Fashion retailer Uniqlo likes to say that its rivals are tech companies like Apple rather than other fashion brands. Through its innovative clothing ranges such as HEATTECH, ULD and AIRism – lightweight, high-performing clothing that allows wearers to deal with temperature extremes without, the theory goes, compromising style – Uniqlo positions itself as an innovator in the sector.
As with other high street clothing brands, this innovation for Uniqlo in part derives from its collaborations with designers such as JW Anderson and Ines de la Fressange and via the creative R&D facilities it has set up in Paris and New York. But another key partner comes from a less expected source.
Japan-based Toray Industries started in 1926 as a producer of Rayon yarn. Today it is a worldwide, $18 billion chemical company whose carbon fibre is a key component in cars, space rockets and the new Boeing 787 airliner. For 15 years it has worked with Uniqlo on developing new fibre technology for its clothing.
Speaking at an event in New York to mark the anniversary, the President and CEO of Uniqlo’s parent company Fast Retailing, Tadashi Yanai credited the partnership as having been “vital” in enabling Uniqlo to create clothing “which makes everyday life better and more comfortable for people everywhere”. The two, he said, effectively work “as one company”. Teams from Uniqlo are embedded in Toray and vice versa, driving innovations such as the AIRism range, which uses ultra-thin fibres to regulate the circulation of air trapped inside clothing.
But how much Uniqlo wants to be known as a tech brand and how much a fashion brand is a tricky balance to maintain.“We have to be both,” says Fast Retailing’s President of Global Creative John C Jay (who we profiled here). “There’s a balance between our design innovation and our technical innovation. Do we want to be tech-led? Of course we do up to a point but we also want to make clothing that is attractive to people, that is aspirational, that fits into people’s lifestyles.”
What the Toray partnership has allowed Uniqlo to do is to position itself at the forefront of new thinking about the evolution of our clothes. “So you see our apparel oftentimes beginning to break down silos between categories,” Jay says. “What once used to be sportswear could now be innerwear, what used to be innerwear can now be outerwear.”
In particular, Uniqlo claims that it has been able to create clothing that has changed the way people live in winter. Lighter clothes, that are easier to move in but that are still very warm have allowed Uniqlo’s customers to become much more active in winter-time without sacrificing style, claims Uniqlo’s co-CMO, Masahiko Nakasuji. The performance of these ranges has also allowed Uniqlo to make a case for their sustainability benefits, the idea being that if you wear an inner layer of warm clothing, central heating can be turned down, resulting in considerable CO2 emission savings.
Similarly, Uniqlo originally designed its KANDO trousers in partnership with golfer Adam Scott. They use a fabric, developed jointly with Toray, which has high moisture absorption and is quick-drying. Unexpectedly, the trousers have now become very popular as office wear in Asian countries with high humidity levels.
Though the relationship was originally based on innovation in fibre technology, Toray’s research into areas such as nano-technology and bio-technology has encouraged Uniqlo to start thinking about clothes that could, for example, integrate solar power cells or clothes that may never need washing. Included in the Art and Science of LifeWear show in New York were ideas around how clothing may be developed to help support our ageing populations, for example, or have health applications. “Toray is involved in improving the lives of people [in many ways] and that engages us and allows us to ask questions – if you are trying to improve the world, how might that fit into what we make? The conversation is thus much broader and Toray bring to the table a lot of R&D and thinking that really engages our people,” Jay says.