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Donald Fisher; Gap founder helped reshape retailing world

Don and Doris Fisher, in front of the first Gap store in San Francisco. Gap Inc. now has more than 3,000 stores. Don and Doris Fisher, in front of the first Gap store in San Francisco. Gap Inc. now has more than 3,000 stores. (Gap Inc./File 1969)
By Sarah Skidmore
Associated Press / September 28, 2009

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PORTLAND, Ore. - Donald G. Fisher, who founded apparel giant Gap Inc. and guided the company through its largest growth phases, died yesterday at age 81.

The company said Mr. Fisher died after a long battle with cancer at his home in San Francisco.

After struggling to find jeans that fit, Mr. Fisher and his wife, Doris, opened a store in 1969 in San Francisco, selling jeans and music under a name based on the idea of “The Generation Gap.’’ The simple style that became the namesake brand’s trademark resonated with shoppers.

A former real estate developer with no previous retailing experience, Mr. Fisher initially anticipated maybe “as many as 10’’ stores. But Gap grew to be one of the nation’s largest specialty retailers with more than 3,000 stores in about 25 countries.

Gap Inc. now also operates the Banana Republic, Old Navy, Piperlime, and Athleta brands. It became a publicly traded company in 1976 and reported sales of $14.5 billion in its 2008 fiscal year.

Mr. Fisher served as chief executive from its inception through 1995 and as its chairman until 2004.

“Today we lost a friend, a mentor, and a great visionary,’’ Glenn Murphy, chief executive and chairman of Gap Inc., said in a statement. “Don and Doris took a simple idea and turned it into a brand recognized as a cultural icon throughout the world and changed the face of retail forever.’’

Tracy Mullin, chief executive of the National Retail Federation, said Mr. Fisher’s true entrepreneurship permeated everything he did and was part of the reason Gap became such a great global brand.

“It feels like the end of an era in a way,’’ Mullin said. “He really was unique in many ways and people really liked him.’’

The company was one of the first dominant brands, pioneering the idea of cheap chic, retail consultant Burt Flickinger III said. He said many retailers continue to model themselves based on the company’s design.

“Americans would not be able to afford well-made clothes at the low prices and highest possible quality that they have today if it were not for what Don started,’’ Flickinger said.

An avid art collector and charter school advocate, Mr. Fisher was known for his commitment to philanthropy and the San Francisco Bay community where he was born and where the company’s headquarters remain.

The Fishers’ personal art collection includes some of the 20th century’s most well-known artists, including Richard Diebenkorn, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, and Willem de Kooning. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art said Friday it was partnering with the Fishers to house the couple’s 1,100 or more works to create one of the nation’s greatest art collections.

Mr. Fisher was active in the United Way, Teach for America, and other educational efforts. The Fishers gave $15 million to create the KIPP Foundation, a national network of free, open-enrollment, college-preparatory public schools to serve students in underserved communities.

“Don’s contributions to public education, particularly for underserved communities, cannot be overestimated,’’ said Richard Barth, chief executive of the KIPP Foundation. “He used what he learned in growing Gap Inc. to show us what we could do in public education, and tens of thousands of children have benefited from his commitment and generosity.’’