Launching Uniqlo’s “Peace for All” collection Thursday afternoon, Fast Retailing Co. Ltd.’s president of global creative John C. Jay repeatedly referred to the company’s ongoing commitment to social good, as well as its history of pitching in when natural disasters, poverty and other global issues have occurred.
Following the initiative’s unveiling, Jay spoke with WWD about the importance of purpose, consumers’ preferences, the pandemic-induced “Great Resignation” and the prospect of a looming recession, among other issues. A true industry veteran, whose career included a run at Bloomingdale’s, Jay previously served as the global creative director of Portland, Oregon-based ad agency Wieden + Kennedy before joining Uniqlo full-time in 2014.
He was hard-pressed to estimate what the length of the Uniqlo initiative will be. “To be honest, we’re just making this up as we go. As long as we can keep generating money for the cause…it’s not just about conflict. We have a long history of helping with natural disasters so the refugee [relief efforts] is a broad idea. To be able to help people on an ongoing basis, that will never end,” he said. “Will we keep this Peace for All? It remains to be seen. But we see it is a long-term effort so let’s see. Let’s see how we go.”
With the first round of T-shirts from creatives like architect Tadao Ando and novelist Haruki Murakami debuting Friday, Jay was uncertain about sales projections — all of the profits from the sales of the shirts will benefit three organizations — the United Nations Refugees Agency UNHCR, Save the Children and Plan International. The effort marks the first time that Uniqlo is calling on consumers to purchase items that will entirely benefit social good. “We did this pretty quickly in response to the situation [in Ukraine]. We’re trying to make this happen as quickly as possible. Obviously, this is global. It’s in all stores. It will have some impact in terms of sales,” Jay said.
Asked if the war in Ukraine, which has displaced more than 13 million people since Russia invaded more than three months ago, was the tipping point, the Uniqlo executive said that was part of it, but noted Uniqlo has been involved with social issues for 20 years globally. As for what Uniqlo’s new program says about the responsibilities that corporations have in transforming social good and stepping into geopolitical matters, Jay said, “All of that is important. But after two years of COVID[-19], when people, and Americans in particular, read The New York Times about ‘The Great Resignation’ and how people are quitting their jobs in record numbers, what is that question about? It’s about purpose. People are looking for purpose. Quite frankly, it is difficult to recruit people into companies. But this [Peace for All] will help us. This is a firm example of purpose. This is something that is genuine in what we want to do beyond the growth of stores, the businesses and so on. This is a representation of our deep sense of purpose.”
Purpose has been engrained in the brand’s DNA from Day One, according to Jay. “Remember the DNA of the company is ‘made for all.’ It’s totally democratic. It’s about making things at the highest level of quality for the greatest numbers of people. That is not a new marketing ploy. That is a sense of value and our values are interconnected there.”
Given the accolades of some of Peace for All’s first batch of creators, Shinya Yamanaka is a Nobel Prize laureate and Ando is a Pritzker Prize winner, the initiative is meant to be an impetus to inspire people career-wise, Jay said. “In our interpretation of creators, they are all creators. Someone who has a Pritzker, someone who has a Nobel and a literary giant [Murakami], yes, of course [they are meant to inspire],” he said.
How this initiative may enhance the culture and consumers’ perception of the brand remains to be seen. “We hope it does. We will let them judge us for that. We want to do good things. We hope it has positive feedback for us. But we’ll let the consumers show us and tell us about that,” said Jay.
Staffing is still a challenge for many international retailers and Uniqlo is no exception. Its SoHo store in New York City, for example, predominantly offers self-service checkout with banks of individual kiosks. Asked if the program is another way to have a personal connection with staffing not being at the levels that it once was, Jay said, “A lot of customers would tell us that they prefer self-serve. They like the idea of checking out themselves and going through as quickly as possible, because it cuts down on waiting time. We have both. Remember, we still have very good people at the register, taking questions, returns and all of that.”
In addition, self serve was another element of Uniqlo’s origins, he added.
As to the importance of design at a time of such international upheaval and unrest, Jay once again took the straight shot. “Design is an overused word sometimes. Our design is never superficial. It is never ornamentation for the sake of ornamentation. We have a term that we use called, ‘Simple made better,’ meaning taking simplicity and keep improving it. You can say that’s design. Of course, it’s design but it’s more than ornamentation,” he said. “Coming from Japan, design has a very deep sense of what we do.”
All in all, consumers should just be conscientious about their spending in relation to consumption from Jay’s point of view. “That’s why from the very beginning we never think about disposable clothing. Why are we making clothes at such a high value at such a high quality? We want people to keep the clothing for season after season. That’s why we don’t follow trends. That’s why we follow your needs as a consumer. People tell us what they’re wanting in life. We take that as inspiration then we create visions around that.”
Well and good as that ethos is, reminded of the volume of products that Uniqlo puts out, Jay said, “That’s a challenge of course.”
The amazing amount of products on display in Uniqlo stores certainly tempt purchases. Acknowledging that range, Jay countered, “We have, but we’ve also cut down on some of those selections as well. We’ve cut down the skus quite frankly. We’re very mindful of that. But we also are very good about speaking with the consumers. We have a thing called ‘VOC,’ Voice of the Customer. That is a daily, almost hourly thing that this company does worldwide. Worldwide. We are constantly taking the feedback from the customer.”
Asked about cynics, who might view the introduction of Peace For All as a way to make Uniqlo’s growth more palatable, Jay quickly replied, “They have their place in the world and are here to prove them wrong. So we’ll see how we do.”
Mention of how the retailer recently announced plans to increase prices for select fall and winter styles (due to rising costs for distribution and raw materials), Jay said, “We have to respond. We have to be true to our roots and our DNA. Again, [the question is] ‘How do we continue to make the highest possible quality of experiences, which means stores and everything — online, offline — for the greatest number of people. That’s the point — the greatest number of people. That’s our challenge and an ongoing challenge.”