We have been looking for an opportunity in India for a long time—we have finally set everything this year," says Yuki Katsuta, head of research and development at Uniqlo. The Japanese fashion brand, which started with a single store in Hiroshima in 1984, is one of the world’s most recognized and successful clothing companies today, with a presence in 22 markets across Europe, the US, and Asia. The brand, a part of Fast Retailing Co. Ltd, will launch in India this October, with three sprawling stores in New Delhi and Gurugram.
Ahead of the launch, Uniqlo was in Delhi to host a preview of its range of LifeWear—a term launched in 2012 to describe its products and design philosophy. Eschewing nomenclatures such as formal wear and casual wear, Uniqlo has promoted LifeWear as a philosophy that aims to offer consumers of all ages simple but impeccably designed clothing, based on “the needs of everyone’s daily lifestyles". The concept encompasses several categories of clothing— from the brand’s iconic knits and linens to the technologically-driven Heattech (thermal) innerwear and UV Cut (clothing designed to block UV radiation), as well as Uniqlo U, a collection which incorporates innovative materials in everyday basics. Katsuta, who spearheads LifeWear innovations through design and collaborations across the world, was in Delhi for the preview, sharing insights on the Indian market, the concept of trendlessness, and sustainability. Edited excerpts from an interview:
What is your perception of the Indian market? Is there a gap you aim to address with the launch of Uniqlo?
We feel that we can contribute something to India with our clothes—there are many people living here and everyone has their own lives. Each country has a different temperature, different culture. But we believe our concept and design can work for everybody, and India. That is our dream and that is our business. We always believe clothes itself should not have too much attitude. But people should have their individuality. Our design philosophy is how we can provide support in creating that individuality with our clothes. In a lot of cases, our designs work for anyone. That means, even if we come to a completely new market like India, where there are different cultures and visions, we don’t put pressure on ourselves.
In fact, when we entered China—it’s a huge country with so many people – every city had a completely different taste, completely different culture. But so far, we have been very successful there. But, when I think about the reason why we have support from Chinese customers, it’s because we are trying simple tools to create their individuality. That’s one of the keys to our success. I believe the same thing should happen in India as well.
Uniqlo is known for its LifeWear category of clothing. Could you tell us a little more about it?
If I have to explain in detail, I can divide it into five key elements. First, all LifeWear is inspired by the customer’s life needs. Usually, people buy not just one but two or three, multiple units of our items, because at the end of the day it’s useful for their life. Two, it’s ingenious in detail—we spend so much time and money in processing design. Sometimes people call us a fast-fashion company. But we are not fast. Usually, even one product will have three or four testing and fitting sessions. Three, our LifeWear must be simple, but also perfect, because as I said, people need to use our clothes. They must be able to mix to style—people can use everything from Uniqlo or mix and match it with their favourite brand. Our item has to be perfect because you need to create your style.
Four, looking ahead and continuing to evolve. We need to think about how lifestyles change, when customer demands change. We need to look ahead and continue to evolve.
Five, our products have to be of the highest quality for everybody. People think they have to pay a lot for high quality things. What we are trying to do here is explore how we can provide that quality to everyone, how we can create high-quality garments at our price point so that people can try it. If a designer is trying to create new clothes based on the LifeWear concept, I always ask them, think of these five elements. If your design doesn’t match even one, forget about it.
One of the distinctive elements of your designs is that they don’t conform to any trend. What makes the concept of trendlessness crucial today?
We are always checking, researching and studying trends: what’s happening, what’s continuing, what’s going down. I always say there are two different trends. Those trends are started by someone, say, a Hollywood or Bollywood star. A celebrity wears jeans or a T-shirt, and it becomes a trend. The key is random trends are going to finish in maybe one or two years. Some trends are going to be essential items for everybody. I always give the example, though it’s getting old, of when skinny jeans became a trend from Los Angeles. This was maybe in 2006. It was an obvious trend. We felt this trend—this new silhouette—could be a new essential for everybody. So, we introduced skinny jeans. It became a huge item that year. And now, how many skinny jeans do you have in your closet? A lot. It’s not just a trend anymore. That we need to find—what’s the next trend, and what can go on to become the next essential item.
What role does R&D play for a brand that caters to a global clientele and is based on innovation over trends?
Basically, today there are so many technologies and possibilities. If anyone can have time, money and people, they can create an innovation. For me, the most important thing is to find what customers need next. If we create a great innovation and it doesn’t meet life’s needs, people will say: “I don’t need it, thank you."
The key is to find what the customer is looking for, what the customer is not happy about. Since we have about 2,200 stores across the world, I always say that means we have 2,200 antennae. We get hundreds of emails from across the world and we also speak to store managers. I myself sometimes speak to call centre executives because they get calls from customers—sometimes they complain, but sometimes they are also looking for specific new things. Our strength is that we have that kind of a network not just in Japan, but all over the world. Now, I am expecting that information from India. Maybe customers here will give us a hint about our next innovation.
You also collaborate extensively with designers—how can these associations make an impact beyond creating a buzz for the brand?
I keep talking about the concept, vision and philosophy of Uinqlo, of LifeWear. But it’s a difficult challenge for any designer. Think about it—we have to make simple designs for ease-of-wearing and coordination. But at the same time, we have to make something that can cause excitement, be it through silhouette, fitting or fabric. For designers, they need to do completely opposite things at once—on one hand they need to subtract (edit); on the other, they need to add. This is difficult work. Of course, our designers do a pretty good job. But to activate this challenge, we work with outside designers.
We don’t collaborate with designers for marketing purpose or just their name. We work with them for their skill and experience. We always talk about the concept of our design, and, if the designer wants to accept the challenge, we shake hands on it. We also learn a lot while working with designers. In a lot of cases, they approach LifeWear in different ways.
In a world with increasing concerns about the environment and the impact of excessive consumption, how will fashion continue to be relevant in the years to come?
I always have the same answer to this question. For me, like trends, there are two different kinds of sustainability. One is that we are making our processes more sustainable—using less water and materials to save the planet and people. I call this more technical.
Second, If we design in a sustainable way, but people wear it for just one season and then throw it away, for me (it is like) they are creating garbage (through) sustainable ways. I ask myself if this is the real goal. That’s why, once we produce some item, we also have a responsibility. The product needs to stay with the customer as long as possible. I believe if every season, every year, we make something good, people will buy it and keep it for 10 years. That is how we think about the relationship between fashion, clothing and environment.