TOKYO May 14 Ask Yukihiro Katsuta what anyone
could possibly need for sartorial comfort beyond heat-generating
innerwear in winter and a breezy, cooling undershirt in summer
and he'll tell you that Uniqlo, the Japanese casual-wear brand,
is just getting started.
"I want about 15 'brands' like that," the head of research
and design at Uniqlo said, referring to the hot-selling Heattech
thermal line and the silky, feather-weight Airism series, the
latter of which earned the status last year as a strategic
stand-alone brand within the Uniqlo universe.
The next Heattech would be welcome right about now.
Uniqlo's parent, Fast Retailing Co, has made its
name as a maker of high-tech, functional and affordable
clothing, beginning with 1,900 yen ($18.60) fleece jackets in
the late 1990s, helping founder and CEO Tadashi Yanai become one
of Japan's richest men.
Fast Retailing has enjoyed years of record sales thanks
largely to rapid expansion overseas, but its profit margins have
fallen for three consecutive years in Japan due to a rise in
discounts and higher labour costs.
Some analysts are also concerned the company's "wow" factor
has been missing of late. Ultra Light Down, which along with
Fleece, Heattech, and Airism is among Uniqlo's technology-backed
brands, is a decade old, and the addition of modified products
such as a line of extra-warm Heattech wear has largely going
Airism, for its part, succeeds the Silky Dry and Sarafine
lines that offered a similar, though somewhat inferior, feature
of a soft, cool and dry touch.
"Airism is great, but it's essentially a new name for
something they already had," said Masafumi Shoda, head of
Asia-Pacific consumer research at Nomura Securities. "There's a
sense of stagnation when it comes to new technology at Uniqlo."
Katsuta is impatient to change that. The drive for
innovation has especially heated up after Uniqlo last year
launched a new strategic direction under the "LifeWear" concept,
which aims to create "the next category of clothing" that brings
comfort and functionality to a new level.
"If we could have 10 tomorrow, I'd want 10," he said. "When
people think of Uniqlo in the winter, they think of Heattech. We
want our stores to be an amalgamation of those kinds of
One idea? "Mr Yanai talks about the size conundrum," Katsuta
said. "What if you could order something online and have it fit
perfectly? You wouldn't have to go shopping after work.
(LifeWear) is all about what we can do with clothes to adapt to
people's changing lifestyles."
A large part of succeeding with Airism undershirts and
camisoles, Katsuta says, is getting the message out.
"We have to communicate to people what happens when they
wear it," he said. "It was the same with Heattech. At first the
reaction, especially in the United States, was, 'What the heck
is this?' But one day (in 2008), we handed out thousands of free
samples in Times Square, explaining the made-in-Japan
technology. Then, people were sold."
By 2013, Uniqlo had rung up 300 million Heattech items
worldwide. Fast Retailing expects demand for Airism to
eventually outnumber that as it promotes the concept of "putting
on rather than taking off innerwear as a relief from heat and
In between the big-brand launches, Uniqlo is playing up
incremental technological improvements, born of clues from the
sales frontlines and elsewhere, to help propel sales.
New this spring/summer season is the Dry Stretch Pants line
- a concept that originated from golfer and Uniqlo brand
ambassador Adam Scott, who was looking for thinner trousers with
more range of motion.
"It's been a while since I've been this happy with a new
item," said Katsuta, wearing a pair of khaki Dry Stretch Pants
with a red-and-white-checkered button-down and grey-blue cotton
cashmere sweater, also from Uniqlo.
"(Scott) played at the Masters in these very pants several
weeks ago," he said. "But it's LifeWear. You can wear it 24-7,
365 days. With these and a (Uniqlo) polo shirt, you can dress
for the office for less than 5,000 yen ($49)."
Among updates for this year's fall/winter collection,
previewed in Tokyo on Wednesday, is a line of men's Ultra Light
Down hooded jackets that has an aluminium-coated lining to keep
the wearer warmer.
Also new is high-tech fleece material, developed with
Japanese textiles maker Toray Industries, that is about
1.5 degrees Celsius warmer than previous products.
($1 = 102.2250 Japanese yen)
(Additional reporting by Ritsuko Shimizu; Editing by Matt