This morning, Jil Sander’s ‘+J’ collection for Uniqlo finally had its international launch in London. Sander’s characteristically simple 140-piece collection includes white shirts, cashmere scarves and charcoal overcoats, with items ranging in price from £14.99 to £99.99. It will hit the Paris and New York stores, as well as across Japan, in the coming days.
Of course, this isn’t the first time a high-street retailer has hired an A-list designer. The trend kicked off in 2004 when Karl Lagerfeld collaborated on a range of 30 pieces for Swedish high-street behemoth H&M. Viktor & Rolf, Comme des Garçons, and Matthew Williamson quickly followed suit. Conceptually, this project with Jil Sander is different to, say, the H&M model. Rather than a one-off fling, Sander is “design consultant” at the brand, and the +J collection is the first product of this partnership. So unlike previous seasonal liaisons, this one is a committed relationship.
“Her style fits well with the Uniqlo brand,” says Maureen Hinton, lead retail analyst at Verdict Research in the UK. “She has a minimalist handwriting and Uniqlo is quite a functional brand – the two design styles sit well together and she can produce a signature range that will not look out of place at Uniqlo. Furthermore, as an international designer she brings kudos and luxury to a high-street brand – and a marketing opportunity that will drive footfall to stores.”
Breath is being collectively held to see just how til-death-do-us-part this marriage between Sander and Uniqlo will be. Six months after her eponymous fashion brand was sold to the Prada Group in 1999, Sander walked out. She returned some years later, but only for one year. The problem? Patrizio Bertelli (Prada’s CEO and husband of Miuccia) would not let her maintain complete control and she disagreed with his desire to steer the brand towards the middle-of-the-road.
However, Tadashi Yanai, CEO of Uniqlo’s owner Fast Retailing, seems to know how to cope. “We have arguments, but through arguments we get to know each other. That’s important,” Yanai said last month.
Yanai sits quite comfortably at the top of Japan’s rich list: according to Forbes he is worth US$6.1bn (see Monocle Issue 22 for our interview with him). Despite owning Comptoir des Cotonniers and Theory, Uniqlo is the company’s headline act. Last month Yanai announced ambitions to multiply Fast Retailing’s international sales more than seven-fold by 2020. In addition to rather tenacious retail expansion over the next few years, as well as its recently announced first shoe collection, Jil Sander’s term at Uniqlo should make a small but crucial dent in that target.
So what’s in it for Sander? Money, certainly, but it will be a much-needed new creative outlet too. Uniqlo’s success is based on classic basics, a good fit, and accessible quality, and shares something (albeit a less expensive something) with the Jil Sander brand under her leadership.
At Uniqlo’s store on Oxford Street, on a cloudy autumn morning, the designer Jil Sander is probably an alien name to many of the young customers rifling though its rails. Perhaps this partnership will help change that – or perhaps it’s not necessarily meant for them. The +J collection certainly sits well among the main Uniqlo range but it adds a more adult appeal to the brand. It will pull in people in their thirties and forties who know and like what Sander represents. If Fast Retailing is keen to meet its 2020 targets, aiming at a customer base beyond Uniqlo’s traditional teenage/twenty-something market will certainly be important. This collection at Oxford Street today is the first step towards that.