Donald Fisher, co-founder of Gap Inc., dies at 81

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On Sunday, Donald Fisher, co-founder of the Gap (GPS), died at his home in San Francisco. He was 81.

In 1969, Fisher and his wife, Doris, opened the first Gap store on Ocean Avenue in San Francisco. They named their store, which originally sold jeans and music, for two things: the "gap" that they hoped to fill in the market, and the "generation gap" between the baby boomers and their parents. Within a few months, the Gap stopped selling music and began focusing solely on jeans.

In the beginning, the Gap was largely a retail outlet for Levi's jeans. Within five years, however, it was selling its own branded merchandise and, before long, it became famous for its own form of cheap chic: well-constructed clothes that were sold at a reasonable price.
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Recent Deaths in Business
Donald G. Fisher, who co-founded apparel giant Gap, died in late September after a long battle with cancer. He was 81. Click through the gallery for a review of business leaders we've lost in 2009.
Gap Inc / AP
Gap Inc / AP


Originally, jeans were associated with farmers, cowboys and sailors, all of whom prized denim for its sturdiness and strength. However, in the late 1950's, cinematic icons like James Dean and Marlon Brando helped make it part of the counter-cultural wardrobe. By the time the first Gap store opened, jeans were firmly established as a symbol of baby boomer rebellion.

In the 1970's, denim moved from the fringes of culture to the center, gaining mainstream acceptance among consumers, regardless of political affiliation. In the 1980's, it took the next step, as designer jeans transformed denim into a fashion statement for millions of upscale customers. By the 1990's, jeans had become part of the standard uniform for most Americans, encompassing the gamut from function to fashion, proletarian to patrician. In the process, Fisher and the Gap rode this wave of increased popularity, encouraging it with their ever-expanding stores and broadening collection of inexpensive in-house brands. In 1976, the company went public with an initial offering of 1.2 million shares.

In 1983, the Gap began expanding its reach with the purchase of Banana Republic, a travel clothing retailer. The company, which was founded by Ron and Patricia Ziegler, originally straddled the line between surplus store and classic safari outfitter, with playful catalogs and stores decorated in artificial palm trees, jeeps and other tropical-style elements.

Given its counter-cultural roots, it's a bit surprising that Gap chose to rebrand Banana Republic as a luxury clothing store. However, while the shift seemed to be a repudiation of the company's core principles, it also demonstrated how much the Gap had grown. Rather than simply serving the needs of a relatively small demographic, the Gap was now positioned to cover a wide spread of cultural types. Combined with its subsequent creation of GapKids, Baby Gap, and Old Navy, the Banana Republic takeover demonstrated that the Gap had moved from covering the "generation gap" to covering all generations, from a counter-cultural outpost to a central position in American society.

In some ways, Donald Fisher's career functions as a brief history of mainstream American fashion in the latter half of the twentieth century. Under his direction, jeans made a long voyage, moving from proletarian work uniform to counter-cultural emblem to fashion statement and finally to standard dress for much of the country. In the process, his little store on Ocean Avenue became one of America's most iconic retailers.

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