Fast Retailing ties up with Singapore creatives for Uniqlo’s new flagship

Mr John Jay has no plans to retire.
Mr John Jay has no plans to retire. PHOTO: DIOS VINCOY JR FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Mr John Jay, the creative force behind Uniqlo, wants to constantly refine designs and is working with the creative community here for its South-east Asian flagship

American John Jay, global creative president of Fast Retailing, Japanese clothing brand Uniqlo's parent company, cannot wait to work with the creative community here.

Uniqlo is opening its first Southeast Asian flagship in Singapore - making it the 25th store here - next month. Mr Jay, who was in Singapore recently for a media presentation, wants Uniqlo to be "connected with the best and brightest in the community".

He says: "It's not just coming here to sell you stuff. That's kind of boring, don't you think?"

Some of the home-grown talent Uniqlo has collaborated with so far for the Orchard Central flagship, which opens on Sept 2, include visual artist Michael Ng, who worked on an art display for the children's section, and home-grown independent record label and audiovisual collective Syndicate, which produced the store's original in-house music.

Home-grown art collective Tell Your Children worked on the store's hoarding design. Singapore illustrators are designing the storeexclusive shopping bags.

The flagship is joining Uniqlo's group of more than 1,700 stores worldwide. The company made US$13.88 billion (S$18.65 billion) globally last year.

Born to Chinese parents in Columbus, Ohio, in the United States, Mr Jay, who declines to reveal his age, was named one of business magazine Fast Company's "100 Most Creative People in Business" in 2011. He is now based in Portland, Oregon.

Before he joined Uniqlo in January last year, he was a partner of well-known American advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy - which counts among its top clients Nike and Coca-Cola - for over a decade.

When his friend, Mr Tadashi Yanai, founder and president of Fast Retailing, specially created the role of global creative president for him, Mr Jay could not refuse. He got to know Mr Yanai in 1999 while working on a campaign for Uniqlo's fleece products.

As global creative president, Mr Jay oversees all the creative aspects in Fast Retailing such as product design and branding strategies.

The married father of two sons says: "I can't imagine retiring ever, that's like death. Career-wise, I'm just getting started and learning new things, so why wouldn't I do this?"

But he wants to do more than just work with Singapore's creative community. With the new flagship, he is "taking the opportunity" to put the Uniqlo LifeWear concept "front and centre". The concept is essentially the company's mission statement that has been put in writing only now - 42 years after it was founded.

It articulates the company's mission to design simple and comfortable clothes that are constantly being refined in terms of design, comfort and practicality. It applies to all clothing departments in Uniqlo, including its clothing collaborations with designers such as Frenchwoman Ines de la Fressange.

Mr Jay says: "From day one of Uniqlo, we were making LifeWear, but we didn't have a name for it. I thought it was important to write it down."

This idea of constantly refining designs is apparent in the company's innovative fabrics, such as AIRism, a range of innerwear such as underwear, T-shirts and tank tops made from light, breathable fabric that the brand claims is anti-bacterial and anti-odour.

Mr Jay says: "There are many Japanese brands that are simple, but they don't evolve. For example, they say don't mess with Japanese denim, because there is a legacy and history and it's classic. Okay, we accept that, but we're going to make it better."

He is referring to the brand's Miracle Air fabric which was launched last year. Uniqlo's denim is 20 per cent lighter than regular jeans due to fibres that are 55 per cent hollow in the centre. This is unlike Japanese selvedge denim, which is typically heavier, about 550g, compared to regular jeans, which weigh half of that on average.

Mr Jay says: "I'm not interested in the classic. I'm interested in taking the bones of the classic and taking it to a new place."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 18, 2016, with the headline ''It's boring to just sell clothes''. Print Edition | Subscribe