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Gap to open its first retail concept aimed at women 35 and older

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Aug. 24--Hoping to boost its standing among women 35 and older, Gap Inc. will open its first Forth & Towne store Wednesday in suburban New York, its first new retail concept since Old Navy in the early 1990s.

Next week, four more Forth & Towne stores will open in the Chicago area, making the region Gap's biggest test market for the chain. The San Francisco-based company hopes to have about 30 Forth & Towne stores open across the country by 2007.

Gap, who last week said sales for its first three chains, which also includes Banana Republic, will be lower than previously expected this year, hopes Forth & Towne can ignite sales to a slightly older audience.

Women 35 and older account for 39 percent of women's total apparel expenditures, but it's a group for which Gap can claim market share of less than 3 percent.

Forth & Towne executives are introducing new merchandise, including four private-label clothing brands in sizes ranging from 2 to 20 and prices under $100 for more than 90 percent of the items, to draw more discerning women.

Other touches include fitting rooms with adjustable lighting in the center of the store and accessories always nearby to help style an outfit. Refreshments, too, will be available.

While the Chicago area stores were not available to preview this week, the suburban New York store was filled with clusters of merchandise, according to The Associated Press. Styles included traditional career clothes like structured suits, more loose-fitting but still dressy designs such as knit tweed pants and matte jersey skirts, casual clothing like corduroy pants and body-hugging fashions such as skinny sweater coats and cropped jackets with fur trims.

As Forth & Towne executives discussed the merchandise mix on Tuesday, analysts posed tough questions.

One wondered why Forth & Towne would use the name 'Gap Edition' for one of the format's four clothing lines. Another added that it is difficult to develop one new private brand, much less four.

And another questioned whether Forth & Towne intends to cater more to older women or larger women, asking whether size 2 females want to shop alongside size 20 shoppers.

Forth & Towne executives, who include managers formerly with Gap as well as outsiders from such companies as Oscar de La Renta, said they are on the right track, having held focus groups, talked to women one-on-one, looked in their closets and even shopped with them.

"Seventy percent of the population is over size 12," said one Forth & Towne executive. "You may not see it on the coasts as much as across America. That's the danger of working in San Francisco or New York. Spend time in the mall and you'll see all walks of life."

Forth & Towne prices range from less than $20 for a T-shirt to $200 for outerwear.

Of the four lines, Gap Edition will have the lowest prices and be the easiest clothing to care for. It'll offer more relaxed T-shirts, sweaters and khakis for those who grew up with the company's namesake chain.

Allegory is a classic line that includes tailored pants and blazers in tweeds and herringbone as well as sophisticated sweater and twin sets.

Vocabulary emphasizes comfortable, more unstructured knits with prints and bolder jewelry.

Prize, intended to appeal to those with feminine and flirtatious tastes, includes silk skirts and camisoles.

The store also will carry purses, shoes and jewelry, sold under the Forth & Towne label.

Forth & Towne will open next week in Algonquin Commons in Algonquin, Fox Valley Mall in Aurora, Westfield Old Orchard in Skokie and Woodfield Mall in Schaumburg.

As a way to spread the word about its arrival in Chicago, Forth & Towne will ask 40 "influential" Chicago-area women to take photos of what style means, with the pictures to be auctioned in mid-September to benefit a children's hospital.


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