For the presentation of Uniqlo's A/W 13-4 collection, a vast showroom space in Paris was set up to convey LifeWear, essentially a buzzword that conveniently houses all of Uniqlo's product concepts. I then started using the hashtag #uniqloforlife on instagram because I was so bang into Uniqlo's turn of phrasing, making absolute and utter sense to me as a longterm Uniqlo fan. Make no mistake, despite Uniqlo being owned by a company called Fast Retailing, this is a company that is dedicated to eschewing the fast fashion norm which pervades lower priced clothes. "We are not making fashion. We are making clothes for real life," said Naoki Takizawa, Uniqlo's creative director since 2011 who previously was at Issey Miyake. Senior VP of global research and design at Uniqlo Yuki Katsuta chimes in with a similar sentiment: "Real! That's what we do - REAL!"
Most of the product categories presented at LifeWear - denim, flannel shirts, Heat Tech, cashmere etc are categories that have long existed at the company and have obviously been their bread and butter in aiding the company's growth. The idea of calling what they do LifeWear though seems to have given Takizawa a clear vision going ahead - a supportive umbrella term that affirms everything he does when he is designing collections, selecting fabrics and considering every single design detail. They're designing clothes that puts aesthetics in a head to head with day-to-day requirements. "We're not casual wear, not sportswear, not contemporary wear," explains Takizawa. "We needed to find a good word to describe the concept. Last year, we finally found it - LifeWear."
What Uniqlo do is consistent product that is refined over and over again. They're making a point of that with this LifeWear concept. Yanai has famously compared the running of Uniqlo to Apple and though the comparison doesn't often ring true, it is interesting that break out products like Uniqlo's affordable denim or better yet, their pioneering Heat Tech product have broken out into the mainstream forefront so much so that in common conversation with people from all walks of life, you could be discussing the joys and effectiveness of Heat Tech. That people en masse have Heat Tech in their regular clothing lexicon is a powerful thing. Should Uniqlo continue in this direction, who knows what other innovations they could come up with, which have that similar sway over customers. So often with their product categories, they aren't reinventing the wheel (like jeans and flannel shirts) but they are refining the actual fabrication and these subtleties can be difficult to communicate. People wrestling over piles of £19.99 jeans aren't necessarily going to care about the specific ultra soft washes developed in factories in Japan. Maybe there's an element of the too-good-to-be-true with Uniqlo, which might be difficult to convey in a mahussive store that most people not in the know would associate with the "high street". "Functionality, luxurious materials and affordability," says Katsuta is the winning formula at Uniqlo. Where's the catch, one might ask?
That said, they were already preaching to the converted with me, being a longtime shopper in Uniqlo, back when its strategy wasn't fully worked out as they first started opening stores in the UK. There's a trust factor with Uniqlo that I've developed. I can fall on their product without questioning quality or longevity. They're pieces that are almost like invisible wires holding together the fripperies of the rest of my wardrobe.
How LifeWear will manifest in stores and how it will shape Uniqlo's product in the future will be interesting to see. It feels like a winning notion for customers to buy into useful product categories rather than trends and it's something Uniqlo have been promoting for a while anyway whenever you see cashmere or down jackets take over their windows in rainbow flurries. I wonder how LifeWear will be communicated as something solid and tangible though. Or maybe it's just intended as an internal term to guide the Uniqlo's design team, much like its Made for All tag line. LifeWear feels inspired to me. An appropriate bit of wording for the industry as a whole today.
What of the clothes? The A/W 13-4 collection has been broken down into 11 LifeWear categories... some familiar, some new but all unified to give you something "real".
Denim is one of Uniqlo's hero categories and this season they've focused on the shirt with some prints to mix things up.
Affordable cashmere is another Uniqlo staple and this season comes in colour blocked v-necks and even more shapes and colourways.
The ultra light down pieces are deceptive as they feel like you're wearing nothing but actually have 640 fill power (apparently 550 fill power is regarded to be high in quality). I always love a clothing stat or two. This season, they're doing more printed down pieces which give more styling potential. Speaking of which, Nicola Formichetti, a longtime Uniqlo collaborator, has done a stellar job of styling the lookbooks and also the mannequins at the presentation, which give Uniqlo's product an inspiring burst of imagination.
Fleece was Uniqlo's first hero product and they've given it some of the pieces a shaggy texture to emulate wool.
The Formichetti touch is especially evident in the flannel shirt section as shirts have been layered and buttoned up in a way that puts a new spin on this classic. I also like that there are other prints on the flannel shirts other than plaid checks.
On the bottom, Uniqlo continue doing leggings/jeans hybrid which are super soft and ultra stretch jeans that apparently have the most stretch in their fabric make-up on the market.
A curious category is the addition of Warm Pants/Easy. They're basically fleecelined outdoors-focused quilted skirts and trousers.
Another new addition is their silk pieces, their most feminine of Uniqlo LifeWear categories. Again, they use 5A or 6A silk (translation - they felt really great to touch) for their dresses, shirts and scarves.
Ah, my beloved Heat Tech. Fess up! How many do YOU own? I'm running on a core collection ofa bout fifteen pieces. I do have a vague suspicion that the effectiveness of the Heat Tech wears out whenever you wash them. It could be completely unfounded but I do have a naughty habit of wanting "fresh" Heat Tech whenever I'm in Tokyo and want to stock up. For A/W 13-4, they've developed a Heat Tech EXTREME which apparently makes you 1.6 times warmer. I'll be testing that for sure if winters are as harsh as they were last year. I've also yet to try Aerism, the summer opposite of Heat Tech, cooling your body down and resisting body odour.
Their Topics category as part of LifeWear sees other designers' prints come to life on Uniqlo designed-shapes. For A/W 13-4, they've worked with Swedish textiles collective 10-Gruppen, transferring their graphic prints to fleece jackets, tees and totes. It's that added burst of print that Uniqlo are keen on continuing by working with designers, in a similar vein to how they've worked with Celia Birtwell and Orla Kiely. As for their next collection collaboration, Katsuta does admit that it's a challenge finding a fresh angle. Their J+ range with Jil Sander was exciting because it brought Sander back into the fashion fold with something incredibly accessible. Jun Takahashi of Undercover's collections for Uniqlo centered around the family, incorporating childrenswear. I'm assured that Katsuta is thinking about potential collaborators all the time and that it will hopefully be something "fresh".