of the Gap brand's $4.2 billion in annual revenue. Moreover, it gives Gap a chance to increase overall transactions, because, Chen says, "When shoppers buy a new bottom, they also usually buy a new top to match."

Gap designer Patrick Robinson says he tossed out all the old patterns and started from scratch in designing the new denim, which comes in six styles for women based on body type: always skinny, real straight, sexy boot, long and lean, curvy and perfect boot.

First, Gap interviewed 1,000 women before undertaking the redesign, which was a year and a half in the making. Robinson says they all had a similar concern: "Do these jeans make my butt look good?" Men were more interested in comfort.

Next, Gap weeded out all but the most skilled factories and then invited the technicians to meet with its designers to develop sewing techniques -- Robinson calls them "trade secrets" -- to prevent the jeans from sagging in the wrong places. For instance, he says, there is a special way to sew the inseam to keep jeans from twisting at the bottom of the leg or gapping at the back of the waist.

The denim will be touted in a new advertising campaign, also launching Thursday that includes print ads and an interactive Facebook gallery, where viewers can watch models strut around in the different styles and hear commentary from Robinson.

Simply getting customers in stores to try on the new jeans will be one of Gap's biggest hurdles. Traffic -- or the number of customers walking into a Gap store each month -- has declined since January 2007.

To regain more of a top of mind position, Gap will need to start ratcheting up its advertising, analysts say. The company has scaled back its marketing budget in the last few years to keep costs low while it retools its products.

Hansen, Gap's president, says the new denim campaign will represent a "medium sized" increase over what Gap has been spending on marketing. Importantly, though, there is no TV in the mix, which is more expensive than print and digital, but also carries the potential to reach a greater audience.

Is it really possible to look like a million bucks for less than $60? It sounded a little too good to be true, so Fortune checked out the new denim line and here's what we found:

The washes were nice and soft. There were lots of styles in the dark indigo that is so popular now. And the stitching and detailing especially on the back pockets were great.

As for the fit, the front of the always skinny lay smooth as a glove and was really figure-flattering. I also liked the sexy boot. The one hitch was a buckling of material just below the belt loop in the back. But it's hard to fault Gap completely for that -- it may just be my butt. J Brand, which sell for $200 a pair, fit me that way too.

My verdict: It's definitely a new look for Gap, and if shoppers respond, perhaps Gap's bottom line will start looking a little better too. To top of page

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