The unbearable lightness of being Uniqlo.
The Japanese brand has created garments that deliver warmth in a single layer while reducing the bulk typically associated with winterwear. Ultra Light Down, and light, thin and smooth Airism, designed to feel like silk on the skin, are two of the brand’s greatest hits. In a demonstration of egalitarianism. the retailer on Tuesday shared the stage at Spring Place in lower Manhattan with its collaborator of 15 years, Toray Industries.
While the retailer sells apparel designed in collaboration with Inès de la Fressange, Christophe Lemaire and J.W. Anderson, it’s Uniqlo’s elevated basics, imbued with performance qualities courtesy of advanced technologies, that make the cash registers go ka-ching. Toray, which has been collaborating and sharing its technologies, makes carbon fibers for 747 jets and develops cutting-edge chemicals, plastic resins and water treatment products. In an egalitarian gesture, the two shared the stage to discuss the collaboration and products they will codevelop in the future.
If Uniqlo and Toray sound like unlikely partners, by the end of the presentation and large-scale exposition to mark the upcoming anniversary of the pioneering relationship, the hookup seemed natural. It’s produced a greatest hits of technologically innovative franchises such as Heattech, Kando pants and Dry-Ex.
Tadashi Yanai, president and chief executive officer of Uniqlo parent Fast Retailing Co. Inc., said, “Toray’s revolutionary technologies have been vital in Uniqlo’s quest to create LifeWear clothing, which makes everyday life better and more comfortable for people.
“Two entrepreneurs based in Japan entered into a partnership that’s unique in the world,” Yanai added. “We’re sharing goals, time and space, in the way the world uses clothes, and achieving results in the process.”
Fast Retailing’s global sales for fiscal 2017 ending Aug. 31, were $17 billion. Yanai said one billion pieces of Heattech have been sold since its launch in 2003. If laid end-to-end, the length of the fabric would circle the earth seven-and-a-half times. The Uniqlo ceo was proud to add that this year, Uniqlo edged out Gap Inc. to become the third-biggest vertical apparel retailer in the world.
“When Toray created Heattech for Uniqlo, we upended conventional wisdom, selling over 1 billion pieces,” said Yanai. “Toray is a manufacturer and Uniqlo is a manufacturer-retailer for the development of new manufacturing, distribution and product updates. Members of both firms work together closely. Uniqlo employees are at the Toray factory day-in and day-out. Our partnership will continue to upend conventional wisdom.”
“We’ll never wear what’s known as ‘one and done’ clothes,” Yanai said, referring to fast fashion. “Clothes with all the extra frills have been eliminated. The simpler the better. The simpler it is, the more difficult it is to create.”
The Fast Retailing ceo waxed poetic about Manhattan. “I love New York. It’s a global showcase for the latest and most advanced [products]. New York is the apple of our eye,” he said, adding that he was smitten by a Museum of Modern Art exhibit, “Items: Is Fashion Modern?” which features Levi’s 501s, the Breton shirt and the Little Black Dress. But it was the white T-shirt that Yanai was most fascinated with, wondering what other properties it could be imbued with.
“Toray is the engine of innovation,” Yanai said. “Toray is engaging in high-functioning fabric and fibers. It looks at the needs of the customer and has accumulated vast technologies. There are many numerous technologies [Uniqlo] hasn’t tapped yet. Next, we’ll do cloth with sensing devices. A new feature of clothing will be a display that can sense what’s coming.”
Akihiro Nikkaku, president of Toray Industries ticked off the company’s accomplishments, including developing technology to improve fuel efficiency and reduce emissions, resulting in 20 percent savings that allows jets to fly farther; performance chemicals such as resin; environmental engineering; top-level water treatment that will greatly contribute to desalination; life science used in medicine; organ synthesis technology, and displays of sensitive DNA chips.
The Toray chief added “clothing that can protect people from infections. We believe that we’ll have the ability to change society through materials.” The company’s tag line is, “Life. Innovation. Technology.” “If we can change conventional wisdom, we can change the world,” Nikkaku said.
The idea that innovation through chemistry can improve people’s lives, is similar to Uniqlo’s thesis that donning clothes with performance qualities can enhance one’s wisdom and even change the world. “We’re letting people — different departments and different members of the team and customers — all get the chance to have a question or comment with Toray.”
The Fast Retailing ceo shared that he doesn’t usually wear suits, however, “for this event, it was good to dress in a suit.” On a wall in his office is a photo of New York’s Fifth Avenue from the Fifties that showed men dressed in suits and hats. “Nobody dresses like that on Fifth Avenue now,” Yanai said. “Responding to consumer needs is everything.”
Yanai told WWD that partnerships in Japan, such as the one between Uniqlo and Toray, are less about ego and more about results. “Between Americans and Japanese persons, Americans are more competitive,” the Fast Retailing chief said. “In Japan, it’s about integrating and working together.”
“It’s like Airism and Heattech, ‘Simple Made Better,'” said John C. Jay, president of global creative at Fast Retailing, in an interview, referring to a Uniqlo tag line. “It’s this notion that you [don’t] jump from one innovation to another. It’s simplicity. You evolve and refine technology. Innovation can be designed also. The Airism shirt is perfect. You don’t need to touch it. ‘Simple Made Better.'”
A presentation featured products and exhibits designed to show off Uniqlo and Toray’s capabilities. There was a model rocket, the Epsilon by the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, to which Toray contributed carbon fiber reinforced polymer. Closer to Earth, a new nano-multilayer technology film creates a metallic shine without real metal and will be applied to fabric, an outfit that can change color depending on the setting and a Windbreaker for commuters with highly reflective properties visible only under direct light.
“Toray is involved in nano- and bio-technology,” Jay said. “It’s not just about technology. A lot of it is in its infancy. The other thing is our goal to make [products] that are affordable and can be appreciated by everyone. There’s no elitist trickle-down. Pricing and value is important. We talk lovingly of tests to try to improve products, but we don’t need the logos. If Uniqlo doesn’t have a logo, we’re not going to put one there. When you look at our efforts in Bangladesh, not only are we changing lives in developed countries, but we may be able to do some things that are incredibly basic in developing countries. Toray is able to turn sea water into drinkable water. What are the needs in all the world, not just in our world?”
Jay said businesses and stores are being built in Bangkok, and Uniqlo is helping teach skills and build the economy. “LifeWear is only beginning to be understood,” Jay said. “It’s a pretty idea on the surface and underneath, it’s our entire ethos. The MoMA exhibit was so inspiring to Mr. Yanai. We want to contribute to the evolution of clothes.”
“LifeWear keeps evolving,” Jay said. “Every two years, we make an iteration. It’s very considered. If there’s one aspect that you can pull from our heritage in Japan, it’s the thoughtfulness.”
“If an aircraft can reduce its weight, the body is stronger and more comfortable for passengers,” Nikkaku said, explaining that Toray applied the same theory to apparel. The first fiber technology developed by Toray using composite material, Heattech, is lighter and thinner than most “down” products. “We tested it 10,000 or more times,” Nikkaku said. “This was careful, breathable moisture-wicking. This conundrum required repeats.”