Gap, dealing with faltering sales and clothing that do not seem to hit the right note, has dismissed its star design chief, Patrick Robinson.
No successor has been named yet.
Mr. Robinson, who joined Gap in 2007, was a hire that fashion insiders loved. He had designed for Paco Rabanne, Perry Ellis, Giorgio Armani and Anne Klein before going to Gap, and had been nominated for a Council of Fashion Designers of America award, the industry’s equivalent of an Oscar. (And his wife, Virginia Smith, is a Vogue editor.) Soon after joining the Gap, he was dispensing styling advice on the pages of Glamour and Teen Vogue, and was covered like a celebrity by fashion blogs.
Beyond the buzz, Mr. Robinson had a difficult job: trying to figure out what Gap should be selling. After pretty much defining American basics in the ’80s and ’90s , the chain had floundered. Competitors like Abercrombie & Fitch and J. Crew, along with fast-fashion brands like H&M and Zara, were offering sharper takes on trends.
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, like fitted cargo pants, reinvented jeans and military-inspired clothing, but sales did not take off.
Starting in 2005, and continuing through Mr. Robinson’s tenure, Gap’s North America stores have had annual decreases in sales at stores open at least a year, a crucial measure of retail health. In 2010, though Gap Inc.’s other units, including Banana Republic and Old Navy’s North American stores, posted positive same-store sales, the Gap unit saw a 1 percent decline.
The trend continued in January, February and March of this year, when Gap North America’s same-store sales were flat, down 1 percent and then down 9 percent, as same-store sales for retailers tracked by Thomson Reuters were up a few points in each month.
Mr. Robinson’s departure comes as Gap is overhauling its Gap North America division. About three months ago, the company dismissed the top business-side executive overseeing the Gap brand in the United States, and named a new global chief marketing officer for the Gap brand.
While media releases announcing executive changes tend to dance around a dismissal — they usually say that an executive chose to leave, often to spend more time with his family — the Gap release that hit the wires on Thursday was fairly direct.
“I’ve made the decision to make a change within our Gap Adult design team,” Pam Wallack, chief of the Gap Global Creative Center in New York, said in the statement. While Gap looks for a successor, the head of children’s design will oversee adult clothing.
“Our leaders of the new Gap Global Creative Center are taking the necessary steps to compete and win around the world,” Glenn Murphy, the chairman and chief executive of Gap Inc., said in the statement.
Analysts said the problem on the design side seems to be twofold.
The colors that Mr. Robinson seems to prefer are muted — Gap’s stores now, for instance, are filled with peaches and grays, while competitors are going for saturated jewel tones.
“They were very, very neutral throughout 2010” in terms of colors, Adrienne Tennant, a retail analyst at Janney Capital Markets, said in an interview earlier this year.
“The Gap division, particularly at holiday, really resonates when there’s color and pop and vibrancy. Part of what Gap had done well is use bright colors to connect with customers’ emotions, particularly around the holiday season, and we didn’t see as much of that” recently, Ms. Tennant said.
Also, the timing of when it brings clothing has been an issue. While Gap has had moderate success with items like its 1969 jeans, other styles hit at the wrong time.
Gap introduced skinny-leg cargo pants, for instance, in early 2010. “But they were early on the trend, early in the year, and when the trend peaked they weren’t there as much,” Ms. Tennant said.
In an interview in March, Seth Farbman, the new global chief marketing officer of the Gap, acknowledged some of the problems.
“To rely on hit product after hit product is unreal,” he said.
“It’s hard to be in the middle, so we have our work cut out for us — to design what a middle brand really means,” he said. “This is not a five-year turnaround strategy; this is a right-now.”