Hosted by Highsnobiety’s Editor-at-Large Christopher Morency, “On the Record” is a podcast series of intimate, off the cuff conversations with icons and cultural engineers that have shaped the worlds of fashion, music, tech, art, business, sports and youth culture at large. For this episode, Morency spoke with American creative mastermind John C Jay.
What do Kanye West, Billie Eilish, Daniel Arsham, Hiroshi Fujiwara, Bobbito Garcia and Tom Sachs all have in common? Well, they’ve all been connected (either directly or indirectly) to the heads of large corporations by one man, John C Jay, who is currently the president of global creative at Uniqlo’s parent company Fast Retailing. Over almost two decades at his previous job, as global executive creative director and partner at legendary American advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy, Jay created some of Nike’s most iconic campaigns. Most of all, he’s spent almost forty years exploring what gives a brand meaning, its significance in communities, and especially what pushes it forward in culture.
I remember meeting him in London last year at one of Uniqlo’s events where we spoke about everything from retail and sustainability to pop culture and what makes good design. And then the time ran out. But we had a lot more to discuss, so I called him to continue where we left off.
The below interview is a written version of ‘On the Record’ Season 2, Episode 3. It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Christopher Morency: Welcome to ‘On the Record’ John C Jay. What does the C stand for? John C Jay: It's actually not specific and in fact, in grade school, I would always get a point off on my report because I did not put a period after the C, and I would have to take it to the teacher, "I'm sorry, this is like Harry S Truman."
Ha. This idea of driving influence as a brand is where I want to start. Looking back, creating just a great product was once enough. And obviously, that soon changed where that whole one-size-fits-all approach no longer worked. When was a time in the past when you saw that you needed to actually create culture around a product, something that is invisible to sell?
Well, as I look back, I don't know if I certainly consciously was thinking about injecting culture into a product, number one. Because I was just trying to understand the origins, the foundations, and the concept of authenticity. What are the foundations of that authenticity? Why did it become important? Why did this culture become important? Why did it have influence? Where did it start at a ground level? And so that, for me, was the beginning of everything. It was to understand where something began and where the truth lies, rather than taking something from a culture, skimming it off the top, and applying it to something, a product, and trying to pretend that somehow those two were organically connected in order to market it. It's always to understand what the origins of the product are, what the culture that created it is, who the creators are, why they created it, what the circumstances were, and so forth. So rather than skimming, stealing, and taking things off the surface, which the internet helps us to do very easily, it's about sharing someone's culture, understanding it and gaining trust first from the people who are creating it. So I never started with trying to find culture as a means to market something. It was always about finding the truth.
It fits with the quote you once gave around networking, to build this idea of local trust, and you first have to do good for a community and really earn the respect within local cultures before you, as a brand, can ask for anything in return.
I've heard that you've had conversations with Bobbito Garcia recently, and you only have to look at his sneaker book, which I think is still the all-time greatest, ‘Where Did You Get Those’, and hear from his words how did that culture evolve and how did it start through the sport of basketball and through the streets and so forth. And there are so many people who are in the "sneaker culture and business" who really don't understand that that's in the foundation of that icon, the sneaker. And I think that's why it's important.
What I find quite crazy about brands nowadays is how they get it so wrong. I often get brands coming to me asking, "How can we make sure that we appeal to youth culture? How can we make sure we appeal to this specific geography?" And very often, the answer is very simple, it starts with working with the people you're trying to speak to.
Yes. Unfortunately it often starts Pinterest board, which in the old days we would call mood boards, but now we have professional mood board makers. And so our mood boards now all look the same across the world. If you pick a topic and suddenly you have graphic designers and marketing people bringing boards, suddenly any number of them are referencing exactly the same pictures. So I think that that is a result of people not doing their homework, and quite frankly not respecting the culture. The first advice I would give your audience is get your hands dirty, get your brains immersed into the culture that you're about to talk about. You just can't skim it off the top. You just can't Google information. And I always say data isn’t really information, and information isn’t insight, and without insight, you can't really be creative.
The result of that is obviously that fashion has become so homogenized where, in my personal opinion, it no longer leads culture. It follows it. And I think that's a big shift we've seen happen, where we're trying to keep up with it now.
It does often make me smile when I see people in the fashion industry who think they've invented something. And in the old days, I would say travel as much as you can, because it’s a humbling experience to travel and understand firsthand just how little you really know. If you spend your life on the computer screen, searching on the screen you think you know a lot, but it isn't until you immerse yourself into the culture personally, and sit at a table, sit in a room. And these are the exercises I used to do for Wieden in the beginning and I did them long before that in gathering people that are interesting, not necessarily influencers, but they’re influential, interesting people I would put myself in the center and bring guests along and have deep conversations as to what makes their culture run. What are they proud of? My advice for young people is to do that themselves.
In the advertising agency world is very easy for creators to turn to the strategic planners to help you engage with a culture, but you really have to do it personally. You as a creative person personally have to get involved and earn that trust. Earlier, I referenced Bobbito, he was very important to me in my early days at Nike.
Yeah. I want to tap into that a bit more because before the internet obviously, travel was very much about immersing yourself in cultures and also meeting with people that really pioneered culture within their own micro-communities. Often it’s those behind the scenes. And we talked about this a bit before this podcast about guys like Tom Sachs, Hiroshi Fujiwara, and Bobbito Garcia that you met early on. Can you speak a bit about those early days at Wieden+Kennedy when you introduced them to the agency and Nike, and what you learned from all these different figures across creative disciplines beyond fashion?
Well, when I arrived in Japan to open the Tokyo office for Wieden+Kennedy, I had already been involved with the Japanese, particularly with Tokyo’s creative community. But now I'm opening a creative advertising agency and I’m trying to understand exactly the business that I'm now competing in and the culture that I'm trying to create. And there were certain people, certain things that were popping up that just seemed to be so interesting that were different from the rest of the world, in terms of marketing that we're much deeper than simply advertising. And, of course, in Japan, this idea of collaborations between competing people, two designers working together [already existed]. When you think about those days of Nigo and Jun [Takahashi] at Undercover, and Hiroshi [Fujiwara] and so forth, these were all friends who helped each other out. And I thought this idea of double branding was so interesting. So I wanted to meet Hiroshi. Oftentimes I do this very naive thing as this kid from the Midwest, where I think, "Okay, if I had a dinner table for 12, who would I dream of sitting at the table with so that I could learn a lot?" And I still go through that exercise. I still offer that idea to many of my friends and people professionally. And I've made a career of filling those chairs around the table and making it happen merely because I'm interested in what they do and I want to learn from those people. And Hiroshi was one of them. And so I had the great pleasure of introducing him to, I think, [Nike’s] Mark Parker at that time. Today, I do this consistently.
Where did this idea of cross-pollinating creative disciplines come from? What’s an early example you can remember?
For a decade, I did what we call the Bloomingdale's shopping bags with no names. The bags would change every season and featured different designers and creators and each bag never had the logo or the name of the store. And yet when the bag hit the streets of New York and around the world, people would immediately say, "Oh my God, did you see the new Bloomingdale's shopping bag?" I was very influenced by architecture. And at that time of postmodernism, Michael Graves had just won the architect of the year award. I wanted him to do a shopping bag because each of the shopping bags were some kind of signal of culture, something that was happening in those light guys. I just wanted something that spoke through color and shape, something about what was in the zeitgeist around creativity, and at that time it was postmodernism. This was long before I arrived at Wieden+Kennedy that I was kind of participating in this chasing of culture learning. How much can I soak up? How can I learn from the people who are obviously smarter than me and more talented than me and those people who could bestow their knowledge upon me firsthand. I continue to have that advantage today.
I like this idea of being able to find these people and really having this grit of getting to them in the end, by any means necessary. It of course certainly helps to have a Bloomingdale's or whoever it is that allows that risk of being introduced to the next potential figure.
Well, let me take you further back. Long ago, I came from the clothing business. I say this with a smile, because I grew up in a Chinese laundry. I'm a son of immigrants. I had no connections. I had nothing. I didn't even have clothes. And I grew up with this kind of thirst of knowledge of thinking, "Oh my God, the world is so big. There's something out there. I don't know what it is, but I know it's out there." So when I was in college, I admired GQ magazine. I always loved the reporting and the photography. I discovered the world through magazines. And so I kept writing them letters critiquing their issues. “I thought the editorial story was really great this month, but maybe last month could have been stronger.” One day long behold, I get a letter and I look at the logo on the top of the letterhead and it says GQ. And the letter came from one of the editors and it said, "John, you obviously are a fan of the work that we do. Would you be willing to come to New York and join our editorial staff?"
I go, "What?" And I couldn't, because I couldn't leave school. I had to finish school from my parents, but that letter sparked something in my brain. If this kid who came from nothing could get a letter like that, anything is possible. And that's how it starts. And, of course, through my career, I have many examples where other people led me to those moments.
I also remember you telling me over email about Kanye before his Nike days. Back when he really wanted to get into fashion. Tell me about that.
Mark Parker of Nike and I would always ask each other what the inspiration trip of the year would be and this one year he hadn’t been to Art Basel yet. So I said, "Let's go to art Basel." So we were exploring Art Basel and Kanye was there as he was studying art. And could he catch a ride with Mark on the plane back to New York because we were going back for a Nike event. So this was totally unplanned. It wasn't premeditated in any way. And on that flight, Kanye opened up his backpack and pulled out his notebooks and there were drawings and storyboards and everything. And so he obviously had a lot of ideas about shoes and apparel. At the time it was mostly shoes. That's how the introduction was made. I was just an innocent bystander standing over his shoulder looking at the drawings and so forth. These things sometimes aren't planned but you take advantage of the opportunities when you can obviously.
Dan Wieden once said about you once that you are a real expert in merging creative disciplines. Yes, hip hop has always been very connected with fashion for example, but the extent to which art, fashion, music, retail, and food are connected today, is on another level. How have you experienced this evolution?
Well, it's interesting. There's a question that you had posed earlier about moving culture forward. How do you move forward? And I had a question for both of us. What do we mean, move it forward? Do we think we're improving upon the culture necessarily? If I add a lot of marketing, shiny bells and whistles on something, is that moving the culture forward? And it's just the words that we use. It's interesting. We need to think about that. If I take something from a culture and apply it to a product and it sells really well, am I moving the culture forward?
I love that. The thing I want to get to next was this idea when brands cross creative disciplines with the right people well, and when they don’t.
I think it goes back to the very beginning of our conversation, when they don’t do it well, it's because it's just marketing. It's just stuff. It's just ways of applying layers of more gunk on top of the product in order to make it seem attractive to people rather than bringing something new to the experience or bringing additional knowledge. I think we’re in the world of perhaps excess collaborations and they're important to Uniqlo. We’ve had two in a row last week that were very, very important to us with Takashi Murakami and Billie Eilish and with Daniel Arsham and Pokemon. I’m very cognizant of the importance of collaborations and the power of them. But I think that we do spend a lot of time trying to really understand the uniqueness of each collaboration and why it brings something new and important to the public.
Where does youth culture come into all of this in terms of inspiration? I wonder the extent to which you guys at Uniqlo and Fast Retailing work with young people directly?
I think young people are incredibly important because they’re the future. And I think what's really important today is to listen to them because they have a different point of view. And especially as we come out of this crisis to see how they've been affected and see their point of view. There's maybe too much written about Millennials and Gen Z, but what I really think is that maybe we haven't listened enough to them. I think it’s very easy to get very successful or comfortable in the ivory tower and think you know exactly what the mindset is of the people who are going to lead us into the future. And we don't give them enough respect, time and effort. And I think that's a mistake.
How much do you think about this at Uniqlo?
Of course youth culture is important. But in the case of Uniqlo, for example, our target audience is made up out of everyone. And that has fundamentally changed me as a creator because I no longer can say my target audience is male, 14 to 21, interested in this and that. What has been so extraordinary since joining Uniqlo is how this brand has helped me to see the world through a different lens and to completely change and challenge the principles of what I thought was creativity. This idea of respecting a few at the top and hoping that their opinion will drift down and enhance the people at the bottom [isn’t at Uniqlo]. Respect starts at the very ground level. And that challenges a lot of the learnings that we have as creators. I think that’s really the great gift that I've been given since joining Uniqlo, changing that lens to a respect for all at the beginning.
What changes when you take that approach?
Well, I don't isolate what's cool for youth culture, number one. We don't even think of that, but we do think how is it that we can make clothes that can enhance the quality of life for everyone? So when people ask me, what's your job again today? I try to describe it this way, my job today is to try to create the highest quality of experiences for the greatest number of people on earth.
That approach makes me think of Patagonia where they don’t actively target a specific group, yet still attract different types of groups, all with their own semiotics and shopping rituals. And each tribe, I would say, has its own idea of Uniqlo without the company actively pursuing each.
That's exactly right. We try very hard not to apply ourselves onto you. We think you're intelligent. We think you are cultured. We think you know how to mix our clothes with whatever clothes you like, and so rather than to create a uniform for you, we want to make something that easily blends into your own particular style. That’s not an easy thing to do. It's much easier to put giant graphics and logos on things. And I think that I've been saying for a long time that we as a brand are perfectly positioned for the zeitgeist of where people are going, where young people are going, how they think of commerce, how they think of value, and this unfortunate crisis in the world has only accelerated my belief that we're perfectly positioned for that because we don't have to change anything, we just have to accelerate and just keep getting better at what we do.
Originally, desirability was so much created by exclusivity, whether it was exclusivity through price point or through scarcity. Uniqlo, however, has such an affordability, the design itself isn’t too difficult, which means it appeals to a lot of people. I'm really keen to hear how this idea of desirability is still created without all those traditional desirability drivers?
First of all, it's about making quality clothes that will improve your life. That's goal number one. Whether it's improving it by one percent or 100 percent. Sometimes the improvements are invisible to the eye. And sometimes they're very obvious through a particular technology. We make no disposable clothing that is outside of our world of understanding or language. We start with quality. And the quality has to be able to be achieved at affordable prices so that we can show our respect for everyone. That’s very hard to do. This is where sustainability has become so important to us as we move forward to the future. The concept of LifeWear is at the heart of what we do. Everything we make is called LifeWear. What that signifies is that our influence, our inspiration, our ideas, come from what needs you have in life. It offers us the opportunity to [break] down the traditional silos of the industry. In LifeWear we have this term, ‘simple made better’. What we mean by that is that simplicity is the entry point, not an end point for us. And we're not afraid to take something that's "classic or simple" and keep making it better inch by inch, year by year.
At the end of the day, that's what luxury is, right? Regardless of price point.
Simple doesn't mean plain. Simple doesn't mean the narrow. Simple still means exciting. Simple means sophisticated, simple means elevated quite frankly. And how do you do that? It's much harder to do without the blink.
Do you think the consumer is willing to change after Corona? Do you think we'll see a change in the way they consume?
Of course. And some will go back to their old ways or whatever, but I think everyone wants quality. Everyone wants value. Everyone wants something that’s smart. Let's say someone might say, "I can pay anything for a product", but is it smart to pay that much for something? I think our intelligence has been tested here and those brands that can really prove that they're worth the purchase will grow.
John, thank you.