Uniqlo celebrates 20 years in the UK

As Uniqlo celebrates a landmarck two decades in the UK, we look back to our interivew Yuki Katsuta, Uniqlo's head of research and design, as he discusses the Japanese retailer's design vision for the future

Uniqlo LifeWear collection
(Image credit: Uniqlo)

Uniqlo enthusiasts profess an affinity for many of the elements that comprise the global retailer’s output. Some laud its hard-to-beat thermal wear (Heattech), the softness of its affordable cashmere, the breathability of its AIRism basics, the colourful spectrum of its soft cotton T-shirts, or the featherlight form of its padded layered jackets. Not forgetting the high-end energy of its diverse design collaborations, which span partnerships with brands including Jil Sander, Marimekko, Lemaire, JW Anderson, musicians and artists such as Billie Eilish and Takashi Murakami, and institutions such as The Louvre.

A host of lines live under the Japanese retailer's design umbrella, from Uniqlo U, an offering of elevated sartorial basics, led by Parisian designer Christophe Lemaire, to UT, a colourful collection of graphic men's T-shirts, featuring prints nodding to a melting pot of references, like Marvel, Peanuts, Haruki Murakami, Keith Haring and Roy Lichtenstein. Impressively, Uniqlo's head of research and design, Yuki Katsuta, oversees the brand’s diverse DNA, working to maintain the balance between the label's utilitarian LifeWear ranges, and its more sartorially swayed collaborations.

Wallpaper* sat down for a rare interview Katsuta-san to hone in on Uniqlo's design vision for the future. Here he outlines the importance of collaboration, the semiotics of sustainable fashion, and his favourite British fashion designer today.

On the success of the relaunch of the +J Jil Sander collection, which first launched in 2011 and returned for A/W 2020:
‘I have to say thank you to all customers. So many people who experienced +J ten years ago came back to us for this new collection. We also had a younger generation who invested in the line. I’m very proud that with his project we can bring loyal, heritage customers, but also attract a younger one.'

Uniqlo +J AW 20 collection

+J A/W 2020

(Image credit: Uniqlo)

On the possibility of one design collaboration too many…
‘Collaborations create a sense of newness, and with our collaborators, we never decide beforehand if we will work with them for one season or many. We don’t have a formula. It’s possible that we will start considering a more concept-focused strategy in the future.’

On the two-pronged approach to sustainable fashion.
‘The first approach we used is based on technical sustainability, meaning how we can use recycled or ecological materials in order to protect the environment. In this instance, we are aiming to do as much as we possibly can. We’ve introduced materials including recycled polyester and down, and we manufacture denim using processes which save water.’

‘The second approach is focused on producing pieces which people can wear not just this season, but for the next three, five and ten years. This is the core idea of our LifeWear collection. We’ve been creating these types of timeless silhouettes for the last ten years.’

LifeWear by Uniqlo

LifeWear by Uniqlo

(Image credit: Uniqlo)

On how the Covid-19 pandemic affected Uniqlo's approach to fashion design.
‘Generally speaking, a lot of fashion brands, including us, started selling clothes which people can wear primarily in the home. Our loungewear category expanded and saw growth over the last year. However, we recognised that while people have limited activities, they still want to enjoy fashion and celebrate their individuality. This concept gave us a lot of encouragement and we felt a responsibility to provide new creative energy for customers.

On the importance of a physical retail experience.
‘We continued to open stores over the last 12 months, even in new global regions. My guess is that our hunger will continue to increase for real face-to-face communication and the store as a concept is going to be more and more relevant. Human touch is so important and in-person contact is the essence of communication. You can’t only achieve this by video or SMS message.

On creating a global brand that responds to the needs of its diverse customer base.
‘We have satellite offices in Shanghai, New York, Paris and LA, and separate creative collaborators from around the world. We have 2000 stores in 25 countries, which means I have 2,200 antennas globally. I also speak to our customer service teams every day for feedback on product purchases. I speak to the US in the morning and Europe in the afternoon.’

On the importance of collaborating with JW Anderson.
‘For me, Britain is a country with a history of uniforms, workwear and sportswear. Our collaboration is based on the concept of original British clothing. When I first considered this I wanted to work with the best British designer today, which is Jonathan Anderson. I thought to myself, if Jonathan declines, I’ll have to skip the idea!’

Uniqlo x JW Anderson S/S 2021

Uniqlo x JW Anderson S/S 2021

(Image credit: Uniqlo)