In the 2011 documentary Jiro Dreams of Sushi, perfectionist chef Jiro Ono personifies the concept of the shokunin: an artisan singularly dedicated to his craft. “Once you decide on your occupation, you must immerse yourself in your work,” Ono says. “You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill.” This idea of specialization is at the core of Japanese culture.
Uniqlo, Japan’s largest retail chain—which is opening its first Canadian stores at CF Toronto Eaton Centre September 30 and Yorkdale Shopping Centre on October 20—takes a similar approach to clothing. Its specialty: basics. “We do not see ourselves as a fashion company,” CEO Tadashi Yanai said at the global press preview in Tokyo in June. “We are engaged in the industry, but our product is components.”
Enter LifeWear, Uniqlo’s overall brand ethos and tag line. The aim is to produce functional clothes that transcend trend. “Fashion is led by trends, which change every season,” says design director Naoki Takizawa, who previously designed for Issey Miyake. “Our goal is to appeal to the five senses—is the garment warm, soft, cool, light, comfortable? These are values we think are universal.”
It’s an approach that has led to major fabric innovations, such as Heattech (used in moisture-wicking thermal layering pieces), Airism (for light-as-air undergarments with cooling properties) and Ultra Light Down (creating insanely warm outerwear sans bulk). All of these pieces are as popular with fashion insiders as the label’s breezy culottes, crisp tunics and distressed boyfriend jeans.
Not to mention its ongoing collaborations with style icons like Carine Roitfeld, Inès de la Fressange and Christophe Lemaire, who the brand recently hired as creative director of Uniqlo U, a new elevated collection, launching this fall. “There’s something about normality I find very interesting,” Lemaire told Business of Fashion in June.
“How do you make [a collection] super normal but refined and cool and desirable?” Based on the cobalt sweater-dresses, over-sized puffers and pompom-embellished crewnecks he presented in July, it’s safe to say he’s mastered it. Just don’t call Uniqlo a fashion company.