LifeWear, like life, has a certain nebulous quality to it. Instead of attempting to define it, we look at the goal of the collection— delivering clothes that make our lives better. But life is perpetually changing; it reacts not only to how we define our worlds, but also to the world around us. Climate change is real.
As you travel the world, you start noticing that the climates of the countries that you are familiar with are changing. There is a lot of in-between weather, so to speak. It is not as cool nor warm as it used to be. But we are only armed with one set of garments at any time (unless you always carry a change of clothes with you wherever you go to combat the erratic weather).
More than our environment, we are changing too—getting more conscious of our impact on the world. We are also asking more from the clothing we own; it goes deeper than just looking great, clothes need to also stay with us forever. Therein lies Uniqlo’s biggest question—how do you design clothes for life? How does one company design clothing that makes us more comfortable, is climate-appropriate, stylish, affordable and socially conscious, all at the same time?
It is a big ask so we gathered Yukihiro Katsuta, head of research & development at Uniqlo; Rebekka Bay, creative director of Uniqlo; and Hajime Ishii, general manager of Toray (the company behind the technology of Ultra-light down, Heattech and Airism), to talk about the art and science to creating clothes for life.
YUKIHIRO KATSUTA: There are two types of sustainability at Uniqlo. First, there is technical sustainability. Using recycled PET bottles and turning them into Dry-Ex T-shirts, and reducing the amount of water it takes to finish a pair of jeans. The other type is designing products that will last longer.
REBEKKA BAY: I think that when you look at sustainability in the beginning it was all about natural fibres and being organic. But the conversation is shifting towards synthetic fibres. As much as we are addressing how to recycle, we need to create recyclable products. I feel like a lot of the conversations I am in is how to create items with fewer components so that it is easier to take apart.
HAJIME ISHII: Sustainability in the fibre technology contributes in three ways. First is reduction of greenhouse gas emissions in our processes. Second is to move away from fossil fuels to low carbon alternatives and lastly, the recycling of materials into yarns.
But there is also the element of sustainability in our labour forces. For example, we have a factory in Bangladesh where we produce the materials for Heattech. In the factory, we have 3,500 employees, and 2,950 own mobile phones because [that’s how] we pay their salary. One benefit of the system is that it removes the risk of transporting cash, but also women in Bangladesh are undermined by their men. By paying them via mobile phones, they can keep their money instead of giving it to their husband. We also ensure that employees have access to loans from the company.
HAJIME ISHII: We came up with a new way of turning old PET bottles into yarn to create the Dry-Ex T-shirts. PET bottles have a lot of contaminants and we created a filter to remove them. We also developed a way of cleaning the PET bottles to achieve white yarn because usually it turns yellow due to degradation. Because of this, we are able to use the yarn and turn them into garments.
YUKIHIRO KATSUTA: We are introducing a new form of Ultra-light down. It is a big challenge for us because when you have a product that is a huge success, you don’t want to change. But we want to change because that is our way. Newness doesn’t come in a fashionable or trendy way. We are looking at making it slightly longer but with a stronger ribbing at the ends so you can wear it longer or pull it up and wear it shorter and the ribbing will help hold its shape.
REBEKKA BAY: When you are concerned with innovation, you cannot find new material, but rather must come up with a new one. We work very closely with mills like Toray and our strategic partnership on developing new materials. How do you find or come up with something that doesn’t exist? It starts with trying to solve a problem.
Let me give you an example—at my previous appointments, I was concerned with premium materials, like cashmere and merino wool. I wanted to bring more premium materials to Uniqlo, but now, I am more concerned with the future. What is the near and long future? I am starting to rethink what premium is and I think it might be found in synthetic materials or new ways of weaving or knitting. Uniqlo 3D knits is a very good example of a very premium product; we could have used premium fibres and my team and I are exploring using synthetic fibres, because that way we can create something that looks heavy with a beautiful shape but is super lightweight, will dry in an hour and doesn’t crinkle. Innovation comes from wanting to make life better and so this is the new concept of LifeWear.
Production timeline of the sustainable t-shirt
ON INCORPORATING CUSTOMER’S FEEDBACK INTO THEIR DESIGN
YUKIHIRO KATSUTA: We are inspired by customer’s needs. We take feedback from the 2,200 stores from around the world and use that in our design because if they don’t need it, even if it is beautiful or trendy, they won’t buy it from us. As a barometer, once a customer recognises a product as practical, they buy multiple units because one is not enough. I tell my design team to put themselves in the shoes of the customer and think if a product is worth buying multiple units of. If they would only buy one of it, then it is not a practical item.
REBEKKA BAY: Sometimes I go to work and I just read customers’ reviews. Sometimes I am looking for something specific and I am asking my team to look for patterns in customers’ review. It is really exciting! Sometimes I am reading about how people live with our product and are they excited about the same things that we are excited about.
Sometimes you create this great oversized item and all the feedback is “this item runs big!”. I try to go into a Uniqlo store as a customer and try to never to know what is in stores. You know that we are ahead of our customers in terms of things that we are excited about, but they aren’t yet. Or maybe we don’t need to create oversized items because the fashionable customers know how to size up to get that look, but our ordinary customers do not [know how to do this]. So maybe we can create a well-fitted product, and the more adventurous customers will understand how to wear it smaller or bigger.
ON THE PAST AND FUTURE
REBEKKA BAY: I think that in the near future, we would want to live with less. I think we will want our product to do more, to be able to take us through different climates. To think of our wardrobe as modules that you build on, to continue to mix high and low fashion, to make more expressive looks with more basic pieces. I think we will increasingly look for products that offer comfort. But there will be a backlash to dressing in sportswear all day, so we will be looking for something chicer.
YUKIHIRO KATSUTA: When we first introduced the +J collection made in collaboration with Jil Sander, our CEO, Mr Yanai, bought a shirt from the collection. The other day when I had a meeting with him, I recognised the shirt and saw that the end of the sleeves was starting to wear out. I was wondering why doesn’t he buy a new one, he is a rich man! (laughs)
Visit the Uniqlo Lifeware website to find out more.
Photography by Marc Sethi and James North.