Cool Hunt

Deconstructing the Gap, J. Crew, and Banana Republic

Say what you will about the joys of Goodwill hunting, of locating that bizarre boutique in DUMBO, of making a killing at a secret sample sale—sometimes you just want to shop like everyone else, which means, for better or worse, picking up something at the Gap or J. Crew or Banana Republic.

The trick, of course, is to find clothes in these places that look like they came from someplace else. But can this middlebrow trio provide anything that will raise an appreciative eyebrow on avenues D and Bedford? At our first stop, the achingly wholesome J. Crew, a slim-fitting black cashmere sweater with tiny cap sleeves has a Grace Kelly-ish charm and looks like it might have hailed from a high-end vintage boutique ($128); a classic denim jacket ($78) would pass muster if only "J. Crew" weren't emblazoned on the silvery buttons, sinking whatever hipster pretensions the wearer may have. A better bet turns up in the men's department, where a pre-faded denim shirt ($65) sports pearl snaps that are thankfully sans insignia. Other items have potential but need a bit of reworking, or should we say mangling, to up their street cred: A squeaky-clean striped wool pullover ($59.50) could be thrown into the washing machine or run over with a truck a few times; a flannel shirt ($54) would similarly benefit from a harsh regime.

When the noxiously named Banana Republic first opened (this expression referred to countries in Central and South America that were objects of American imperialism), the stores featured safari shirts intended, one surmises, to make customers feel like great white hunters. Now the company specializes in bland clothes to wear to work. Despite this, we are able to unearth a few quasi-bohème possibilities: a black-and-white kilt ($98), already short, could be rolled at the waist and worn with shredded fishnets for the punk-redux look so popular on runways these days. In fact, the fishnets are here too, for $15 and in a shortened version (believe it or not, fishnet socks) at $8.50. A crushed velvet camisole ($38) with abundant lace trim is just the sort of thing you think you'll find at the 26th Street flea market but never do; it could be teamed with a swirly-hemmed black chiffon dance skirt ($69.99) and a pair of the store's pink ballet slippers ($108). If all this seems a little sticky and too-too pretty, dilute the saccharine with decrepit jeans and a sullen expression.

Maybe our eye is becoming shrewder, but by the time we get to the Gap, a store with a well-documented identity crisis, we're practically overwhelmed by the ratty, tatty Jack Kerouac-ian nature of so much of the stock. So many things have been thought of! There are flannel shirts that are sold pre-wrinkled ($39.50), so you don't have to work at making them look sick and old; jeans, for $78, come ready-creased with those nasty faded stripes that invariably creep from crotch to leg when you sit down. (In the way fashion has of making lemonade, those dastardly creases have now been deemed actually stylish.) Other pants appear to have been on the losing end of a fight with a bottle of bleach; these cost $98 and come with a label that says "1969," a seminal year in the history of American protest, though that's not what's being commemorated—it turns out it is also the year the Gap was founded.

As if the eviscerated trousers aren't enough, the store's denim jackets ($78), while they unfortunately do say "Gap" on the buttons, are redeemed by fake sheepskin collars and linings in a revolting shade of grayish yellow meant to simulate the hue of really filthy faux fur. If this surfeit of denim cries out for a softening element—after all, when you're trying to look like an Imitation of Christ client, you need to throw something Lolita-ish into the mix—the Gap's lingerie department has a salmon pink undershirt gathered in front like a dance leotard for $24. And for those who seek a more androgynous winsomeness, there's a plethora of multicolored ersatz-mod Fair Isle vests that have been marked down from $38 to a very inviting $12.99. (Apparently the Gap's faith in the allure of this item was not confirmed by the buying public.) Not only will it make you look like a denizen of the Cavern Club circa 1960, but once the cat has played with it for a while, no one will believe you didn't find it at the bottom of a Salvation Army bin.

 
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