In 1993, Gap set out to pull off a nearly impossible feat – to turn khakis into something sexy. During the brand’s early decades, Gap had made a name for themselves in the world of denim, but by the late eighties they had expanded into the world of basics. For the majority of Americans who did their shopping in the interchangeable chain stores of America’s cookie-cutter malls, Gap was their homogenous headquarters. With their unexceptionable line of essentials, Gap provided customers with a reliable (albeit mundane) respite from the bright colors and rampant individuality that marked much of the style’s of the sixties and the seventies. They became the epitome of average, but Gap was comfortable with this title, as they hawked out their beige rainbow of nondescript designs to the masses, and watched their stock soar. By the early nineties though, Gap had become like two pieces of white bread, and business was petering out – not only were their designs unremarkable but they were beginning to make what was underneath these clothes seem equally as tedious.
So in 1993, in an attempt to discover a new market by breathing some life into their tiresome offerings, they debuted the “Who Wore Khakis” campaign, an in house advertising effort that took iconic images of legends from the screen, art, and literary worlds wearing khakis and paired them with the beautifully simple tagline “….Wore Khakis.” While the ads stirred up several controversies, from whether or not it was fair to use dead people to advertise clothes, to the question of if these icons actually even wore khakis to begin with, it was nonetheless one of the most memorable print campaigns of the past couple decades. Gap wasn’t about to change their product, but they were certainly willing to turn the tables on their critic. The campaign’s message, that with all these famous people choosing to wear khakis they can’t possibly be boring, was Gap’s way of saying, our clothes aren’t average, maybe you are. The campaign didn’t have the long last effects that Gap was looking for, and as we can see today the brand is back pretty much right where they started in the early nineties. Despite Gap’s unshakable vanilla persona, I still believe the campaign itself is worth revisiting, because as a khaki wearer myself, I always cringe when I hear people admonish khakis like some middle-American plague that squelches individuality. So, I leave with one of my favorite sayings, and what I believe to be the take away from the “Who Wore Khakis” campaign – “it takes a bad craftsman to blame his tools.”