"Why do we wear clothes?" asks John Jay, the global creative president of Uniqlo's parent company, Fast Retailing. We're seated on the fifth floor of Spring Street studios — an exhibition and conference space on the western edge of New York's Soho borough. It's an overcast Fall day and the rolling grey clouds overhead are starting to spit; speckling the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlook the Hudson River. "Is it to keep warm? Is it for protection?" he continues.
"I suppose, on a day like today, it's to keep warm," I venture. "But I also wear clothes based on what they represent. As visual cues of what I want to project to the world." Jay nods, almost expecting my answer. "Well, at Uniqlo, we make clothes to change the world."
It may sound rather grandiose and esoteric, but Jay's statement strikes at the heart of why Uniqlo exists — an echo of the Japanese company's corporate vision statement: Change clothes and change conventional wisdom in order to change the world. Clothing, like food and shelter, are basic human needs. So, the rationale goes, if Uniqlo can offer quality casual apparel at an accessible price point that is constantly being innovated (to deliver greater warmth, more comfort, and made even more lightweight), then it can help change the world.
And it all started with HEATTECH in 2003. Co-developed with fabric technology partner, Japan's Toray Industries, HEATTECH offers warmth in a thin single layer of innerwear — reducing bulk to change the way we dress in cooler months. This seamless fusion of style with technology was an immediate hit, spawning a succession of innovations: Ultra Light Down, a lightweight and highly portable down jacket; AIRism, silky smooth innerwear that wicks away moisture to keep the wearer cool; and KANDO pants, a stretchable and breathable trouser developed with pro-golfer Adam Scott and Toray, just to name a few. Today, these innovations are all housed under the umbrella term, 'Uniqlo LifeWear'.
But, as aptly noted by Jay, the message of Uniqlo LifeWear is currently lost in a world where there are "too many brands and too many clothes." Much like standing in the refrigerator aisle of the supermarket, baffled by the endless array of milk brands on offer, the retail customer of today is stricken by choice paralysis. Why should I buy Uniqlo over Zara? What's the difference between Uniqlo LifeWear and GAP? Well, as it turns out, a lot more than meets the eye.
To celebrate 15 years of this one-of-a-kind partnership between Uniqlo and Toray, the companies co-hosted their first-ever apparel expo in New York; shedding light on the inner workings of their LifeWear apparel through a series of large-scale installations and live experiential displays.
Click on the video below for an inside look at the LifeWear exposition in New York City entitled, 'The Art and Science of LifeWear'.
So what do you buy when you purchase a Uniqlo product? To unpack both the emotional and practical benefits of buying and wearing LifeWear, I sat down with Jay to discuss the philosophical considerations (that is, the "Art of LifeWear"), followed by a meeting with Masahiko Nakasuji (group senior vice president for Fast Retailing) and Hajime Ishii (Toray's general manager for fibre and textiles) to uncover the technological innovations (the "Science of LifeWear", so to speak) that goes into each Uniqlo garment.
THE ART OF LIFEWEAR: In conversation with John Jay (global creative president of Fast Retailing)
Where do you start when developing a campaign for Uniqlo LifeWear? There's a question I always asked my clients when I worked in advertising: Why do you exist? You have to answer that before developing a campaign. Especially in the apparel industry — there are too many stores, there are too many clothes. Simply, our mantra and vision statement — changing clothing and changing conventional thinking in order to change the world — is why we exist.
For a brand that is famous of classic everyday staples, how does Uniqlo intend to change the world? We are in the business of making clothes. We know that clothes are important for all people around the world — from people in highly developed countries to people in developing countries. So, if we can make an improvement in clothes, maybe we can make an improvement to people's lives. It's that simple. But in order to achieve this, we don't follow fashion trends but try to bring value to people.
"There's a question I always asked my clients when I worked in advertising: Why do you exist? You have to answer that before developing a campaign"
And what of the collaborations with designers like Jonathan Anderson? The purpose of our collaborations with designers like J.W. Anderson and Christophe Lemaire is to help us explore what is essential in life. What is basic clothing? Basics have a negative connotation: People think it's boring. But our tagline of 'Simple Made Better' means that simple design is just the beginning — can we continue to make simple garments better and better? That's our goal. That's how we can improve people's lives. And how do we keep simple clothes from being boring? Innovation. That's why our 15 year partnership with Toray is so important.
What's your criteria when choosing which designers to collaborate with? Shared philosophy. Lemaire is easy. His approach to clothing and what he makes, when you think about it, is very similar to LifeWear — a focus on the simplicity and the quality. But J.W. Anderson is completely different. He is very experimental. But when he meets you, he is dressed in Uniqlo. He lives in Uniqlo clothes. But every designer we work with is focused on constant improvement and innovation.
Tell us about the Uniqlo LifeWear campaign. What is the core message? It's no accident that "Life" and "Wear" are joined together — maybe our sweater is only 49 US dollars, but it's not disposable. We want you to carry it for your entire life. We are trying to say that we are making quality clothes that are relevant and worthwhile.
How do you think Uniqlo's brand is perceived differently in the West compared to the East? Growing up in Melbourne, I felt that Uniqlo was always perceived as a fast fashion brand akin to GAP and Zara. But now living in Singapore, the locals appreciate its Japanese heritage and commitment to quality. How do you ensure the Uniqlo brand represents your LifeWear messaging? We have to do a better job at telling our story in the West. This exhibition in New York showcasing the innovative technology in our clothing created by Toray is the first step. Apparel advertising generally has very few words. And the thing is, our apparel needs explanation. In a very simple T-shirt, we have tremendous R&D, engineering and technology invested in that garment. If I only show a hip guy wearing that T-shirt at a beach, it won't tell the full story. And that's part of our challenge. You might argue that because we are from Japan, there is an intuitive understanding that there is craft and technology, but it needs to be clearer.
So Uniqlo's advertising can't be focused on beauty? Beauty is important, but we focus on practical beauty. It comes from our Japanese heritage. What the Japanese consider beautiful might be different from what the Americans consider beautiful — due to cultural differences but also the different age of both nations. However, this is what is so interesting about LifeWear. It comes from casual wear. Westerners invested casual wear, not the Japanese. But Uniqlo is taking casual wear and changing it, adding value to it, through innovation and constant technological advancement.
How can Uniqlo be part of the modern zeitgeist? How big a role will social media play in communicating Uniqlo core values to a digital generation? Huge! I can't put enough capital Hs on the word 'huge'. It's how the world communicates. It's how people hold brands accountable. Are you authentic? Are you telling the truth? That's very apparent in digital media. And what's super important, is to also listen to our customers on social media. Our goal is to be the pre-eminent digital retail apparel company — offline, online, e-commerce, all of it.
What do you see as the biggest challenge to achieving this goal? Too many stories, not enough people, not enough time! (Laughs). We just have to focus on the big picture. We focus on the philosophical question of why do we wear clothes: To be happy? To feel protected? There are many reasons why humans wear clothes, so we touch on those philosophical questions first, and then follow up with other campaigns to address those questions. We need to create an emotional connection with the customer to highlight the benefit of wearing LifeWear.
THE SCIENCE OF LIFEWEAR: In conversation with Masahiko Nakasuji (group senior vice president for Fast Retailing) and Hajime Ishii (Toray's general manager for fibre and textiles).
Throughout the 15 year collaboration, I'm sure there has been much knowledge sharing between Uniqlo and Toray. Looking back, has there been any LifeWear innovations that happened out of a "happy accident" rather than an intended innovation? Ishii: There are no "happy accidents" but we had a lot of conversations about how we can improve our products. For example, Uniqlo wanted us to create a warm fabric to be used for outerwear. This was initially very difficult. The first HEATTECH was developed in 2003 and we used cotton and polyester — combined together — to create something lightweight and that would also be warm. This was used for undergarments. Then in 2006, we further developed HEATTECH using four materials: acrylic, polyester, polyurethane and rayon. We kept improving our product so that it could eventually be used for outerwear like gloves and jeans, which are now available today.
Nakasuji: With the KANDO pants, it accidentally evolved into office wear. It was originally developed with professional golfer Adam Scottto create a pair of lightweight and flexible trousers for golf. Toray came up with a solution to meet Scott's needs as a professional golfer. But the product was so well crafted — with function in mind — that it became a huge hit as an office trouser rather than a golf trouser. It is very successful in Korea and China, and actually, you should try it in Singapore because it is fantastic for very humid weather. Because it was developed for golf, it is light, stretchable, and wicks away sweat.
Out of all of Uniqlo's products, which do you think has made the greatest contribution to everyday life? Nakasuji: Just one?! (Laughs)
(Laughs) Yes, I know it's difficult, but if you could only choose one... Nakasuji: I think it would be HEATTECH and Ultra Light Down (ULD) because they have changed the "winter life" of people. ULD is portable and light. It keeps people warm, they are more active and go out during cold months. Also, especially for our female customers, HEATTECH provides more flexibility when it comes to fashion in winter. Because HEATTECH is so thin, people can wear fashionable clothing on top of HEATTECH, and still be warm, instead of hiding their fashion clothes under a thick jacket.
I totally agree. During fashion week, I wear HEATTECH so that I can wear what I want to the shows without sacrificing on style. Ishii: Also HEATTECH has environmental benefits. By wearing HEATTECH indoors, you can reduce temperature on your heaters by one degree Celsius. This leads to 13 kg reduction in carbon emissions per year.
Were the environmental benefits of HEATTECH intended from the beginning or was it a bonus from the invention? Ishii: It was a consequence of the product. But it's a great bonus. Also, I can happily tell you that with ULD, we have now eliminated the use of fluorine to make it water repellant. So this will also benefit the environment.
You've mentioned how HEATTECH has evolved throughout the years. What do you think has been the most significant milestone it its development to date? Ishii: One of the biggest challenges was to dye the four fabrics used in HEATTECH — acrylic, polyester, polyurethane and rayon — with a consistent colour; especially given the millions of products we create a year in different countries from China to Bangladesh.
Why was it challenging to create that colour consistency? Ishii: When it comes to creating materials, it's not just design and technical advancements; there is also a human element to production. For example, in Bangladesh alone we have 3600 workers — each employee has to be trained to use the machinery, but there is also know-how in fabric treatment that needs to be taught. For example, there is a process of wetting and drying the material. All this needs to be done consistently and it took a lot of time.
Nakasuji: For me, a significant milestone was when HEATTECH evolved from innerwear to be used for outerwear. Now we have HEATTECH gloves, HEATTECH jeans, HEATTECH sweaters. Being able to apply the same fantastic technology to outerwear has given our customers more fashion options with the same benefit — staying warm and feeling protected from the cold.
Looking forward, what other technologies are in the pipeline? Ishii: Talking about myself, I returned to Japan in 2011 and it was the year that we had the tsunami and earthquake; which led to radiation leaking from our power plants. I wanted to create something that would block out radiation — and this was something that Uniqlo wanted to do too. So, in the future, we are focusing on protection wear and garments that can be worn for health applications. For example, people with skin problems — as well as hospital patients after an operation — have been wearing our AIRism clothing because it is very smooth and soft on the skin. So this is something we are going to further explore and develop for the future. Look forward to more simple but extremely functional and technologically advanced casual apparel.