Simply intimate

Alexander Wang's Heattech innerwear for Uniqlo is best felt rather than seen

The opportunity for innovation in a line of intimate apparel led to the latest collaboration between a fast-fashion retailer and a high-fashion designer.

Japanese retailer Uniqlo has teamed up with Alexander Wang, the noted New York City-based fashion designer and eponymous founder of his own label, to create a line of innerwear made of Uniqlo's signature Heattech material.

"The last innovation in intimates was really Hanes and then Calvin Klein. But since then, there hasn't really been anything that has been done in this space that pushed the conversation forward," says Wang, 34, referring to the American classic underwear brand and the high-end fashion brand that famously used sex appeal and celebrities to sell its underwear.

"Taking Heattech and applying it to this classification could really expand the narrative."

The collection consists of 16 different silhouettes, divided into 10 women's items and six men's items, covering items such as underwear, tank tops, leggings, long-sleeve T-shirts and bodysuits.

Many come in multiple colourways, including black, white, grey, tan and lime green, and two levels of warmth. Prices range from $14.90 for a pair of bikini underwear to $59.90 for a long-sleeve bodysuit.

The entire collection hits stores globally, including Singapore, today. The full line-up will be available at Uniqlo's flagship store in Orchard Central, as well as on its website. Other Uniqlo outlets will carry a limited selection.

At first glance, the collaboration looks deceptively simple. There are no distinct prints or unusual shapes - perhaps with the exception of the bodysuit, a look popular with the fashion crowd - to catch a shopper's eye. The differences are subtle, more at the micro level, and are best felt, rather than seen.

While the yarn used for the Heattech fabric - known for its insulating ability to wick away moisture and convert it into heat - is the same, the partnership resulted in new ways of weaving the material.

"I pushed the boundaries a lot," says Wang, about testing the limits of Uniqlo's production team.

"There are a lot of little twists, like taking the rib knit and cutting it on the bias, or making certain jerseys a little drier and not too slick so they don't have that super technical feeling that you get when wearing sportswear. It feels like wearing your favourite T-shirt," he says energetically, sporting his signature tousled locks and all-black ensemble.

"I hope people can enjoy it every day and that it doesn't feel like there's an expiration date to it. A lot of times, with these collaborations, they feel fleeting."

A full collaboration between the global clothing giant and the Chinese-American designer has been a long time in the works. Wang first worked with Uniqlo a decade ago as part of the Designer Invitation Project, a rotating venture which invited up-and-coming designers to create small collections.

His contribution at the time comprised five dresses, featuring sporty details and monotone colour blocking.

Mr Tadashi Yanai, 69, chief executive of the Fast Retailing Group, Uniqlo's parent company, says of the brand's initial relationship with Wang: "At the time, you were so young, like a boy. We were searching for a great designer of Asian origin, but global as well."

Since then, the brand has had sporadic conversations with Wang, always searching for the right project to serve as a collaborative platform, recalls Mr Yuki Katsuta, Uniqlo's group senior vice-president and head of research and development.

"We both thought, a normal collaboration wouldn't have much meaning. A secondary version of a designer's main line wouldn't have much meaning."

Wang agreed, citing his need to do something clearly different from his own offerings.

"I wanted to make sure it didn't feel duplicative of anything I was already offering in my own line. This is not T," he notes, mentioning his diffusion label T by Alexander Wang. And he knows Uniqlo would not have been interested in that.

"Unlike a lot of the competition out there, I've never had to send a cease and desist to Uniqlo. It is not a brand about copying, that's not who it is," he adds.

In fact, this collaboration marks the first time any outside designer has worked with the brand on the Heattech line, a crowning jewel of Uniqlo's offerings.

The best-selling Heattech celebrates its 15th anniversary this year with updated and improved versions released periodically.

The most recent iteration, which came onto the market a few seasons ago, infuses the yarn with argan oil - found to have better moisturising properties than the previously employed camellia oil.

Uniqlo, which opened its doors in Singapore in 2009, has been carrying winterwear and Heattech since the start. Despite the tropical climate, the line has done well, perhaps catering to a well-travelled population.

While the company's Singapore office declined to share Heattech sales figures, a spokesman described it as a perennial favourite and one of the top-selling items during the autumn/winter months.

Wang, in collaborating with Uniqlo, has also joined the limited ranks of fashion world figures who have partnered with the Japanese brand, including current collaborators Christophe Lemaire, former creative director of Hermes, and French fashion muse Ines de la Fressange, who has worked with Chanel and Roger Vivier.

This strategy of capitalising on the high-fashion credibility of its creative partners has served Uniqlo well. This time, it is feeding off the inherent "cool" associated with Wang and his brand.

Known for an urban, streetinspired aesthetic, the Alexander Wang brand exudes a modern, edgy style often described as the "model off-duty" look.

In Singapore, the Alexander Wang brand is carried by multi-label retailer Club 21 and there is a T by Alexander Wang outlet in Ngee Ann City's Takashimaya department store.

Wang started in 2005 with a limited collection of knitwear pieces and debuted a full womenswear runway collection in 2007.

Since then he has added menswear, a diffusion line, footwear and accessories, and racked up accolades along the way, including the Vogue/CFDA Fashion Fund, Swarovski Womenswear Designer of the Year and the CFDA Award for Best Accessory Designer.

The brand is no longer considered a fledgling label and its designer a wunderkind. In December 2012, Wang took on the role of creative director for storied French fashion house Balenciaga - a position he held till 2015.

Earlier this year, the label decided to eschew a spot on the traditional New York Fashion Week calendar and concentrate on showing the collections twice a year, in June and December.

It was a move designed to coincide with the pre-collection season, to better serve the buyers who would be placing orders then, and to lessen the time between showcase and availability.

The brand is still 80 per cent wholesale, in terms of orders, he adds, and "the reaction from the wholesale buyers has been very, very positive… I think, in the end, it'll be very successful".

While the designer did not elaborate on specifics for the Alexander Wang brand's presence in Asia, he did mention that Uniqlo's presence in the region was an attractive factor in their collaboration.

"It definitely was something really exciting, how much of a footprint it has in Asia and knowing that's an incredibly important territory for us and where we've experienced the most brand growth," he says.

"So being able to really deeply penetrate that market with something we both felt strongly and passionate about was exciting."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 09, 2018, with the headline 'Simply intimate'. Print Edition | Subscribe