Building the Future of Creative Collaboration at Gap Inc. – The Business of Fashion

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As the global workforce returns to the office after prolonged disruption and enforced remote working due to Covid-19, companies are looking to unite the benefits of home working with the collaborative environment an office enables. After all, a survey of almost one million US workers at Fortune 500 companies showed that productivity remained stable or even increased after employees started working remotely.
American retail giant Gap Inc., for one, sought to optimise the collaborative nature of their offices with the creativity of its teams at Gap, Old Navy, Banana Republic and Athleta with the launch of “Co-Labs” — collaborative laboratories designed to foster a greater sense of connection, drive creative experimentation among its teams and fuel product development across the company.
Each of Gap Inc.’s brands have access to three state-of-the-art Co-Lab spaces in the San Francisco headquarters, which are a product of a two-year renovation. The site also holds 15 floors of flexible office space, a rooftop cafeteria, lobby café and ground floor retail space for each brand in its portfolio (internally referred to as Innovation Labs).
Bordering the lobby, adjoining retail spaces and lining the streets of the Embarcadero, the Co-Lab spaces are surrounded by glass. From the lobby, employees can interact with and draw inspiration from their colleagues’ creative processes. And from the retail spaces and street view, customers and passers-by can watch as designers craft the products they purchase and the creativity behind them.
The Co-Lab spaces also support Gap Inc.’s “Create with Audacity” movement — an internal initiative that seeks to support and unite Gap Inc.’s creative teams by providing them with the space, tools and resources required to unleash their creative potential. The initiative includes development and training opportunities, educational programming such as Gap Inc.’s Design Apprenticeship for a new generation of creatives, speaking events with renowned artists and art institutions, and initiatives such as the Ink Arts Collective that brings together employee artists and storytellers.
Now, BoF sits down with Kai Augustine, visual communications director at Old Navy, Melissa Lawrence, advanced concept design and futures insights lead at Athleta, and Megan Carlee, senior designer at Gap, to explore how the company has planned its approach to collaborative working as a way to elevate creativity.
Kai Augustine, Visual Communications Director at Old Navy. (Gap Inc.)
Why has Gap Inc. reimagined its creative workspaces?
We were naturally forced to rethink the status quo when the pandemic hit in early 2020, and we took advantage of the chance we had to step back and challenge how we work — not only virtually, but within our built environments. While teams adapted rapidly to new digital tools, there was still a need for in-person collaboration, especially when it came to creating products. As we thought ahead to what office collaboration could look like, we were able to ask ourselves and our teams for input.
We knew a typical office with rows of desks, cubicles and conference rooms was no longer conducive to the ways teams were working. So, we set out to build resilient, adaptable and flexible spaces that would serve as a creative epicentre for our brand — a place for creatives to come together, explore and get messy. This is what you see today in our Co-Labs that opened earlier this year. It’s exciting to continue imagining what their evolution could be.
What is the significance of the ‘Co-Labs’ space?
In addition to being functional working spaces outfitted with best-in-class tools, these Co-Labs serve as the physical manifestation of our investment in creativity. The overall goal is to bring creativity to the centre of our organisation, to build communities, break silos and unleash creative potential.
We want to make the product and the customer the hero of our new space, not only as a reminder of the customer that we are serving, but to allow inspiration to flow both ways.
We want to make the product and the customer the hero of our new space, not only as a reminder of the customer that we are serving, but also to allow inspiration to flow both ways. The window from the Co-Labs into the store is not only great for the customer to see the creation process, but for us to be able to see them as well. It feels like a 360-degree view of the creative process.
How are creative opportunities shared with the wider Gap Inc. employee base?
The launch of our “Create with Audacity” movement late last year really opened the door for creatives throughout the company, regardless of brand or team. Through workshops and the Speaker Series, they can come together, learn and collaborate with one another, and start to build on the strength of their peers.
We also wanted to open the movement to all employees. For instance, there are people who may work in finance but have a passion for painting or art in some way. So, myself and the team launched the Ink Arts Collective, through which we invited anyone at the company to share their artistic talent. We just finished our first inaugural submission process and are now partnering with a few artists to bring their concepts to life using the Co-Lab spaces for our first exhibit.
Getting teams from all over to engage and shine a light on the creative talent beyond our actual creative teams is just another great example of putting creativity at the centre of Gap Inc.
Melissa Lawrence, Advanced Concept Design and Futures Insights Lead at Athleta. (Gap Inc.)
How has Gap Inc. supported you as a creative and an employee?
The company is great at investing in young talent, and I’ve experienced it first hand over the eight years I have been with the company. I started my career here in apparel design and then moved over to product innovation. I also spent time on our Equality & Belonging team, helping lay the foundation for our customer inclusion strategy.
Through this exploration, I found my niche and built a role as a cultural strategist. I focus on understanding what is going on with people, how they live in their lives and what the role of a brand has in a changing cultural climate, and then what that might mean for product development. There’s a genuine want and understanding for that kind of creativity and I’m given ownership over my little piece of the business.
I have always felt support from my leadership teams, between moving from Manchester to San Francisco back in 2014, to more recently experiencing the ambiguity of the pandemic and with every new role and opportunity I’ve challenged myself with.
How are you involved in the ‘Create with Audacity’ movement?
This movement has provided me multiple opportunities to bring outside perspective into the business, which makes my insights and strategy recommendations stronger. As an example, I attended a cross-brand and cross-design immersion event at South by Southwest. Through this experience, I was able to network with my peers and other thought leaders across music, film and art, and hear how different people do things when it comes to trend or design.
I’m given ownership over my little piece of the business.
In addition to learning opportunities, there is also mentorship through the programme’s Creative Council, which includes trend forecasters Li Edelkoort, Philip Fimmano and Jonathan Cheung. I had the opportunity to present my macro trend work to them, alongside the designers who show how that trend has been translated into actual design direction. Having that expertise and their eyes on your work is incredible – a real boost of confidence and great validation.
What is the significance of the ‘Co-Labs’ space to you?
To me, the space is about getting you into a mindset to create or take risks. The Co-Labs space is a tangible manifestation of the investment that Gap Inc. is making into creatives. It is a place to work and create, but it is also a place to make and nurture relationships. I don’t think there is anything more important than that for career growth. It is how you use this space to improve your tangible skills. You have areas where you can work independently, then vast open spaces where you can collaborate.
We recently kicked off the holiday ‘23 season for Athleta in that space. Then afterwards, the teams broke off into their little pods in the space — it feels like a modular place where you can be in a massive group but still have those intimate moments of togetherness.
Megan Carlee, Senior Designer at Gap. (Gap Inc.)
How has Gap Inc. supported you as a creative and an employee?
I have been with Gap for three and a half years. Pretty soon after I started, COVID-19 hit and I think Gap Inc. navigated it really well in supporting their employees. We realised we had been working a little bit archaically and so we had to adjust and find new solutions. What I have really loved about working in a hybrid mode is that it is less regimented. You can’t force creativity, so having that flexibility is huge.
How are you involved in the ‘Create with Audacity’ movement?
I have never been at a company that has placed such emphasis on design and creativity. That has to come from the top down — it is easy for anyone at any level to try to promote creativity, but if it is not embedded in the culture of your organisation, it often doesn’t happen.
The opportunities provided through the “Create with Audacity” movement have been incredible. For example, I was sent on an inspiration trip to the International Folk Arts Market in Santa Fe with designers from across our brands — Old Navy, Athleta, Banana Republic. From this, I was able to draw inspiration for my work.
I have never been at a company that has placed such emphasis on design and creativity.
We also recently served as mentors to members of the Lower East Side Girls Club in New York City as they took part in a design challenge. It was great to see how positively they responded — an invigorating experience. Connecting with and immersing ourselves within our community, taking the time to be inspired, and sharing inspiration with others is what this movement has allowed and has been so rewarding.
What excites you about the future of working at Gap Inc.?
Everyone knows Gap Inc. — we have been around for over 50 years. There is a strong heritage and history with the brand that we draw on, but at the same time, they are constantly considering how to evolve it. Whether that is expanding the portfolio, exploring new collaborations or growing our product offering — there are always new and exciting things in the pipeline. Gap Inc. is always looking to draw on its heritage to move the business along and stay relevant and current.
This is a sponsored feature paid for by Gap Inc. as part of a BoF partnership.
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