Uniqlo’s John C Jay on the power of thoughtfulness

John C Jay joined Fast Retailing, the company behind Uniqlo, in late 2014. Formally a global creative director and partner at Wieden + Kennedy, the move sees him make the switch from creative to client, and reignites a relationship with the retailer that began back in the late 1990s. Here, we talk to Jay about his past two years at the company, and how he is slowly and carefully implementing creative changes, which are already coming to fruition within new flagship stores in London, New York and Toronto

What does it take to become a global brand today? Consistency, personality, ubiquity, effective operations: all these qualities are important. But when I sit down with John C Jay, president of global creative at Fast Retailing, which owns Uniqlo, he throws another adjective into the mix: “thoughtfulness”.

Jay is talking about what he believes makes Uniqlo special, what ingredients tie the brand’s offerings together, and being thoughtful is the most compelling conclusion that he draws. It’s a gentle word, but in today’s deeply complex retail world, a surprisingly powerful one. And it’s this – alongside quality and affordability – that he believes will give Uniqlo the ability to achieve its ambitions of global growth.

We don’t go to runway shows and copy everything quickly. If there’s one word I’d say about us, it’s ‘thoughtfulness’

“The mission of bringing the greatest quality to the greatest number of people is something I feel is so fitting of the zeitgeist we live in right now,” he says. “Price is part of the innovation. Value is very important. That just feels so right for the moment, and for the future, and how young people feel.

“We often get confused with ‘fast fashion’,” he continues. “But we don’t go to runway shows and copy everything quickly. If there’s one word I’d say about us, it’s ‘thoughtfulness’. Of course when you’re looking at a cashmere sweater for $80 or whatever it is, you may not understand the thoughtfulness but it’s a highly thoughtful company … that translates to me as another way of saying intelligence, integrity.”

 Brand origins

Uniqlo wasn’t always the brand it is now. Its origins stretch back to 1949, though it has operated under the name Uniqlo since 1984, and has only presented in its current form since the late 90s, when, inspired by Gap in the US, it began to produce its own clothing ranges rather than sell those of others.

Hoarding by illustrator Jean Jullien at the London flagship store

Jay’s history with the brand goes back to this period. With a background in fashion – he worked at Bloomingdale’s for over a decade, as both a creative and marketing director – he then joined ad agency Wieden + Kennedy in 1993 where he remained for over two decades becoming a global creative director and partner before making the move to Fast Retailing. He first created an advertising campaign for Uniqlo in 1998 while at Wieden+Kennedy Tokyo, and his influence on the brand was immense from the outset.

“I owe John Jay enormously,” Tadashi  Yanai, president and founder of Fast Retailing said in a 2012 Fast Company interview. “He spent a lot of time on our business, talking to us about what kind of DNA we have and what kind of creativity we needed.”

Yanai went on to cite Jay’s influence in mapping out how the brand could expand – affordability being a key element – and also the importance of using styling to explain the brand to the customer, and to tell a story.

Jay is equally admiring of Yanai in turn. “He unabashedly dreams very big and puts his dreams out on paper, and that is very endearing to me, especially how modest he is as a person – that he’s willing to put himself on the line and bring the company with him…. This is a nice problem to have but I have to be careful what I present to him – if I present something really outrageous, if I just happen to have a good dream that night … if I put it on the table, he could say yes. Easily say yes.”

From a global ad campaign for Uniqlo LifeWear by Droga5 New York
From a global ad campaign for Uniqlo LifeWear by Droga5 New York

The move from Wiedens to client side is a significant one, as Jay clearly loved his time at the agency. “Wieden + Kennedy is just magical,” he says. “But Yanai’s offer caught me at the right time and the right place. The way that I can quickly jump into multiple pools of creativity is through this way, by shifting to the client side.

“It’s no time right now to be reactive, you have to be proactive,” he continues. “And it’s much easier to be proactive on the client side.”

Uniqlo, Soho, New York
Uniqlo, Soho, New York

Laying the foundations

Jay joined Fast Retailing in autumn 2014, though instead of arriving with a bang and implementing immediate change, he spent his first year quietly assessing the company and thinking about what changes were needed to become a “great client”.

“I’ve sat on the other side of the table to know how many times that person is not a great client,” he explains. “I want to make sure we are not guilty of those sins, and that takes a lot of rethinking and training, especially when we’re trying to be a great global company. We are fairly successful around the world, but that doesn’t mean necessarily you’re a top global company, yet. Being a global company today is a pretty tall order.”

We are fairly successful around the world, but that doesn’t mean necessarily you’re a top global company, yet. Being a global company today is a pretty tall order.

He cites the “growing pains” that he witnessed Nike going through when working closely with the company at Wieden + Kennedy (Nike once even invited Jay to be creative director there though he turned the offer down to stay at the agency) and how much he has learnt from this.

Uniqlo, London
Uniqlo, Oxford Street, London (image courtesy Hufton + Crow)

“I’ve had friends in the agency world in the past who didn’t really understand the amount of work Nike put into becoming Nike,” he says. “To truly, truly create a culture where creativity is respected and demanded.”

“I think the first thing is don’t think you have to reinvent the wheel,” he says of the approach he is now taking at Uniqlo. “I know companies that are great culturally towards creativity and innovation, I’ve had the blessing of working with many of them. So let’s just share best practices. How do they behave? What’s their structure? What kind of people do they hire? Things like that, that you wouldn’t think a creative person would really get his hands dirty on, but I know that unless the foundation is set, my future is going to be limited. I have to get the foundations right.”

Brand perception

Uniqlo’s impact varies around the world. In Japan it is a part of everyday life. This is not without its inconveniences. “The danger of that is you become ubiquitous in people’s minds, and that you could be seen as not so special,” says Jay. “That’s a battle – you’re damned with your success, and damned without it. But I’d rather have that problem. In America we’ve barely scratched the surface … we’re experimenting with different formats. This fall is our tenth anniversary of being in America, it’s a big point for us. We’ve got to take that ten years of learning and really ratchet it up and make it meaningful.”

The brand is popular in Europe, particularly in Paris and London – and in the latter Jay has recently overseen the relaunch of its flagship store on Oxford Street. Despite the huge importance of ecommerce today, he sees these key stores as central to Uniqlo’s strategy going forward, and the brand has recently also opened new flagships in New York and Toronto (its first presence in Canada).

You can see the chaos in the fashion industry. Technology has created a desire to have things right away.

“Bricks and mortar stores are still very important, as long as they are properly positioned in the marketplace,” he says. “I think the flagship stores for us are key, but they’re just one part of the major puzzle. How it inspires and how it connects to the world of technology and ecommerce and being able to have your product almost immediately – that’s a huge part of the future.

“You can see the chaos in the fashion industry,” he continues. “Technology has created a desire to have things right away. The future of ecommerce, we’re just beginning to see that right now. The shift is already dramatic.”

Window display in Soho, New York advertising the launch of the KAWS collection at Uniqlo. Photograph: Bec Lorrimer
Window display in Soho, New York advertising the launch of the KAWS collection at Uniqlo. Photograph: Bec Lorrimer

Working together

Uniqlo’s products are good quality and are certainly priced very competitively. What they are not necessarily is ‘cool’. But where the brand does become cool is via its associations. It has been very savvy in the collaborations it has made, emphasising its artiness and design roots via sponsorship of Tate Modern and MoMA, for example, and its sports tech innovations through its partnerships with top tennis players Novak Djokovic and Kei Nishikori.

Its design link-ups are also typically smart. Like many high street brands, Uniqlo creates special moments through limited edition collaborations with stars and brands such as Disney, but rather than going down a celebrity route, the brand usually prefers to team up with top notch design names. b These can be companies with heritage, such as Liberty, or simply great contemporary designers: KAWS, Jil Sander and Christophe Lemaire have all passed through Uniqlo’s doors, and some have stayed. Most recently this has been Lemaire, who is now heading up a R&D centre for the brand in Paris.

Careful choices

When the brand does work with celebrities – an approach that Jay admits he is wary of – they are carefully chosen. “When I launched the first brand campaign for Uniqlo in Japan, we purposely did not use big celebrities,” he says. “We purposely used people who at best were on the way up. So we had one singer whose career was just becoming known, mixed with everyday people: a professor, a plumber, a teenage girl. That sense of equality, that the company treated all of these people with an equal hand, and equal respect was a huge part of the beginnings of the brand.

Uniqlo's launch in Toronto
Uniqlo’s launch in Toronto

“I do wince a little bit when I’ve been away from the company for 15 years, and I see the brand reaching into the celebrity pool,” he admits. “I also understand why – those are the early days, maybe the world has changed. I do think celebrities still can be helpful, if you have shared values. Skepta – the rapper in London that performed for us and was one of our ambassadors [and who also recently won the Mercury Music Prize in the UK], was it because he had a great underground hip-hop label that we worked with him? Of course, that’s something of it, but what he expressed was: ‘I’m so tired in hip hop of brandishing brands and showing big logos’, and he spoke to i-D about this. So he was the right person for us in that genre of popular culture. We have to have shared values, it’s really important.”

Lasting collaborations

Jay is keen to avoid the superficiality that can sometimes come with celebrity brand attachments – particularly if they are based on how many followers they have, or their fame. He is always keen to make a deeper connection, create more lasting collaborations that will develop over time.

Uniqlo, Oxford Street, London (Image courtesy Hufton + Crow)
Uniqlo, Oxford Street, London (Image courtesy Hufton + Crow)

We find ourselves back again at thoughtfulness. With this of course also comes sustainability, and the company is engaged in various activities to try and raise the fashion industry’s reputation for responsible and sustainable practice. Uniqlo (and the wider Fast Retailing group) is a member of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, a group of global brands working to reduce the environmental and social impacts of the apparel industry, and the company is engaged in numerous other conscientious activities too, from recycling and ‘upcycling’ projects (including the making of tote bags from the offcuts from jean alterations in stores), to a commitment to eliminate all hazardous chemicals from its supply chain by 2020.

That relevancy, value and values are critically important. Thoughtfulness is really, really important.

So while Uniqlo may have a reputation for affordable, even cheap, clothing, this does not mean the company sees its products as throwaway. Far from it, according to Jay. “We are about longevity through quality and style,” he says. “We do not make disposable clothing … we want you to buy our great cashmere or our latest technology but also to keep it in your closet for a long time.

“We’re all fighting to be relevant in the greatest number of people’s lives,” he concludes. “That relevancy, value and values are critically important. Thoughtfulness is really, really important.”

See uniqlo.com. More on the Sustainable Apparel Coalition at apparelcoalition.org 

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