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Donald Fisher, co-founder of Gap, dead at 81

Donald G. Fisher, who co-founded clothing retailer Gap Inc., has died at age 81 after a long battle with cancer.
Image: Donald Fisher
Donald G. Fisher. Fisher, who co-founded clothing retailer Gap Inc., has died at age 81 after a long battle with cancer. The company said Fisher died at his home in San Francisco on Sunday, Sept. 27.AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Donald G. Fisher, who co-founded apparel giant Gap Inc., has died at age 81 after a long battle with cancer.

The company said Fisher died at his home in San Francisco on Sunday morning surrounded by his family. Those who knew him said he was a great entrepreneur and philanthropist who helped shape the retail world and his local community.

Fisher and his wife Doris opened the first Gap in 1969 in San Francisco, after running into difficulties finding jeans that fit. They named the store after the idea of “The Generation Gap” and sold jeans and music, to appeal to a younger crowd.

The simple, affordable style that became the namesake brand’s trademark resonated with shoppers and took off quickly.

A former real estate developer with no previous retailing experience, 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 over 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.

Fisher guided the company through its largest growth phases, serving as CEO from the company’s inception through 1995 and as its chairman until 2004. He continued as a company director and as chairman emeritus until his death.

“Today we lost a friend, a mentor and a great visionary,” Glenn Murphy, CEO 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.”

National Retail Federation CEO Tracy Mullin said 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.

Fisher was also widely recognized for his commitment to philanthropy and the San Francisco Bay community where he was born and raised and the company’s headquarters still remain.

The Fishers’ personal art collection is renowned and 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 announced Friday it was partnering with the Fishers to house the couple’s some 1,100 works to create one of the nation’s greatest art collections.

Don Fisher was also a charter school advocate, and active in the United Way, Teach for America and other educational efforts. The Fishers gave $15 million in 2000 to create the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Foundation, a national network of free, open-enrollment, college-preparatory public schools to serve students in underserved communities. They have provided millions more to support the organization through the years.

“Don’s contributions to public education, particularly for underserved communities, cannot be overestimated,” said KIPP Foundation CEO Richard Barth. “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.”

San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom said Fisher was a “great San Franciscan, a loving husband and father, and a dear friend. His unwavering commitment to our city’s arts and civic culture will be remembered for generations to come.”

Fisher is survived by his wife Doris, their three sons and 10 grandchildren. He is also survived by two brothers and their wives, Jim and Diane Fisher and Bob and Ann Fisher.

His son Bob Fisher continues to serve on Gap’s board of directors and Doris serves as an honorary lifetime member of the board.