A 15-minute drive from the two-story brick building that houses both J Brand’s headquarters and a factory that produces clothing specifically for the premium denim line, the Denim Innovation Center is the sixth in Fast Retailing’s worldwide network of research and development sites. Its main R&D center in Tokyo, where Fast Retailing is based, is devoted to product design. One facility in Shanghai is entrenched in the production process as it is close to the factories that manufacture clothes for Uniqlo. A spot in New York specializes in trend research and conceptual work, and another center in Paris allows Uniqlo to work with European collaborators such as Christophe Lemaire. It also runs a location in Los Angeles separate from the denim-specific center. It declined to disclose how much it has invested in the Denim Innovation Center, which employs 10 people.
“Los Angeles is very important. Not only the wash houses, there are many brands here and many good retailers,” said Masaaki Matsubara, who is J Brand’s head of design as well as the director of Fast Retailing’s Denim Innovation Center. “We are thinking more deeply in development, using the many resources of group brands into one category.”
With the opening of the Denim Innovation Center in Los Angeles earlier this month, Fast Retailing has joined a rarefied circle of denim producers that operate proprietary laundries where they can experiment with new washes. Citizens of Humanity has its own laundry near its studio in Huntington Park, Calif., which is also used by its sister brands, A Gold E and Goldsign. Most other companies depend on independent wash houses to help them test new treatments. Candiani Denim, the 78-year-old fabric mill from Italy, went as far as investing in a laser machine and other equipment for it its own sleek lab, tucked between L.A.’s Fashion and Financial Districts, to serve its customers.
Matsubara said the research in Fast Retailing’s global hub for denim will center on fabric, fit and finish. “It’s not just one particular thing,” he said. “The idea is all related to denim, not only bottoms [but also] denim shirts, denim jackets [and] knitting.”
Up to now, innovation in Uniqlo’s denim centered primarily in fabric. Integrating thermal technology, it introduced HeatTech Denim for women in fall 2010 and followed with a men’s version in fall 2015. A style made of lightweight fabric, dubbed Air Denim, premiered in the men’s business in spring 2015.
Matsubara said the Denim Innovation Center serves as a laboratory rather than a production site. Uniqlo and J Brand continue to rely on contractors in Asia and Southern California, respectively, to handle the washes on a large scale. The first season to show the creative and technical handiwork of the Denim Innovation Center is set for fall 2017. Matsubara said the center also will benefit Fast Retailing’s other brands — including Comptoir des Cotonniers and GU — that offer denim.
Uniqlo’s jeans sell for between $39.90 and $49.90. Retail prices for J Brand’s designs range from $178 to $298 for denim bottoms, $88 to $358 for ready-to-wear and $598 to $1,298 for leather.
While other brands such as Seven For All Mankind and Hudson Jeans have been sold or divested by their owners during the recent challenging period in the denim market, Matsubara said Fast Retailing remains devoted to J Brand, which has been posting losses on lagging sales.
With J Brand’s business, “we try to be better,” he said. “We are changing our concept of design.”
For instance, the men’s fall 2016 collection proffered a tapered style that trimmed the inseam on a popular slim fit by more than two inches. Moreover, the women’s pre-fall 2017 collection features three new fits.
“We think of everything like lengths and inseam and wash — details,” Matsubara said.