Photo-Illustration: by Preeti Kinha; Photos: Courtesy of Lisa Says Gah, Getty Images
Gah! It’s one of the first things to come out of our mouths, and maybe the last if you slip on a banana peel. It’s the sound of surprise; of dumb glee; of overwhelming, brain-scrambling stimulation. It’s what you say when you turn a corner and gah! Look at that adorable little dog in a bow tie. Or when you find $20 in your jacket pocket.
It’s also the noise Lisa Bühler used to make whenever she found an exciting new designer back when she was a buyer at the trendy online retailer Nasty Gal. In 2015, when Bühler ventured out on her own at the age of 28, she wanted a fun, unpretentious name for her new business — something that embodied the “I NEED THAT” feeling she hoped to evoke with her curation of pieces by small, sustainable, women-owned brands. Hence: Lisa Says Gah. “It was my Instagram handle at the time, and it just stuck,” she said. “‘Gah’ is something unexpected and very specifically delightful, and that’s what we try to present to people.”
Over the past 18 months, as many fashion retailers have struggled, Lisa Says Gah’s offering, which is priced in between luxury and fast fashion, hit a nerve, particularly in Brooklyn, its No. 1 demographic. The business was already growing in early 2020, when Bühler increased her staff from five to 11 and opened an office in Los Angeles. One year and one pandemic later, first-quarter growth was up a full 300 percent. In the spring, Bühler launched a website redesign, a new logo, and a summer pop-up at Fred Segal, where Lisa Says Gah was the No. 1 vendor in both May and June. And perhaps most tellingly, the brand has become shorthand for an aesthetic bigger than itself.
How to describe it? Many have tried. Lisa Says Gah’s recent proclivity for eye-catching prints — checkerboard, fruit, sheep — has earned it labels like “cool girl maximalism” and “avant basic.” Last fall, Who What Wear described the brand’s orange cow-print jeans as being emblematic of “main character energy,” or the impulse to move through the world as the protagonist of your own Instagram Story. It has changed over time, but currently, the vibe is cute but not sexy, quirky but not weird, vintage but in a quote-unquote “vintage” type way. The millennial aesthetic is a close relative, but Lisa Says Gah’s offering is not as slick or design-oriented. It’s not trying to have good taste; instead, it’s unabashedly naïve, leaning into the simple pleasure of a big juicy strawberry or a soft-serve-like swirl. It’s Lolita on Lexapro. It’s Gah!
“Old-world charm meets of-the-moment-ness” is how Bühler herself describes the look. The brand’s in-house “farmers’ market” print, for example, resembles both a 1960s tablecloth and a stream of early Apple emoji. (You can wear it as an emoji babushka!) A pastel “Old Town Handkerchief Top” by House of Sunny looks like something your grandmother might knit for you to wear to Coachella. It’s neither a sleek DTC millennial start-up nor an art-school offshoot like Café Forgot or Tyler McGillivary, but it somehow manages to feel adjacent to both. Ella Emhoff and Alison Roman are followers, if that means anything to you.
That strange in-between-ness could also be applied to San Francisco, where old-school trolleys and Victorian homes and peace signs butt up against a sleek modern tech culture. And to fully understand how we gah-t here, it’s useful to go back to Lisa Says Gah’s roots in the city. Earlier this summer, I met Bühler at Alamo Square, which is a small park across from the colorful “Painted Lady” houses of Full House fame. She was eight months pregnant at the time and wore stretchy orange Lisa Says Gah bell-bottoms — an early best seller for the brand — plus an oversize blazer and colorful sandals. Peeking out from underneath her blonde hair was a crafty beaded necklace with red polka-dot mushroom charms. She stuck out in a crowd of flannels and Allbirds; I witnessed more than one stranger compliment her on her look.
Bühler moved here from Los Angeles in 2014. “I liked being away from the scene,” she told me. “I felt like I could develop my own thing here without being too influenced or feeling like there was too much competition.” The irony being that, seemingly by accident, she cultivated an aesthetic adored by influencers everywhere.
When fans of Lisa Says Gah talk about the retailer, they often add a caveat: They know they’ve succumbed to something that a lot of other people in their feeds have too. “I know I should fall for trendy brands this easily, but like, this linen set from Lisa Says Gah is just precious,” wrote one Twitter user. “Do I actually like cow print, or has Lisa Says Gah put a microchip in my brain?” tweeted another.
“I saw on Twitter that [my Holiday the Label checkered jeans] were called ‘Art Hoe Basic’ and then they started being called ‘The Jeans,’ and I was just like, Oh my gosh, I’m so basic,” writer Yaminah Mayo, who has collaborated with Lisa Says Gah in the past, told the Cut. “But they’re fun!” she continued with a laugh. “They add flair. And if you wear them with an expensive shoe or something, it works.”
In a 2014 essay for the Cut, Noreen Malone considered what basic really means. It’s not, she says, about consumption itself — it’s about consuming the wrong things, the truly obvious ones. The Gah aesthetic isn’t necessarily getting negged on Twitter, or wherever, for being easy to like (who doesn’t like a strawberry?) but for being easy to participate in, especially through a screen.
When writer and consultant Emma Hope Allwood coined the term avant basic in a tweet that went viral in February, she was speaking to the ubiquity of the look on social media. “This aesthetic had been haunting my Explore page for so long, it got to the point where I even found myself on Paloma Wool asking: Should I buy these blue-and-green-checkerboard trousers?” she explained. “I’m not really that girl, so the fact that it had infiltrated my subconscious to that level, and clearly had for so many others as well, is a credit to the marketing of these brands. But how did we get here? Why is this something that women want to explore as part of their wardrobes today?”
Like me, Allwood was trying to wrap her head around how a brand with a gibberish name became so popular among so many adult women. Are we all just susceptible to the algorithm? Or is there more to Gah than meets the eye?
“I feel like the reason Lisa Says Gah is having a moment right now is that we actually weren’t ready for it in the beginning,” said Alyssa Coscarelli, a writer, influencer, and consultant who has been a fan of the store since its early days. On the day we spoke, she had just posted her first promotional Instagram for the brand on her personal account. (Lisa Says Gah has started working more with influencers on paid partnerships in the past year.) “In 2015, it was still the age of bright, overly filtered Facebook and Instagram photos, and Lisa was doing this grainy, casual-in-a-parking-lot-type thing,” Coscarelli explained. “Like, real people. And she was doing that way before anyone thought to.”
Bühler would go out with a disposable camera and shoot stylish local women wearing her products for the website. “I wanted it to feel like a blog you could shop,” she explained. (Today, the team shoots mostly on an iPhone, and smiling 20-something models on the Lisa Says Gah website still look happy and pretty and cool — but not too cool.) She also took the time to interview the up-and-coming designers she was carrying, allowing shoppers to participate in the gahlike sense of discovery as well.
This was at a moment in time when blogs had become the Establishment, but Instagram wasn’t the shopping destination it is today. Lisa Says Gah filled the gap. It was where I first learned about brands like Maryam Nassir Zadeh, whose colorful slide sandals were a hit at the time, and whose raw, unvarnished aesthetic Bühler cites as an early influence. As “Instagram brands” and social-media-born trends have become a part of fashion, the website has become a place to sort through the noise.
Bühler and her team have a knack for finding the next big small names. “We’re always DM’ing each other,” said Maddie Sensibile, manager of content and partnerships. Back in her days at Nasty Gal, Bühler traveled to Australia Fashion Week on buying trips. There, she discovered designers like Emma Mulholland of Holiday the Label, whose checkerboard linen set sold out last year when Gigi Hadid posted a video of herself wearing it on Instagram. Lisa Says Gah was also early to the Technicolor Scandi-brand bandwagon, stocking labels like Ganni before they blew up, and was the first to carry now-cult labels like Paloma Wool.
“Whenever we have a Paloma Wool drop, it’s like a frenzy,” said Bühler. The Spanish brand’s “Yin Yang” heels, for example, sold 200-plus units on the day they dropped last year, and they continue to be Lisa Says Gah’s No. 1 outside vendor.
In 2017, Lisa Says Gah launched its own in-house line, which is now carried by 15 retailers worldwide, and offers trends like cottagecore and gah-ified basics at a lower price point ($19 to $189) and in a wider size range. (The Lisa Says Gah label currently goes up to a 3XL. Bühler said she works with brands to try to get them to offer the same, although only a few have agreed. She hopes to one day launch a dedicated plus line to perfect the fit.) But because much of the offering hovers around $100 to $200, its main demographic is a millennial audience: women ages 25 to 34 who likely already have $250 Susan Alexandra watermelon bags in their closet, who can’t yet afford luxury but don’t necessarily want to buy fast fashion.
“What Marimekko started, Dusen Dusen made digital, Lisa Says Gah and Paloma Wool made enviable,” tweeted Sam Oshins, a manager of community and social at a podcasting app, in response to Allwood’s tweet about “avant basic.”
Not coincidentally, Lisa Says Gah’s rise happened at a time when shoppers were interested in moving away from office-friendly, Cos-style minimalism. “I get the sense that — and this is an extreme generalization — but for a certain group of millennial women, maybe we thought that we had to grow up to become these corporate girlbosses, and now we’ve realized that those were houses built on sand,” offered Allwood as an explanation. (You may recall that disgraced girlboss Sophia Amoruso was the founder of Nasty Gal and is Bühler’s former employer.) “Now, people are like: I’m just going to be creative or crazy or quirky or whatever. Whether that’s a meaningful mind-set shift or just girlboss aspirations in LSG fits, I’m not so sure.”
Either way, the era of less is more might be coming to an end. “The Lisa Says Gah woman feels like the Rookie-magazine teen all grown up,” said Sarah Isenberg, a 22-year-old communications assistant at the Whitney Museum who dresses like a walking picnic (in a good way). “It’s the logical, hip young-adult style born out of an era when girls were encouraged to dress cool and weird and wacky and not care what other people thought.”
Of course, not everyone feels this way. Some still harbor a Brandy Melville–type shame about wearing a Lisa Says Gah cow print and listening to Olivia Rodrigo after the age of 30.
Personally, I’ve never quite identified as a Gah girl, and yet packages that say, “Gah! It’s here!” have somehow found their way to my apartment over the years. During the pandemic, I bought a black-and-white Paloma Wool sweater with a giant swirl on the front and posted a photo of myself wearing it on Instagram with the caption: “Spiraling.” Even writing that just now made me feel a twinge of embarrassment, but it’s a nice, cool-looking sweater, and people compliment me on it. Like many women, I spend a lot of time trying to figure out what I actually want, as opposed to the things I’m merely supposed to want. Lisa Says Gah feels like an innocent shrug at the whole question.
“It’s maybe not that deep,” said Coscarelli after we’d spent 30 minutes unpacking the appeal of Gah at a millennial-pink cafe in Los Angeles earlier this summer. “It’s just what people want right now, and it’s better than Forever 21.”
“It’s not the Row,” she continued. “You’re not going to give it to your grandchild. But for now, it’s definitely going to get mileage. And honestly, my Row sandals broke a few weeks in.”
The appeal of Gah suddenly became obvious to me while sitting in the park with Bühler, the San Francisco skyline peeking out from the fog in the distance. Digital though it might be, the site is still rooted in a very real sense of place — one that is thoroughly emblematic of our current tug-of-war between authenticity and the algorithm. Even the website alludes to San Francisco: The font, meant to evoke gold-rush-era lettering, is written in a “Golden Gate red” with “fog blue” sprinkled throughout. Still, “I wanted it to feel like an old computer,” Bühler said of the redesign.
It’s this balance between crafty and computer-generated — that “old-world charm meets of-the-moment-ness” that Bühler was talking about — that arguably has allowed Lisa Says Gah and its ever-evolving aesthetic to remain relevant so far. It’s not trying to disrupt anything or consciously embody any sort of future. Instead, it looks both backward and forward at the same time, appealing to a generation of women who grew up with the internet but also browsed Delia’s catalogues on paper.
When it comes to the near future, Bühler says she wants to remain self-funded and continue taking one small step at a time. By the end of this year, she plans to launch a Lisa Says Gah app, as well as a line of in-house hair accessories and jewelry. When I asked about the possibility of a permanent space down the road, the answer was a coy “I wouldn’t count it out.” For now, she’s just content to keep chasing that “gah!” feeling.
“It’s funny, the name doesn’t actually land for a lot of people, but if you get it, you get it,” Coscarelli concluded before we parted ways. “And if you don’t, that’s fine. We don’t need you to like it.”