John Jay, when did you meet Mr Tadashi Yanai, the founder and chief executive of Fast Retailing who is considered to be one of the most successful businessmen in Japan?
In 1998, the very beginning of Uniqlo. At the time they had no store in Tokyo, their headquarters were in Yamaguchi Prefecture.
Who were you working with then?
I had just opened Wieden+Kennedy Tokyo, the first Asia office for the American advertising agency probably most famous for being Nike’s agency since the beginning. I was the creative director for the Nike account. When I moved to Tokyo I did not want to only service Western or international clients. I needed to work with Japanese CEOs of Japanese brands, and Mr Yanai was my first Japanese client.
What did you do for him?
Our first assignment was to popularize fleece, one of their core items. That became a much bigger assignment as we realized the opportunity to use fleece not only as a product campaign. It’s hard to understand in the West, but at that time casual stylish clothing was only for young people in Japan. We needed to democratize casual clothing, to make it available but also to make it desirable and appropriate for everyone in a more formal society.
Casual clothing was not appropriate in Japan?
Kimonos were the traditional wear of men and women until Japan opened itself to the west. The idea of separates and ready to wear did not exist, coordination did not exist, the very concept of clothing in Western terms did not exist. That gave us the ability to look again at each clothing item on its own; to focus on the sweater, to focus on pants, to study everything as a component and to make it better and better.
Does each have to be perfect?
That’s the goal. Maybe not overnight, but over time.
Why did you join Fast Retailing four years ago?
I saw an unbelievable opportunity to do something new and fresh, and to stretch my creativity. Remember, I was a partner with Wieden+Kennedy, the number one creative agency in the world that creative people want to work at. And yet I left to join Mr Yanai, because of his vision. I’ve had the great fortune of working with iconic leaders, visionary leaders, throughout my career, and I saw that I could associate myself with him.
John Jay, what do you do personally for Fast Retailing?
I work specifically on the marketing and the advertising, and that is the easy answer, but I do much more than that and my job is much more complex than that. I’m supposed to have a touch on anything creative. I’m in consultation with the architects and everyone else.
“What we are doing is evolving the idea of clothes.”
UNIQLO launch in Italy with the opening of their flagship Milan store in September 2019.
John Jay, where do you manufacture?
The bulk of our factories are still in Asia, a lot are in China, but we manufacture in multiple countries around the world.
How many shops do Uniqlo have globally?
2,500. The biggest sales are in Japan and China, where we have many shops. In the United States we have stores in New York, Chicago, Seattle, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Philadelphia, Virginia, Florida and Hawaii.
How many countries are you in?
Twenty-two. We are in nine countries in Europe, with 90 stores.
You have just opened in Milan and I understand that in October you will be opening in Madrid?
That’s just in Europe. We’re opening in Delhi, and Vietnam is coming soon.
Are the launches the same everywhere?
Everything that we make is under the umbrella of LifeWear. This is the power of our LifeWear clothing, which is being sold throughout the world. If Uniqlo is the brand, LifeWear is the philosophy of the actual clothing that we make.
John Jay, why open in Milan?
Because it is a fashion capital, but more than that it’s a cultural capital. It’s very inspiring to us.
But Italians like to go to London to shop!
We hear that the whole time (he laughs). But we want to come to you, and selfishly we have a lot to learn from you. It is one thing to do Japanese Italian cultural exchange through art institutions but another thing to do it through business, where we can invite and discover young talent and collaborate with other retailers and designers in the neighbourhood. How we show our support for the neighbourhood and the local community is very important.
“Value actually solves problems in your life and helps make your life better.”
John Jay, in 2020 the Olympic Games are in Tokyo and Milan will host the Winter Olympics in 2026. Will you do special products for the Olympics?
Not necessarily specifically for the Olympics, but we’ll be doing specific things for LifeWear. Many of the things that traditionally people call sportswear are everyday wear for us. The line between these definitions is going away.
Is your success due to a combination of price and quality?
The point is to make high quality clothes that deliver very high value. There are many things that are affordable, but value means affordability and relevance. Value actually solves problems in your life and helps make your life better.
Do you use fashion designers?
Of course, and style is part of it, but we do not take our inspirations from the runways or from overnight trends. We are certainly not dependent on fashion. We take our inspirations from the feedback that we get from the people who are our customers all around the world. That is why opening in Milan is so important to us, because what we will learn from this culture through its people will be invaluable for the development of future products.
Nowadays people dress and go to work in jeans and T-shirts and crazy jumpers and even sportswear. Isn’t everything casual today?
Yes, but people still wear jackets, and there is still certain business attire that is appropriate. What we are doing is evolving the idea of clothes. We are removing the clothes themselves from their strict traditional silos, allowing people to define how the clothes are going to be worn and used. We’re not paying attention to traditional categories.
What do you set out to do with cashmere?
Cashmere is a great expression of value for us. It embodies in one product so much of our principles. Our cashmere is amazing to touch; the price is extraordinary and the quality is extraordinary. In Milan we did 50 colours for the launch of the store. We offered more colours than usual to express our appreciation for the style of the Milanese and because we know that colour is highly emotional.
“Quality is hugely important and that’s part of our constant innovation.”
John Jay, jeans are very competitive. What’s so special about yours?
We have a huge variety, and it all comes down to the look and the comfort. Obviously jeans are a very highly individual taste. From a sustainability standpoint we’ve built a R&D lab in Los Angeles to really understand how we can be more sustainable in the making of denim jeans. We’ve put a lot of effort into doing jeans better.
What about t-shirts?
We’ve become a great champion of the t-shirt and are world famous for our t-shirt line. We collaborate with MoMA and work with many contemporary artists, and with top entertainment companies like Pixar, Disney, and Marvel. The t-shirt has become almost a blank canvas for us in terms of showing our appreciation for popular culture.
Do you still make the fleece?
As I said earlier, this was the product of my very first advertising campaign for Uniqlo, that made Uniqlo famous in Japan. We continuously make the fleece fabric better. We continuously improve the technology, we continuously work on the many designs fleece comes in. Quality is hugely important and that’s part of our constant innovation.
When did you start your best-selling Ultra Light Down (ULD) clothes?
In 2009. ULD is warmer but lighter, so you can go outside in the cold weather and not feel bulky and having to have many layers to stay warm. And then it’s packable, so you’re able to put it into a little pouch.
Do your products cost less than those of your competitors?
In a big research project in France a few years ago about the best polo shirts, we were competing against people five times more expensive and we came out number one.
Is your quality much better than that of your competitors?
We would not be in business if we didn’t believe that. Our holding company name is Fast Retailing, and Mr. Yanai coined that name because he wanted to be quick to respond to the marketplace and to the changing consumer. We have many other brands, but Uniqlo obviously is the big one. Sometimes that confuses people, because then they think of Uniqlo as fast fashion, and we are anything but fast fashion. Again I go back to value. The highest possible value. Never will we make disposable clothing. Never will we make clothing that is so inexpensive that you can throw it away tomorrow night and get another one. We want things to last a long time.
Who are your customers?
Everyone. ‘Made For All’ is the tagline for our company, and has been from the very beginning.
Are you doing better and better?
We are quite successful all over the world, but we have a long way to go.
Are you concerned by the vigorous ecological movements that are now very popular all over the world?
We need to listen to anything that forces us to learn and make better product.
Milan, September 2019
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