Uniqlo / James North

Uniqlo is celebrating London Fashion Week with a special exhibition at Somerset House. Titled “The Art and Science of LifeWear: New Form Follows Function,” the immersive, experiential event hopes to showcase the global retailer's concept of “LifeWear” from three perspectives: art, science, and craftsmanship.

The exhibit expands on Uniqlo's new campaign to define what “LifeWear” is for its customers around the world, in anticipation of its upcoming Fall/Winter 2019 Uniqlo U collection designed by Christophe Lemaire hitting stores later this month. It also launched a LifeWear magazine, edited by Takahiro Kinoshita, the former editor-in-chief of legendary Japanese style tome Popeye.

In many ways, this also marks a homecoming for Uniqlo, as it was the first market for the brand outside of its native Japan, and it's been a part of the city's shopping scene for almost 20 years.  During an opening reception for the exhibition, we had the exclusive opportunity to interview John C. Jay, Uniqlo's president of global creative and also a venerable marketing figure in his own right—coming up with some of the most memorable campaigns of the modern era during his time at storied agency Wieden+Kennedy.

We talked to Jay about Uniqlo's premise in a saturated market, how sustainability is central to the brand's DNA, and the concept of never-ending simplicity. The Somerset House exhibition will be open until September 22.

Sustainability is one of the big buzzwords in fashion today, but Uniqlo has also made it a part of its brand. In what ways does Uniqlo promote a sustainable mindset?

Our DNA is Japanese. Our culture comes from a culture that worships, and where nature and the environment is a religion. That makes it so the foundation itself is different. From day one, before there was the marketing term of “sustainability,” we've been operating in sustainability in the sense that we don't make disposable clothing. We try to make things last as long as possible, at the best possible price. In that respect, sustainability is to make clothes that you don't want to throw away.

We're trying to make value more desirable.  We have to do it at a speedy pace, of course, but I think the one thing that is uncompromising in our company is the sense of quality. It's our job is to make the greatest possible quality experience for the greatest number of people on earth.

I'm reading Yvon Chouinard's Patagonia book—Let My People Go Surfing—one of the first things he says is that good design is about taking away. I think Uniqlo is such a good example of that.

For us, simplicity is the starting point, not the end point. Some people might design an object, because it's on a piece of an article of clothing and say, “This is so simple. It's beautiful. We should stop here.” But for us, there is no end point to simplicity.

We have a term: “Simple made better.” We're never afraid to keep making the product better, and better, and better, and without fearing that we're going to somehow betray the simplicity of the product.

I guess that's where innovation and technology come in.

In terms of innovation: Many times, it's invisible. When you have simple made better, if Lemaire changes the seam or the shape of the sleeve for the man's arm, and somehow you are able to move freer, that's an innovation in itself. We've been working hard at making the touch and the feel of our cashmere better. That's not totally visible when you're looking at it and hanging on a rack or folded in a shelf.

That's what I like. I always compare it to film editing.  Good film editing is invisible. You don't see it, it just makes things a bit better.

Right, and reduction is much harder. Because that art of reduction, we are not trying to be exclusive. Ultimately, we're trying to be as inclusive with as many people as possible, so you make clothes that might be desired by many people. But that doesn't mean that we want our clothes less desirable by those who have an educated eye or a sense of taste or a sense of culture.

Fashion people are certainly hardcore Uniqlo fans. It almost has this holy grail status among all the affordable brands. Is this where Uniqlo's collaborators become important?

Very important. We used to say: “We may not be a fashion company in the traditional sense, but fashion's not the enemy.” Fashion derives a lot of its ideas from culture. It's totally dependent on context. So are we; we have to be relevant to people's lives.

If Uniqlo is the brand, then LifeWear is the philosophy and everything that we make. In the case of Lemaire, he's almost as much “LifeWear philosophy” as we are. His sense of style, his sense of simplicity, and everyday function are all relevant to the theme of this exhibition—“new form follows function.”

In the case of JW, he's a much different kind of designer, but he loves Uniqlo. He literally wears a lot of Uniqlo himself. He's one of our best ambassadors, in terms of wearing our clothes. He really understands how to tradition and twist it. That's what he does so, so well.

In the case of Alexander Wang, he takes AIRism and makes Innerwear beautiful. Suddenly, there's a sense of beauty that was not quite there. Then suddenly, people are wanting to wear Innerwear as outerwear. He focused on a certain technology and he said: “I think I can help here. I can contribute here.”

A few years ago, you were talking about data and the importance of influencing design through data. To what extent can you give that customization away to the consumer, and to what extent does the brand need to hold that creative desirability?

The world is moving towards AI tremendously. There's going to be more data, but that data has to be evaluated. There's still a curation process, so data by itself is not really information. Information by itself is not insight. Without insight, there is no creativity. Without creativity, there's no innovation. There needs to be a sense of culture, a sense of ideas and so forth, that helps to take that data in shape it into something.

A lazy marketer is someone who simply takes a mirror and holds it to society. People love purple, let's just make purple. Well, that's not marketing. That is not thinking. Exceeding their expectations is our job. Surprising them is our job. The data is dangerous in that sense because of the lazy marketer. You can use that data to simply use the numbers, rather than the sense of culture that it brings to you.

I think that you have to stay on your game and what you bring to the picture. No one wakes up in the morning and says: “Damn it, I wish there was another apparel brand in the world.” No one cares. Why do you exist? Why should you exist in this world? What can you deliver to the greatest number of people, or what can you deliver that makes a difference in the world?

We just opened in Milan three days ago. In 30 days, we're opening in Delhi and in Vietnam. Is it a different line of clothing for India or Milan, the most sophisticated men's market in the world? No, it's the same technology, the same thinking: Simple made better. We just have to make the best possible clothing, at the best possible prices, with a certain level of style and quality, that will be attractive to the greatest number of people.

Tell me about the new LifeWear magazine.

Years ago, we created a LifeWear Magazine, and it's lasted for a couple years. Then we took it back, waited, and kind of rethought it. Then we hired a new creative director for our Japanese global creative lab—that's what I've been doing, is opening these global creative labs around the world—Kinoshita-san is the former editor-in-chief of Popeye magazine. Obviously, his editorial skills, his ability to understand how to tell a story through clothes and lifestyle, made him the perfect choice to relaunch LifeWear magazine.

We see that with our audience. They're obsessed with products and the details behind them. Uniqlo is the perfect brand to really lend itself to that.

Why do you exist? It can't just be marketing. We don't make clothes for marketing. We don't make clothes for hype. Quite frankly, we remove things. We are fighting for a place of relevance in this world today that's highly visual—everything is eye candy. Think about our clothing. It has no identifying mark. Think about what we're trying to do in this world of visual eye candy, and yet we have no logo.

These days more and more kids are trying to start their own brands too. What advice do you have for them?

Originality. You won't last long without originality. Everyone's knocking each other off. There are even websites and services that make mood boards for you. A few years ago, I was just a little bit dismayed when I was getting presentations from different creative teams. Suddenly, the references they were making were the same visual references. It's because someone else is curating their mood boards for them.

Originality, originality, originality, number one. Why should you exist if you're not original? The second thing is be yourself. Now, if you're not original and you want to make it, there are certain companies that are absolutely non-original and they sustain themselves by that. But if that's what you want to be, then fine. Stay true to yourself.

There's a lot of copying out there. It's hard not to be influenced out there. The internet has helped that, but I think that having your own point of view is really important. Japan is the champion of that, right? The remix is one of the great contemporary products of Japan. Japan arguably hasn't really invented a lot of things; their whole skillset is improving things and remixing things.

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