Further affirming its dedication to the U.S. market for 2017, Uniqlo held its LifeWear presentation for fall 2017 in New York for the first time ever on Wednesday. Usually presented in Tokyo, the annual global event, hosted by umbrella company Fast Retailing Founder and President Tadashi Yanai, served as a platform to announce future plans for the company — specifically in the U.S., despite a tough 2016. The event also featured previews of upcoming collections including the Christophe Lemaire-designed Uniqlo U, lots of denim, and longtime collaborations — including Ines de la Fressange, which will introduce menswear for fall; the Disney-themed Magic For All; and diversity-celebrating Hana Tajima.
Aside from a short video, which did offer a brief shot of a bobbled fisherman's sweater, the upcoming J.W. Anderson collab sadly was not available for a preview. Masahiko Nakasuji, SVP of Global Marketing, did say to expect Anderson's signature design touches on the overall brand's LifeWear philosophy of using fashion and advanced technology to "improve the life of each individual." (During one of the many speeches, Yuki Katsuta, SVP of Fast Retailing and Head of Research and Design at Uniqlo also clarified that the term "LifeWear" isn't just one collection, but an overall tenet for all the Uniqlo collections.)
"The inspiration comes from the U.K. and specifically from Northern Ireland, which is where Jonathan's from," hints Shu Hung, Global Creative Director, Brand Experience and Special Projects. "It will evolve around really iconic, beautiful pieces inspired by that region."
The presentation also featured a battalion of diverse models styled in mash-ups of all the Uniqlo LifeWear lines, from a cute skater boy in khakis and a graphic hoodie, to a very New York, all-black clad woman in a belted blazer with a velvet skirt over cropped wide-leg pants. Not really the expected way to wear traditional Uniqlo basics — and that's the plan, or "evolution," as John C. Jay, President of Global Creative for Fast Retailing explained as he addressed the crowd. He further emphasized the point with a quote from the late, great American wordsmith Tupac Shakur: "you either evolve or you disappear."
Part of the evolution: Last year, Uniqlo opened a Denim Innovation Center in Los Angeles, essentially the new Stateside fashion capital. Technicians and designers work out of the L.A. location in tandem with Japan's technology R&D, responsible for those selvedge-looking but stretch-infused-for-comfort jeans. "It's a mix of trend and genuineness of denim in Los Angeles married with Japanese craftsmanship, innovation and technology," explained Nakasuji. The denim offerings for fall definitely include more slightly trend-driven pieces, like faded, high-waist, wide-leg jeans and a darker, selvedge-wash, high-waist cigarette pant.
Nakasuji also explained that Uniqlo's growth in the U.S. is just beginning. "I see more opportunity in the United States because our penetration of our brand is still very, very underdeveloped in the United States," he said, in regards to pulling out of secondary, less profitable markets, but expanding into markets with more potential, like Disney World, Washington D.C. and Boston last year. The company will also put focus on its e-commerce, but opening and keeping brick-and-mortar locations in the States is still a priority. "It is important that consumers be able to touch and experience the product to create more fans of Uniqlo."
Plus, per a recent interview with Bloomberg, Yanai announced that Uniqlo would be speeding up its design-to-delivery timeline to 13 days — similar to that of super trend-driven fast-fashion juggernaut Zara. That's all part of the whole "digitalization" evolution, which includes building out a hi-tech, end-to-end automation system within the next three years.
"We're still in the middle way," Nakasuji said. "We believe this new digital world will enable us to move very, very quickly, like processing all of the consumer information and combining that information into the product design and that product design automatically goes into the manufacturing plant — producing it — and automatically distributing it to the right location. Everybody should be connected in the digital world. It's not about digital marketing; how we do our business [as a whole] has to be digitalized."
This digitalization will also enable Uniqlo to make a foray into the direct-to-consumer customization space, which brick-and-mortar retailers are starting to embrace to create an experience. While no official details have been announced (although, we'd like to put in a request for made-to-order jeans; after all, Uniqlo already offers free hemming), Hung did drop a little hint.
"We were experimenting with customizing T-shirts and sweats and things like that," she said. "I think this is something we're very interested in because obviously a person's personality is coming through the product. But more on that later."