Creative legend John C Jay joined Uniqlo as president of global creative only this year, but he and the brand go back a long way.
In 1998, after opening the Tokyo office of award-winning ad agency Wieden + Kennedy, as creative director and partner, Jay met Tadashi Yanai, founder and president of Fast Retailing, Uniqlo’s parent company.
“We convinced him to be our first Japanese client, and I created the first Uniqlo Fleece campaign which blew up in Japan,” Jay recalled. “The campaign was all about democracy, and I’m very proud of that. This brand represents democracy.”
Seventeen years later, a lot of things have changed, and Uniqlo is now in 14 countries. But one thing has stayed the same: the Japanese retail giant’s desire to democratize clothing.
“Casual wear was invented by Americans, by Westerners, but we’re evolving it into something new, something not for a target audience but for everyone. We’re not trying to be everyone’s wardrobe, but we bet we’ll be part of everyone’s wardrobe somewhere…That’s the whole idea of Uniqlo, to be components that allow each of us to reflect our own personality in some way,” said Jay, who was in a Uniqlo jacket he had embellished with a vintage patch.
It is this same principle that drives Uniqlo’s LifeWear philosophy—to create simple clothing that would make people’s lives better.
“If you look at the tagline, it says, ‘Simple made better.’ We used to think simple was the end. No. Simple, classic, quintessential can be improved, too… LifeWear is all about increasing the benefit for the user. Lighter. Warmer. Cooler. And cheaper.”
One sunny day in May, a few weeks before Uniqlo’s third anniversary in the Philippines, we got a chance to see the future of LifeWear with Uniqlo Philippines marketing director Dong Ronquillo and PR manager Jasmin Ferrero-Cruz.
Inquirer Lifestyle joined other media at Tokyo’s Toranomon Hills where Uniqlo unveiled its Fall-Winter 2015 collections.
Mannequins wearing skillfully layered pieces from the brand’s upcoming lines greeted us at the entrance. Inside the hall were more mannequins and racks and racks of clothing, each one showcasing Uniqlo’s newest innovations and technological breakthroughs.
Yuki Katsuta—group senior vice president for Fast Retailing and who, as Uniqlo’s head of research and design is in charge of 200 designers—said: “I’m always trying to think of how we can surprise our customers. I don’t want to use satisfaction. Satisfaction for me is normal. We need to exceed satisfaction. How we can bring the next surprise to customers—that’s my challenge every day.”
There were plenty of surprises at the preview:
Wool jackets and coats that are lighter and softer; cashmere in more colors and designs at the same affordable prices; extra-fine merino wool sweaters; warmer, lighter, softer flannel in a variety of thickness and patterns that would be perfect for layering, even as outerwear.
Unbelievably light and seamless down jackets and vests that promise to protect you from cold and rain while sealing the down in; Heattech products for the whole body—fleece, sweaters, jeans, caps, scarves, gloves, neck warmers, ear warmers; and innerwear made gentler for the skin with the infusion of camellia oil, not just for women but also for men.
Fleece in more prints, colors and sharper silhouettes with advanced insulation and wind-proofing; pocket- and zipper-free denim pants so comfortable and versatile you can use them for yoga; down that can stretch according to your needs.
Sturdy but soft Miracle Air Jeans made of hollow-core yarn that are 20 percent lighter than your other pairs; Smart Shape Jeans that will flatten your tummy and enhance your legs.
Jay said, “Basics don’t have to be dumb…Look at our approach to denim. We respect the legacy of denim, its Western heritage, its authenticity. But it doesn’t stop us from improving and changing it. Our denim has technology that allows it to stretch and come back to form, that allows it to have Heatteach to give you extra benefit.”
A lot of work goes into each product that Uniqlo releases.
“We work on the fabrications over and over again, we come up with hundreds of samples just to create one piece of garment. We make sure that it would be able to provide happiness to the customer who will be wearing it,” said Fast Retailing group officer and Uniqlo product development and merchandising director Seiya Sakai, who was fresh from a visit to Uniqlo’s Philippine stores.
The people behind Uniqlo do not just want customers to buy their products and make them building blocks of style; they want the customers to use the items for a long time.
Jay said, “Think of our competitors today, they openly make disposable clothing. That is absolutely the opposite of how we think. Nothing we make we want to be disposable. We want that cashmere sweater to hang around for a decade; yet every season, we’re going to make it better. It’s constantly evolving.”
Evolution of Heattech
On one wall, we witnessed the evolution of Heattech, featuring increasingly lighter but more effective heat-retaining pieces from Uniqlo’s 2003, 2006, 2010 and 2013 archives.
On another wall were testimonials from Uniqlo customers about the effectiveness of Heattech in keeping them and their families warm.
“Being prone to catching colds, I’m susceptible to sudden seasonal chills. I carry these around in my bag to quickly slip on when the chill sets in,” said one.
It is while standing in this massive room, surrounded by down and fleece and denim and cashmere, that it hit us: LifeWear had become a part of our own lives without us realizing it.
The fleece and Heattech pieces that helped us survive a freezing night on Mt. Pulag; the pink down jacket that completed our Cheer Bear Care Bear costume for New York’s Village Halloween Parade; the Airism top that made the heat of Myanmar more tolerable; the compact black down vest that’s the first thing we pack when headed for colder climates; the denim leggings that have replaced all the jeans that used to be in our closet; the Fafa-Tell A Tale dresses that keep us comfy when we sleep; the UT tees that are on regular rotation; the men’s shirts we like throwing on; the socks we always wear with our Dr. Martens.
They’re not just garments, but stories entwined with pieces of clothing.
French model Inès de la Fressange’s newest collection with Uniqlo is displayed beautifully at Toranomon Hills—luxurious coats and cozy sweaters, tailored shirts and rich knits amid framed pictures, old suitcases and wooden furniture, transporting guests to an imagined ski lodge from decades past.
There are teasers for the upcoming partnerships with fashion editor Carine Roitfeld and Lemaire, a French apparel brand headed by Christophe Lemaire and Sarah-Linh Tran.
“Carine has an eye to find that perfect proportion, and I am the interpreter of her ideas as a designer. We can bring a very special unique value to the consumers,” said Uniqlo design director Naoki Takizawa, who collaborated with De La Fressange and Roitfeld for the brand.
These collections will slowly trickle to Uniqlo stores worldwide including the Philippines starting August—stylish pieces ready to make the leap from shelves to people’s closets, and into their lives.