c.2015 New York Times News Service

c.2015 New York Times News Service

NEW YORK — Marissa Webb, flanked backstage this week by assistants, stylists and a constant stream of admirers, has a lot riding on her shoulders at New York Fashion Week. There is her own designer label to manage, and then there is Banana Republic, set to make its Fashion Week debut this weekend.

Webb is a rare creative force that is generating buzz at Banana Republic’s struggling parent company, Gap. In fact, she’s a rare top designer left at the company’s upper ranks, after it dismissed the Gap brand’s creative director, Rebekka Bay, last month, eliminating her position altogether in the face of disappointing sales.

“I try to keep it very calm and embrace the crazy,” Webb said between hairstyle checks, brisk commands to aides with headsets and big gulps of bottled Glacéau Smartwater. “I’m still figuring it out, but I’m keeping it light and fun.”

After defining khaki and denim culture through the 1990s, Gap has fallen on difficult times, hurt by management blunders, a revolving door of executives and uninteresting fashion. Bay, a Danish fashion designer who joined Gap in October 2012 after gaining attention for her COS minimalist clothing line for H&M, was supposed to bring Gap a much-needed fresh perspective.

Instead, Bay’s designs were deemed boring. Gap’s “Dress Normal” campaign, an attempt to tap into the elusive trend of “normcore” (a mash-up of “normal” and “hard core” that means unpretentious), failed to gain much traction. Shoppers increasingly flocked to buy stretchy yoga pants at Lululemon over Gap’s signature denims and khakis. Gap’s sales in stores that have been open more than a year have fallen for nine consecutive months.

Webb, who took the creative helm at Banana Republic last April, has fared better. Her first spring and summer collections, featuring slick black leather designs and floral patterns, won praise for bringing some edge to the Banana Republic brand.

She is adding personal flourishes to the brand’s stores, like handwritten notes pinned to chalkboard walls. Sales in Banana Republic stores open more than a year have been trending better than Gap’s, growing 2 percent in January from last year, in contrast to a 10 percent drop the previous year.

Webb is something Gap perhaps wishes it had at its namesake brand.

“Gap really needs to better define what it stands for,” said Oliver Chen, a retail analyst at Cowen & Co. “With Marissa Webb at Banana Republic, you feel like there’s a voice there.”

Giving Gap a better-defined personality will be one priority for the global retailer’s chief executive, Art Peck, successor to Glenn Murphy, who retired this month. Peck has tapped the marketing veteran Scott Key to oversee a combined e-commerce and marketing division that will also call the creative shots.

But figuring out Gap’s new look won’t be easy, fashion experts say.

“Gap is about confidence. It’s American, it’s cotton, it’s crisp. But the world moved away from that,” said Lorna Hall, head of market intelligence at WGSN, a market intelligence and trend forecasting agency.

“Now people are into sneakers and leggings and comfort and sportswear, and that isn’t Gap’s look. But it can’t suddenly swerve away from what it is, either.”

To a certain extent, Gap’s other brands are helping the company make up for its flagship label’s flailings. Gap’s lower-end sister label Old Navy, led by the former H&M executive Stefan Larsson, has been on a tear, logging an 11 percent jump in sales in stores open more than a year last quarter from the previous year.

And Gap is hedging its bets by pushing beyond casual apparel. In 2013, it gained a foothold into the luxury sector with its $130 million acquisition of Intermix, a small fashion boutique chain based in New York that carries high-end labels like Saint Laurent and Rag & Bone.

Gap also earlier bought Athleta, a women’s active apparel company, which Gap has grown from an online- and catalog-only business into a network of nearly 100 stores in the United States. But Athleta trails far behind Nike, Lululemon or Under Armour.

Some of Gap’s bets have failed to stick. Gap said last month that it would drop its Piperlime online marketplace, which it started in 2006 to rival Amazon’s Zappos.com. Piperlime, Gap’s first real foray into selling labels outside its family of brands, won a small loyal following with curated shoes, clothing and accessories from designers like Marc Jacobs and Kate Spade.

Gap also injected Piperlime with personality, working with celebrity stylists like Rachel Zoe who added items like Rebecca Taylor’s $325 chain-embellished matte jersey dress to Piperlime’s lineup. But the site and its SoHo store never made waves beyond that core following, and with sales of less than $100 million, the business increasingly became a distraction for the global retailer.

With Piperlime gone, the celebrity spotlight falls on Webb, who spent 10 years as the head of womenswear at J. Crew and whose personal outfits are a staple on fashion blogs. She left J. Crew to start her own brand two years ago, and her cargo pants and tuxedo jackets were quickly picked up by high-end department stores like Barneys New York.

Now, Webb is bringing Banana Republic to New York Fashion Week for the first time, as she did with J. Crew. The two remain the only mass retailers to show here, alongside more luxury designers like Michael Kors and Marc Jacobs. A sneak peak of the collection from the company points to oversize coats and statement clutches.

“It’s a big corporation, and we have big responsibilities,” Webb said. “But I also have a little more freedom of expression.”