Love it or hate it: A ‘Fair Lady’ in Gap’s skinny pants

Times Staff Writer

You just can’t keep a good woman down. Audrey Hepburn has returned from the Other Side this month and is starring in an ad campaign for Gap, the struggling retailer that is pinning its hopes on the actress, who died of colon cancer in 1993.

She joins many dead colleagues -- Fred Astaire (Dirt Devil), John Wayne (Coors) and Humphrey Bogart (Diet Coke) -- in her posthumous marketing career.

The Gap spot is based on a clip from the 1957 romantic comedy “Funny Face.” Hepburn plays a clerk in New York who is discovered by a fashion photographer (Astaire) and whisked off to Paris to take the fashion world by storm. (No stretch, really, given her real-life role as muse to the French designer Hubert de Givenchy.)

In the ad, Hepburn, in a black turtleneck and black pants, is shown leaping from her chair in a Paris nightclub, exclaiming, “I rather feel like expressing myself now. And I could certainly use the release.” She starts a goofy Bohemian dance, then springs from the frame onto a white background as the AC/DC song “Back in Black” blares.


Some love the spot; some are appalled that a dead Hollywood icon is being used to sell skinny black pants. “The Gap should be ashamed of themselves,” wrote one commenter on ThirdWay Advertising Blog. “It’s a desperate attempt by a desperate company to align itself with someone classy.”

“I wanted to like it,” posted another, “but at the end was just too offended by the reincarnation of Audrey Hepburn as a pants salesman.”

Gap, for its part, is happy just to be back on people’s minds. For the last two years, the company has failed to excite customers who have fled elsewhere for inexpensive basics. Reviving a staple like the slim black pants, part of its new “Keep It Simple” campaign, could help revive Gap’s sliding fortunes. “The worst thing a marketer can do is spend a lot of money and people are like, ‘Oh well, another ad for Gap,’ ” said Kyle Andrew, Gap’s vice president of marketing. “This is polarizing. Any time we can do anything that elicits passion is great.”

Steven Levitt, who created Q scores, which measure name recognition and the likability of celebrities, said he thinks the choice of Hepburn is “excellent.”


“If it’s executed in good taste, her appeal will carry the advertising very well,” said Levitt, president of Marketing Evaluations, Inc. Every two years, his firm conducts a survey to determine the Q ratings of 168 dead celebrities. In the most recent one, Hepburn ranked in popularity behind only two other women -- Lucille Ball and Katharine Hepburn. “If you started searching for a likable female with strong recognition to a current female audience,” said Levitt, “Audrey Hepburn would be the first one you’d come to. Lucille Ball would represent comedy, and Katharine Hepburn would probably have a much older skew.”

Audrey Hepburn’s son, Sean Ferrer, approved the ad and worked with the company on the spot. “We ran everything by him, and he had lots of things to say,” said Andrew.

With her wide eyes, graceful neck and boyish figure, Audrey Hepburn has been a fashion icon nearly since she was plucked from a crowd in 1951 by the novelist Colette to star in the Broadway adaptation of “Gigi.”

As a teen, she suffered malnutrition while living in Nazi-occupied Holland, and was always reed slender. At 5 feet, 7 inches tall and 110 pounds, she could easily get away with skinny black pants.


But is anyone buying?

“We’ve seen a lot of positive signs,” said Andrew. “We’re very happy.”