Uniqlo: Back to the future

Uniqlo's new Innovation Project sees the Japanese high-street giant returning to its roots, says Susannah Frankel
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Uniqlo is not a brand that follows fashion trends," says Naoki Takizawa. He is talking in particular about the Innovation Project, a new concept in clothing that hits the Japanese-born high-street chain famed for its no-frills, rainbow-coloured cashmere and fleeces this autumn. "Instead it aims to produce the ultimate basic items."

This latest range – which will start life as a capsule collection of no more than around 15 pieces but is set to expand rapidly – might not unreasonably be described as a return to Uniqlo's roots. Following the departure of Jil Sander, whose final +J collection is on sale now, Uniqlo will henceforward be focusing more on experimental technology and fabric innovation than on the perfectly proportioned tailored jacket, say, just as it always used to.

Landing Takizawa for the top job is quite a coup. He was creative director at Issey Miyake men and then women for more than a decade, though he says that "even though the market is quite different, the underlying design process is the same". Given the more egalitarian – and utilitarian – nature of mass production, however, he adds that it might be helpful to see clothing that doesn't bear a designer tag as "closer to other products such as computer gadgets, cars, mobile phones".

If the Uniqlo Innovation Project aspires to have more in common with industrial design than anything more ephemeral, then the discreetly futuristic, sportswear-inspired appearance of its initial offering only adds grist to that mill. It is a mindset that Takizawa understands well: under his tenure, and long before that, the Issey Miyake name was synonymous with pioneering and even revolutionary fashion design, after all.

The Innovation Project is, in fact, a group effort – and it is a formidable team. Creative director Kashiwa Sato and fashion director Nicola Formichetti will both be working alongside Takizawa. "We need more than one eye, idea and perspective," Takizawa says, and such a democratic mindset is refreshing. Sato, already the brains behind the creative direction of Uniqlo stores worldwide, will be responsible for what Takizawa describes as "summing up, from details to the whole", while it is Formichetti's position to bring a hefty dose of fashion credibility to the range. Given that the latter is also creative director of Thierry Mugler and stylist to Lady Gaga, he is more than qualified to do so. And Formichetti's handwriting represents a certain upbeat irreverence – plus a finger firmly on the pulse – that is vital for any relevant brand.

"I've been working for the company for five years," Formichetti says, speaking from New York, where, in the throes of the international collections, he has just opened a pop-up store. "I love them, they love me and last year I became fashion director. Being half-Japanese [the other half is Italian], I feel that it is an honour to collaborate with them. Uniqlo is constantly evolving and reinventing itself. Their approach to fashion is very similar to mine."

In the first place, he continues, the Uniqlo Innovation Project springs from humanitarian concerns. "You know the horrible things that have happened in Japan, that's changed people," he says. "Young people used to be much more materialistic but now they've reacted to the situation, they're thinking more seriously about things, so we thought: what are we going to do in response to that?"

A Uniqlo collaboration with Condé Nast Japan to raise money to alleviate the impact of the earthquake, for which Formichetti persuaded the likes of Karl Lagerfeld, Alber Elbaz, Charlize Theron, Blake Lively and, of course, Gaga to design T-shirts, was a direct, charitable response. The Uniqlo Innovation Project demonstrates similar sympathies, Formichetti argues, if more obliquely.

"It's about clothing for the future," he says, "and, in the first place, our attention is on innovative fabrics, not silly, but functional, good for the body and good to wear – like modern-day armour. We focused on a sports silhouette, a simple colour palette. Next season we'll develop the shapes but it will still be more street, more sporty than tailored, because that's what we wear."

The pairing of universal design – the type of simple and effective pieces that every modern wardrobe requires – with revolutionary functionality is at the heart of it all, then, as opposed to mimicking the latest skirt length/ trouser shape/decade ripe for revival. Garments may be water-resistant, windproof, retain heat, filter ultraviolet light, stretch to an unprecedented degree... the list continues. "It's about finding out who you are – going back to basics," Formichetti says.

Uniqlo – the name is a blend of "unique" and "clothing" – was founded by Tadashi Yanai, the CEO of parent company Fast Retailing, opening its first shop in Hiroshima in 1984. It came to London in 2001. By the end of the decade, Yanai had been named the richest man in Japan by Forbes magazine. His secret? An empire dedicated primarily to the crafting of colourful basic clothing most notable, in the first instance, for the fact that it trapped body heat. Formichetti loves to wear Uniqlo tank tops, he says. There's not a style-conscious man or woman who can go through the winter months without one of the company's puffa jackets, meanwhile, which rival those that cost 10 times as much.

"Uniqlo has never depended too much on trend analysis or existing theories," Takizawa confirms, going on to state that it was when the company first introduced "fleecewear as outerwear" that it came to his attention. "The majority of people should have the opportunity to enjoy technological innovation in clothing, not just athletes. To evolve everyday garments that enhance convenience and are functional is innovative. Once, Mr Yanai told me that the invention of 'pantyhose' totally changed the daily lives of women. I think that is a clue to this project's aim."

Uniqlo Innovation Project is available from 23 September