Uniqlo and Jil Sander to End +J Collaboration

Retailer said the fall 2011 season will be the designer’s last collection.

TOKYO — Uniqlo is now minus J.

This story first appeared in the June 24, 2011 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The retailer and Jil Sander are parting ways, ending a collaboration that marked the German designer’s fashion comeback and created a new brand of well-crafted fast fashion called +J.

Uniqlo, which joined forces with Sander in March 2009, said the fall 2011 season will be the designer’s last collection. Uniqlo said it and Sander decided they had reached their goal of creating intelligently designed, high-quality casualwear and the collaboration had run its course.

“With the recent completion of the design of the…fall and winter collection, Ms. Sander and [Uniqlo] agreed that they had fully explored the possibilities of their creative collaboration and accomplished what they had set out to do. Consequently, the two parties have decided to wrap up their design consulting agreement with this collection,” Uniqlo, a unit of Fast Retailing Co. Ltd., said Thursday. A Fast Retailing spokeswoman declined to comment further on the split.

A spokeswoman for the Hamburg-based Sander said the designer is upbeat and content with what she has achieved and wants to end on a high note with a strong fall collection featuring “amazing” pieces in cashmere.

“She achieved what she wanted to do,” she said, adding the German designer does not currently have another project lined up but that she “loves challenges.” Sander, 67, declined to give an interview.

Just over a year ago, Sander lauded Fast Retailing as the ideal partner and said she would be continuing in her role indefinitely. Last summer, the International Herald Tribune reported that Sander inked a contract in April 2010 for another three years. The designer’s spokeswoman said that the contract was easily modifiable if both parties agreed to end it earlier than anticipated.

Sander has a reputation for her meticulous attention to detail and famously sparred over creative control with Prada chief executive officer Patrizio Bertelli when the Italian company owned her fashion house. She left the firm on two occasions. After her second departure, in 2004, she took a leave of absence from the fashion world, making jaunts to peruse art in Miami and Basel and tend her garden.

“I was feeling almost a little bit alone because I was always used to working with my people,” the designer told WWD in 2009.

A year after linking with Uniqlo, she expressed optimism about the future and spoke of wanting to expand +J into new categories like footwear and accessories — forays that never ended up transpiring.

“Since I’m very, very impressed with what we can do and what Uniqlo can do, I decided to go on. So I’m timeless for the moment,” she said. “At the moment, it’s just a baby. We’re just starting and we have to see.”

Uniqlo and Sander made for an unlikely partnership. Fast Retailing chairman, president and ceo Tadashi Yanai built his empire by crafting cheap, colorful basic apparel and spearheading textile innovations like fabric that insulates by trapping body heat. The brand has an edgy, up-and-coming feel in international markets, where it is expanding with stores in cities like New York, Paris and Shanghai. But it is still very much a mass-market player in its native Japan, where it operates more than 800 stores and aggressively discounts goods to move them out the door.

Over the course of the partnership, representatives of both sides acknowledged that there were challenges meshing Sander’s exacting standards with Uniqlo’s desire to push for big volumes. One source close to Sander recalled how the designer bristled at Uniqlo’s intention to promote her +J designs via flyers in newspapers — a standard practice for the Japanese retailer. Uniqlo proceeded to include +J in the circulars.

Sander had been working on the +J collection out of her atelier in Hamburg. At the beginning of the collaboration, she was making trips to Japan about every other month, but over time they became less frequent, partly because her Japanese design staff was frequently flying to Germany to work with her.

A person close to the designer said Sander made her last trip to Japan in early March and was in fact in Tokyo on March 11, the day the massive earthquake and tsunami struck the northeastern part of the country and shook buildings in the capital. Sander was in Tokyo Midtown, a complex housing Tokyo’s tallest building and Fast Retailing’s headquarters, but she remained calm and positive as she exited the building, the source said.

The source close to the designer stressed that the earthquake and safety-related issues had no bearing on Sander’s decision to end her collaboration with Uniqlo.

“She was never afraid of the earthquake or other disasters,” the source said, adding the designer feels a strong solidarity with the Japanese people, expressed sincere concern about the welfare of her co-workers and made donations to help the victims.

At one point during the collaboration, a source indicated that Sander had underestimated the amount of work involved in such a project. Under the terms of her initial deal with Uniqlo, she would have overseen nearly all of the brand’s apparel offerings, but in the end she focused her efforts on the +J collection, which featured tailored coats, crisply turned-out shirts and cashmere knits.

Yanai himself acknowledged the challenges in September 2009, about half a year into the arrangement. 

“Everything. She’s involved in every single aspect. She pays such particular attention to detail, from the fabrications to the photos for the +J advertising campaign,” the ceo told WWD. “We have arguments, but through arguments we get to know each other. That’s important.”

Uniqlo said the +J collection, which launched in October 2009, was “enthusiastically received by a broad spectrum of customers worldwide.” Fast Retailing does not break out sales for the +J brand.

Toshikazu Nishimura, a retail analyst at Daiwa SB Investments in Tokyo, said he couldn’t quantify sales for the +J brand but he considers them immaterial.

“I don’t think it will have a large effect on Uniqlo’s overall business.…The proportion of sales [coming from +J] is small to begin with, so even if [the line] ceases to exist, it won’t have a great effect,” he said.

Fast Retailing blamed its sagging first-half figures on tough comps and unseasonably warm weather in December, which dampened sales of fall-winter products. The earthquake prompted it to cut its full-year sales forecast to 836 billion yen, or $10.42 billion. Citing cost-cutting measures, the retailer lifted its net profit target to 60 billion yen, or $747.92 million at current exchange. The stock market shrugged off news of the breakup with Sander. Fast Retailing’s shares rose 2.1 percent to close at 12,880 yen, or $160.55. The overall Nikkei 225 declined 0.34 percent to end at 9,596.74.

A Fast Retailing spokeswoman said the company had reduced the number of sales points selling the +J spring-summer collection to more efficiently distribute the remaining merchandise as the season finishes, but she said the move was not linked to the conclusion of Sander’s tenure. She declined to give details on the number of sales points for the line.

Fast Retailing has not decided if it will promote or market Sander’s swan song in any particular way, according to the spokeswoman.

Sander’s spokeswoman said last month the designer shot the fall advertising campaign with David Sims and Jo McKenna.