The casual clothing retailer Uniqlo took another step in its effort to develop beyond its threads as a no-nonsense retailer of cheap fashion with the launch in March of a line from the prominent designer Jun Takahashi.
The new Uniqlo Undercover, or UU, collection features whimsical ghost-print romper suits, rider jackets for fathers and children among about 100 designs tinged with a cutting-edge modish style.
Takahashi frankly admits that taking the job with Uniqlo, a huge outfit that has made its name by focusing unapologetically on affordability and functionality, drew some criticism.
“I got some flack about being a sellout--that I had sold my soul to Uniqlo,” he says. “But this is fashion, too. I have not produced clothes that get thrown away after a year. I just want to continue to be of service to others in a unique way that can’t be done by anyone else.”
Takahashi has built a powerful reputation as a designer of edgy street styles from Tokyo and his label, Undercover, has an international profile. But the collaboration with Uniqlo, which started as a budget label some 30 years ago, will bring his work to a far wider market in some 50 stores worldwide.
He says the invitation from Uniqlo arrived out of the blue about 18 months ago and confesses to being baffled initially. But he says the idea of offering clothes at a cheap price to such a wide audience won him over.
The opportunity to work on a children’s collection, which he had to drop from his own label because of pricing restraints, was a particular attraction. Following the March 11 Great East Japan Earthquake last year, he says he had been looking for something that “could reach out to more people,” and UU seemed to fit that bill.
The collaboration brought major challenges at almost every step. For instance, Takahashi would ask for the neck of a T-shirt to be distressed or the buttons in a lining to match a fabric but found himself having to find a way to reconcile his creativity with budget constraints. The end product is priced at about a tenth of his own Undercover label, but he says the UU collection retains the flavor of his designs.
The resulting pieces are clearly influenced by Takahashi’s street style background, with the emphasis on comfortable, laid-back clothing infused with a whiff of punk.
Takahashi’s collection follows the Uniqlo Innovation Project, or “UIP,” launched in September 2011, which also tried to develop the retailers’ designer credentials.
That project was led by creator Kashiwa Sato and design director Naoki Takizawa, a former designer for the Issey Miyake brand, and aimed at producing well-designed clothes using lightweight high-tech fabrics boasting advanced features such as high moisture absorbency and wind-resistance.
“Uniqlo listens to what the customers want and brings their requests to (textile manufacturer) Toray’s lab, where they develop the fabric from scratch, from the threads up, to reflect those voices. It’s all based on ergonomics,” says Takizawa. “I was astounded by the sophisticated process, and, at the same time, felt assured that we could really develop fully evolved clothes for the future.”
One example of the clothes in the line is the Kei Nishikori Match Shirt, a polo shirt created for tennis player Kei Nishikori.
Uniqlo says the quick-drying shirt can be thrown into the washing machine and worn almost fresh out of the spin cycle. During its development, researchers measured Nishikori’s movements and calculated that the ideal weight for the garment was 127 grams. Based on that figure, an optimum combination of textiles was worked out, and those specifications were then implemented from the spinning stage.
According to Takizawa, who had previous experience working with sewing plants when he was with Issey Miyake, the sheer scale of Uniqlo’s operation, with production volumes often exceeding several hundred thousand pieces per design, brings unique challenges.
“Cost management comes down to counting and managing the number of seconds you need to sew and finish a piece. The question is which seam you can forego without compromising the beautiful shape. I wanted to bring illuminating designs that shine even when all excess is stripped away to the bare minimum,” Takizawa says.
It is not the first time Uniqlo has collaborated with highly acclaimed designers, but past efforts have often been one-off projects and the results have sometimes been criticized as insipid. This time, Uniqlo says it is fully committed. A company official said that the approach developed in the UIP range is now being implemented in all other Uniqlo products.
With some analysts predicting that the center of the fashion and apparel market will move from Europe and the United States to Asia in the next decade, Uniqlo has ambitious plans for a major global expansion, including increasing outlets in Asia.
In a depressed market, which is hurting fast-fashion brands as well as high-end fashion houses, Uniqlo has so far managed to maintain its expansion by sticking to an efficiency-first formula. That remains at the heart of its mission, but Tadashi Yanai, president and CEO of Fast Retailing Co., Uniqlo’s operator, said he plans to “collaborate with current and popular creators in the respective countries where we bring our stores, using Japanese companies as our channels.”
Crucially, the company also believes it will have to establish itself as a distinctive Japanese brand if it wants to succeed on the global stage. That will mean highlighting high-technology fabrics and creative designs based on Japanese aesthetics and, along the way, convincing young designers such as Takahashi that putting the Uniqlo label on their creations is not “selling out.”
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