Uniqlo has commenced a collaboration with MACBA, Barcelona’s museum of contemporary art, allowing visitors free entrance every Saturday from 4pm to 8pm – a perfect embodiment of their value of accessibility. Shu Hung is the brand’s Global Creative Director, LifeWear, and met with us at one of the minimalist white rooms of the museum to share her thoughts on retail, technology and finding the balance between the brand’s Japanese roots and respect for local cultures.
I’ve read that you, before setting up the concept store Table of Contents in Portland, lived in Berlin and set up makeshift stands on the street to sell products. So I can see you’ve always been involved in retail or, at least, in the experience of selling and the environment that makes it possible. But what was the starting point of that interest? Anything in particular that sparked your curiosity?
For me, retail encapsulates many different things. You have the ungraspable element of a brand – creating a brand identity –, which involves developing a meaning and a purpose. But you are also working with physical products, which requires you to go out in the world, explore what is interesting and, based on that, pick what you want to expose. Furthermore, how to use those products to engage both people you are familiar and unfamiliar with. Then, of course, there is the aspect of a physical space, in which you are presenting your products.
In Berlin, this presentation was really spare, meant to look like we were on a flea market. Whereas in Portland, it was much more of a holistic retail experience – with an atmosphere created by design, music and scent. I would say that the mix of the brand, the product and the experience is why I am so appealed to retail and why I still think it is one of the most interesting ways to express something.
I’m asking you this because I noticed that both in this experiment and in your work for previous brands and currently in Uniqlo, it allows you to interact with their target group on a very personal level. Is this something you strive for in your work as creative director, or does it happen more subconsciously?
I suppose this varies depending on the brand. In my own shops, my product was incredibly specific. I knew this would engage only a very small audience but the few people that would be interested would hopefully find the product highly appealing. As for Nike, I did all sorts of things there, but my last project was named NikeLab, which is once again targeted towards a specific shopper: one that knows his or her products and is looking for something a little more special. Here it is again about speaking to this person in his/her language and in a context that makes sense to him/her.
Uniqlo differs in that department. For the first time, I’m actually trying to speak to as many people as possible and not focussing on a niche audience as much. When asked who is the Uniqlo customer, I answer “everybody”. Yet some of our products, like the Uniqlo U line, tend to be a bit more forward-thinking and avant-garde. My role as a creative director is to figure out how to make this appealing to those people who may not consider themselves an avant-garde fashion person, but may simply be interested in the quality, colour or shape. So for Uniqlo, my answer is actually the reverse of your question. I try to take something that might, on the surface, look like it is interesting for very few people, and make it popular for a larger audience.
Uniqlo is an incredibly large and international brand, I can imagine different countries come with different target groups. How do you play into all these different markets whilst simultaneously maintaining your brand identity?
We are actually thinking about this all the time. When we are launching in a new country, we like to be as local as possible. So you saw that with our campaign when we first came to Barcelona. We cast people from the city or region and were very specific about who produced the campaign; it had to be a local. So I’d say that the first point is communicating in a way that resonates with the audience here. From there, we specify it to collaborations like this one with MACBA.
We explore the city, look at the important institutions, and ask ourselves what do people and institutions here need in order to appeal to a wide audience. For MACBA, we realised it was as simple as offering free entrance on Saturdays. But I’d say that with any city, appealing to the local market goes paired with a lot of research about what do the people there want and need from our communication – but also in their everyday life. As a result, art is often a big component.
I find the vision of Uniqlo very interesting as it values both high-quality innovation and accessibility in both price and design. Other brands often make you choose between the two. Could you further explain this concept to us? How do you make it possible?
Every product needs to have good quality and good value; if it doesn’t, we simply don’t produce it. We are very critical during the many meetings where we assess samples or designs. Some are truly amazing but we have to turn them down, as they won’t reach the greatest number of people due to the cost. I’m glad to say we have a great relationship with our suppliers, allowing for a highly evolved production with minimal waste. We never make more than we think we can sell. Our philosophy is LifeWear, which speaks to our products.
As you said, we are constantly questioning how to make good products that are meant to last, instead of being thrown away after a season. One of the answers to this question is creating garments that respond to a need. For example, it’s cold so you can have Heattech because it’s warm, you can wear Airism when you need to go to work and have really well-cut affordable suiting, and so on. We are not about looking at trends or what is happening in fashion, but instead, at what is happening in people’s lives.
Uniqlo works with both heritage and natural fabrics with technical innovations. How do you manage to blend the two together in one brand?
There are certain fabrics that really stand the test of time. Cotton is a great example, as well as some wools. They have proven over and over again that they will perform in all different climates and different contexts so they don’t really need improvement. For our more innovative designs, we have a partnership with Toray, a Japanese tech company that creates everything from spaceships to bicycles and also fabric. Together, we analyse what is happening in the world, what is the climate doing, what is people’s behaviour telling us. Heattech is one of these outcomes, which once again plays in on a need.
We also have a partnership with Shima Seiki, a factory that creates circular knitting machines that allow us to create seamless garments, eliminating itchy seams, for example. We try to be very critical of our garments and keep improving them. Sometimes, this demands only the change of small details, while others, innovation demands much larger thinking about fabrication and production.
You did many collaborations with a variety of designers and companies (from JW Anderson to Studio Sanderson and even Discovery Channel). What qualities do you look for in any creative person/studio/brand/institution when collaborating?
The main point is they have to agree to our LifeWear philosophy and they have to be up for the idea of making a good quality product at a reasonable price to suit as many people as possible. From there, we look if there’s anything interesting happening in the collaborator’s life. It could be a fiftieth anniversary or a launch in a market we are also interested in. There’s a little bit of a strategic and storytelling approach to it. However, our biggest point is: how can the collaborator contribute that we can’t do on our own? Discovery Channel, for example, brought us these fantastic graphics from their programming. JW Anderson has this incredible eye and obsession with iconic British classic, with his unique twist. He designed something that we were not really comfortable with doing on our own. 
Let’s talk about your collaboration with MACBA, which will provide visitors free access every Saturday afternoon. Could you tell us a little bit more about this? How did you come up with the idea?
We got in touch with MACBA as part of our research when opening in Barcelona and learned that we had a lot in common. We recognized that they were one of the most prominent cultural institutions in the city, not just in terms of their artworks, curation and programming, but also the physical space itself. Its location in the city, the respectful yet modern architecture and the fact that this is one of the few places I’ve seen skaters freely use the courtyard with impunity made us feel like MACBA was the right group to partner with.
As soon as we had our eyes set on MACBA, the idea itself was simple. We asked ourselves, what do people want more than anything? The answer is easy access, for us to take down the barriers that people normally have when considering to visit a museum. There are definitely infinite more options to collaborate with them and we might explore them later, but opening the doors and allowing people to come in feels like a good way to begin.
You’re collaborating with MACBA in Barcelona, but before that, you already collaborated with MoMA in New York and Tate Modern in London. What is it about contemporary art that appeals to Uniqlo?
Contemporary art is iconic. Almost anyone would recognize a Warhol when they see one. So we can see that it has mass appeal, which agrees with our value for accessibility. Furthermore, Uniqlo is a modern brand and, therefore, we like to align ourselves with modern ideas. Lastly, when we are talking about institutions, the ones with the most appeal and broadest audiences showcase contemporary art. Yet, primarily, we are philosophically in line with the ideas and missions of both contemporary artists and institutions.
What was it like for Uniqlo to collaborate with a museum? Have you noticed any interesting insights in different ways of work?
We have learned to be really respectful with the eye of the curator. Last year, for example, we did a collection named Super Geometric. It existed out of a mix of numerous artists, both dead and alive, that all shared a love for geometric painting. It was in collaboration with MoMA and we worked very hard together, trying to come up with the perfect mix of artists that would shape a coherent collection. So the main lesson was to accept that yes, we have certain knowledge about retail and we design the clothes, but there is a whole other discipline we are working with and we have to respect the knowledge of the professionals in that discipline.
In addition to these local collaborations, you are also active in local collection presentations (for example, the Fall/Winter 2017 presentation held in Madrid). Do you notice that interacting with your worldwide audience on such a local and personal level gives them a different opinion of your brand?
I feel like we definitely interact more with our customer and hopefully the people in Spain, and anywhere else in the world, have shaped a positive opinion about Uniqlo. Being essentially a Japanese company we have certain values that are derived from this DNA, like the quality, precision and thoughtfulness of our designs. We want to make sure that this comes through alongside the respect we have for the local culture. For me, it is all about balance. If we shoot a completely local cast, for example, we ask ourselves how can we make sure our Japanese values are clear as well. Or if it’s a very global campaign, how do we bring that local aspect to the table? Essentially, we have all these different ingredients and try to figure out what the best balance is.
The other way around, does it allow you for a different opinion or insight on your target audience?
Absolutely, we do lots of research before opening anywhere – several months of research, actually, where we get quite close to people in the city. We chat with civic leaders and important creative groups. We get to know the admired institutions, the local behaviour – anything that allows us to answer the question “what do people need right now”. So maybe it is not the actual event that helps us understand our target group, rather the research that comes before it.
What do you hope to be the result of this collaboration with MACBA?
Oh, I hope people go to MACBA! I hope it inspires people to make their way over to see the amazing work, see it as a family activity or maybe something to do on your own. I really just want people to see how simple it is to go over there on a weekend.
Having practically concurred the whole world, what is next for Uniqlo?
I can’t talk specifics, but we have some exciting markets that we are looking to expand at. We are always curious about new places! You may have heard we are opening in Stockholm? We definitely have some interesting projects lined up over there.
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