01/08/2016

Uniqlo and the zen of lifewear

by  Jonty Cruz
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Lifewear. Simple made better. These aren’t words from some nomadic preacher but from one of the top minds of the world’s retail industry: John Jay, Uniqlo’s president of global creative.

Speaking to him last December at the heart of Tokyo to officially preview Uniqlo’s spring-summer 2016 campaign, it felt like a master class in not only Uniqlo’s creative and brand philosophy but the industry as a whole. If you’ve noticed a kind of resurgence for the Japanese retail brand these last few years, chances are John Jay has had something to do with it.

Before, the best way to describe Uniqlo was that they sold “casual wear with a touch of fashion.” There’s nothing wrong with that statement, but there’s nothing truly exciting about it either. You can apply that line to almost 90 percent of retail brands. It was only a couple of years ago that Uniqlo took notice and started to really dig deep and find what it is that they could best pour their blood, sweat and tears into. “Lifewear has always been what we made but we didn’t have a name for it back then… We didn’t have that idea,’ says John Jay.

He admits that while Uniqlo became well known for its products, the brand lacked something Jay finds to be truly essential and what Uniqlo needed to fully connect with its customers. “Showing those products come to life (is important) and I think that’s the part we understand today: that (our iconic items) can’t be without life. It’s very important that these (products) come to life.”

“Every important company around the world from now on has to have a point of view and has to have meaning. If you are a brand without meaning, then by definition you are meaningless,” says Jay.

It’s tough talk, but he can back it up. When Fast Retailing founder and president Tadashi Yanai, a.k.a. the emperor of Uniqlo, hired Jay in 2014, he said in a statement: “This was the beginning of a totally new direction and way of thinking for Uniqlo, especially in terms of innovative and creative communication.” Since then John Jay has helped turn Uniqlo’s core values into Lifewear and turning what could’ve easily been a failed PR statement into something truly universal.

Lifewear is the result of Uniqlo’s soul-searching, but it’s also a continuing story. So maybe that’s why when we try to understand this concept/philosophy of Uniqlo, its one true definition is still in a constant state of flux. It will always remain open-ended because it’s always changing.

The brand itself wasn’t always what it is now. The Uniqlo we know now didn’t even make its own clothes when it first started in Japan way back when (or, to be more specific, 1949). Originally called Unique Clothing Warehouse, it made its living selling clothes from different brands. It wasn’t a failure by any stretch but when change came knocking, that once small “warehouse” became a brand of its own, becoming what we now know as Uniqlo.

With Uniqlo’s recent collaboration with luxury fashion brand Lemaire, New York magazine gave the brand quite a huge compliment, saying (on the publication’s website) that “Lemaire for Uniqlo might be the best collab ever” and adding that “The sleek pieces aren’t pitching themselves as ‘more affordable’ versions of more luxurious styles — instead, they’re simply good, trendless basics you’ll want to wear this fall and beyond.” Not content to rest on such laurels, Uniqlo promises to continue their recent successes with collaborators and still maintain a focus on their core belief of constant innovation and “simple made better.”

Quite frankly, “simple made better” sounds more like something from Apple than Uniqlo, but the two brands aren’t that different. In a way Apple has just sold the same product every year for more than a decade with the iPhone. Except that they constantly improve upon what’s already there. The same goes for Uniqlo. Whether it be their fleeces or jeans or basic tees, all their products are always being improved upon in a variety of aspects from design to manufacturing — even to the selling price. “Most people think simplicity can’t be improved upon, but we say no. Simple is simply the entry point. It’s not the end point,” Jay says. “So how do you improve (simple)? Season by season. That’s our task.”

Which then brings Uniqlo and John Jay to their upcoming spring-summer 2016 line, quite possibly their most ambitious and varied campaign yet. The launch clearly shows Uniqlo’s famous products updated and come to life by incorporating itself into different aspects of the everyday person. Adding to their core staples are Uniqlo’s continued collaborations with editor and fashion icon Carine Roitfeld, the aforementioned Lemaire, and designer Ines de la Fressange, as well as partnerships with Pharell Williams, Disney and Yayoi Kusama for their T-shirt line, UT. This wide-net approach doesn’t mean that the brand is throwing everything up and seeing what sticks; rather it’s a carefully curated line all under the filter of Lifewear.

Uniqlo is all about change and Lifewear is the brand’s best evolution yet.

As John Jay says, “Your own sophistication has to evolve and how you see the world.

Recently, a few months ago in fact, Mr. Yanai had to remind everyone, ‘Hey everybody, fashion is not the enemy here.’ We used to say that we’re not a fashion brand but (I think what) we are is a style brand. We have to be relevant. We have to be inspiring. So just because you make a really great basic T-shirt, that doesn’t mean you’re inspiring anyone. The products have to change and you have to put them in a context of how you wear it that may be different to how you wore it 10 years ago.”

He adds, “Style is incredibly important and coordination is really important. Probably today we are paying more attention to coordination than we ever did before. Because before our fashion shows, all our iconic items were seen as still life, objectified as an item. Today it’s not good enough just to be an objectified item. It has to relate.”

It’s easy to see Uniqlo’s success with so many stores opening around the world but that’s really just the tip of the iceberg. What’s more exciting is what’s coming up. A clear sign of success is that there’s hope for the future. And with Lifewear and the brand’s commitment to constant innovation, it’s safe to say that simple is going to get a whole lot better.

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