SAN FRANCISCO -- Donald Fisher, who co-founded Gap Inc. with a single San Francisco blue jeans outlet in 1969 and turned it into a worldwide, 3,100-store casual-wear empire, died Sunday of cancer at his San Francisco home, the company said. He was 81.
Mr. Fisher, a lifetime San Francisco resident, was a retail industry pioneer whose impact was felt far beyond malls and main streets. Along with his wife and business partner, Doris Fisher, he became a philanthropist and a major political donor, helped keep the Giants in San Francisco and amassed one of the world's great collections of modern art.
"His unwavering commitment to our city's arts and civic culture will be remembered for generations to come," San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom said in a statement.
Mr. Fisher's company - which markets the Banana Republic and Old Navy brands, among others, and has stores geared for kids and babies - influenced the nation's lifestyle as well as its economy. It fostered an acceptance of informal apparel that helped lead to the widespread adoption of "casual Fridays."
"They were one of the first to treat basics as fashion," said Cynthia Cohen, president of Strategic Mindshare, a Los Angeles retail consulting firm. "Gap was the first to realize that everybody needs a good pair of khakis, everyone needs jeans and a good quality white T-shirt."
Mr. Fisher's death comes two days after the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art announced that it had formed a partnership with the Fishers to house their collection - 1,100 works by some of the most renowned artists of the 20th and early 21st century - in a new wing of the museum.
The Fishers had proposed building a museum at the Presidio for the collection but withdrew the plan in July after encountering strong opposition from nearby residents and national park and preservation agencies.
Other visible legacies include "Cupid's Span," a huge bow-and-arrow sculpture the Fishers commissioned and installed on the Embarcadero in 2002.
Mr. Fisher was a supporter of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, where he served as a governor. He was also one of a group of business leaders who put up $100 million in 1992 to buy the San Francisco Giants and keep them from being moved to St. Petersburg, Fla.
San Francisco financier Warren Hellman, a friend since childhood, said Mr. Fisher "came as close to being a man for all seasons as anyone ... a sensational athlete, a hell of a businessman, a terrific family man, and he was generous."
Donald George Fisher was born to middle-class parents on Sept. 3, 1928. He attended Lowell High School and UC Berkeley, where he starred on the swimming and water polo teams.
In an incident that he described in a 2002 memoir, he was once caught cheating on an industrial-relations exam by Clark Kerr, then a professor and later the university president. Kerr gave him an F but didn't expel him, Mr. Fisher said, an "act of mercy" for which he was forever grateful.
Mr. Fisher was a 41-year-old real estate developer with no retail experience in August 1969 when he and his wife tried to exchange a pair of Levi's jeans that didn't fit him and couldn't find a store in the city that carried all sizes. So they bought a shop on Ocean Avenue that sold blue jeans and records, invested $63,000 and called it the Gap - Doris Fisher's shorthand for "generation gap."
"I didn't plan to go into the clothing business. I was just fortunate to have a bit of bad luck," Mr. Fisher said in an article in UC Berkeley's alumni magazine after being named Alumnus of the Year in 2007.
With Cal football players among its first salesmen, the business filled a gap, in both the retail pants market and the booming base of customers age 12-25. Gap Inc. thrived in the early 1970s, issued its first public stock offering in 1976 and grew into a worldwide chain.
Gap Inc. now has more than 134,000 employees at 3,100 stores in 25 countries, with sales of $14.5 billion in fiscal 2008, the company said. Mr. Fisher was the chief executive officer until 1995 and the chairman until 2004. He remained a company director until his death and never missed a board meeting, said Glenn Murphy, the current chairman and CEO.
Booster of charter schools
In 2008, Forbes magazine estimated Mr. Fisher's fortune at $1.3 billion.
"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," Murphy said.
The chief object of Mr. Fisher's philanthropy was education. He was for years a financial supporter of Edison Schools, a for-profit company that contracted with local districts to run their schools. In 2000, he shifted his focus to the nonprofit Knowledge Is Power Program, or KIPP, which then consisted of two charter schools.
KIPP now runs 82 charter schools nationwide, mostly in low-income, minority areas. The program has longer class days and school years than conventional schools and says 85 percent of the graduates of its middle schools attend college. President Obama's education secretary, Arne Duncan, has praised KIPP.
The Fishers gave the program its initial $15 million seed money and have donated more than $60 million over the years, said KIPP spokesman Steve Mancini. He said Mr. Fisher visited more than 50 of the schools and "was very passionate about meeting the students and learning what colleges they wanted to go to."
Mancini said the Fishers also contributed about $40 million to Teach for America, which recruits about 7,500 college graduates a year as instructors in needy schools.
A conservative Republican, Mr. Fisher bankrolled Proposition H, an unsuccessful November 2007 measure that would have expanded off-street parking in San Francisco, overriding the city's "transit first" policy.
He was a financial backer of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former President George W. Bush, but also donated to Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Mr. Fisher is survived by his wife; brothers Jim and Bob; sons Bill, John and Bob; and 10 grandchildren.
Private services are planned.
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