Donald Fisher has two life changing events to thank for his legacy. The native Californian readily admits that the first "changed my life completely," and the second prompted him to start a business enterprise that would elevate him and his wife into the list of the 400 wealthiest people in the United States.
Fisher, now 82 years old, was far from a model student and became quite a controversial figure during his college education at Berkeley. Indeed, he was caught cheating but was not expelled, and he is quick to admit that he reflects to this day on these events. He is now so engrossed in educational causes that he is a major contributor to many different funds and serves on the California State Board of Education. He regularly donates to colleges and universities, charter schools and museums and is a well recognized figure in educational circles within his native San Francisco.
Donald Fisher’s early years, after graduating from college, were involved in his father’s real estate business, but in the late ‘sixties, a simple shopping experience was to provide the second life-changing experience, when he and his wife encountered trouble trying to exchange a pair of blue jeans he had bought. The experience taught him how disorganized the industry was and within the course of that very same year, the first "Gap" store was opened in San Francisco.
The Fishers, including wife Doris, put all their efforts behind the new store, named after the "generation gap" and aimed squarely at young people and college students. The promotional method and the casual styles stocked became a hit with the youth of that day and expansion quickly followed. Initially, "the Gap" was only a jeans retailer and relied heavily on products manufactured by Levi Strauss. However, Fisher was not too impressed by the legendary jeans manufacturer and soon branched out into private-label merchandise, eventually to the exclusion of Levi.
After the company went public in the mid-’seventies, growth has been quite meteoric. A wider assortment of items were introduced, including colorful and contemporary styles and, with 550 stores under their fashionable belt, a further expansion involved the purchase of the fledgling Banana Republic brand in 1983. Not content to sit on his laurels, Donald was soon on to the next project after overseeing the expansion of the new division to almost 300 stores. While Banana Republic catered to an upscale casual, chic style and Gap was dedicated to the contemporary user, Fisher saw another opening in 1993. With longtime friend Mickey Drexler at the helm, he founded Old Navy, reflecting a more down to earth or minimalist image and again not in competition with his other creations.
Fisher’s inventiveness and foresight have been responsible for creating a variety of trends and styles within the clothing industry. Both Donald and his wife seem to have an unerring knack for satisfying customer requirements without being sidetracked by short-lived popular fads. They’ve always been able to move with the times, introducing khaki styles in the ‘nineties when jeans were not quite so popular.
Gap division stores are today responsible for a significant portion of overall clothing sales with a store base expanding to over 2,000 around the world.
In 1995, Donald Fisher stepped down from the role of CEO but remains chairman of Gap Inc., to this day. He is not one to remain inactive though and has devoted a lot of his time to his educational philanthropy. In 1998 he pledged $25 million to a foundation and has a very loud voice in the San Francisco educational arena. Some controversy erupted in 2000 when it was alleged that he was channeling "soft money" during school board elections and he has remained a controversial figure to some since then. He sees complacency and inefficiency everywhere and is adamant that his significant donations should help improve the lives of those less fortunate. Many are very thankful for his continued involvement, but some are wary, even in outright opposition, of the tacit power that such a significant philanthropist may possess. For example, the onetime president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, Aaron Peskin, called Fisher "a mean, rich old man who is trying to be relevant and is afraid of dying."
Nevertheless, Fisher recognizes broad approval from across political parties even though he is a staunch Republican. He counts as his friends Gavin Newsom, the mayor of the city, as well as US House leader Nancy Pelosi. He wishes to see the educational system get to the same heady heights of success as his beloved Gap empire and is driven to this day. "The fear of losing pushes relentlessly from behind,” as he once said.