Alexander Wang joined Uniqlo and its parent company, Fast Retailing, in Lower Manhattan on Tuesday for the press preview of his second collaboration with Uniqlo in 10 years — this time, exclusive to Uniqlo’s HeatTech line, the brand’s signature collection of warm “innerwear,” traditionally meant to be worn under clothes.
Though designer collaborations are nothing new for Uniqlo, this marks the first HeatTech partnership — it was a concept Wang proposed to Yuki Katsuta, Uniqlo’s global head of research and design, last year.
“I call it couch-to-club,” Wang said of the collection, which includes sports bras, bodysuits, leggings and long-sleeve tees, all updated to with details calling to mind Wang’s popular utilitarian-sportswear aesthetic and intended to double as ready-to-wear.
The collaboration, set to launch in Uniqlo stores and online on November 8, comes a time of transition for Wang: Just last week, it was announced that his brand’s CEO — Lisa Gersh, who joined just one year ago — is on her way out. This summer, the brand transitioned to a June-December fashion show schedule, and its plans to boost direct sales, content and its physical footprint have been circulating.
“I’ve matured, and know more about myself and what I want to do,” Wang told Glossy. Below, he elaborated on his goals in terms of connecting with customers, taking advantage of his platform and building a brand with purpose.
How has your role as a designer changed since launching your brand in 2005?
I’ve under-appreciated my platform. Before, it was: I’m a fashion designer, I’m making clothes, I’m putting on fashion shows. Now, I feel that fashion is not something that’s only for a specific audience; everyone participates in it, whether you mean to or not: You’re scrolling on Instagram, maybe you encounter our brand. I hadn’t been able to formulate and deliver a message to the level I’d wanted until the last couple of seasons, when I finally said, “OK, you know what? It’s my job and my duty to say: Immigrant Americana [which inspired Collection 1, debuted in June] and my roots are things that are incredibly important to me. I need to mirror that in what I’m showing to an audience coming to the show.” And female empowerment — 90 percent of my company and executive team are female — this is something I want to express. I feel the duty. In the sense of being a creative, that’s definitely evolved for me.
What do your customers want now?
They want brand purpose. The customer doesn’t really need anything, and if they do, they know where they can go to find it. What’s so much more important is having a purpose as a brand besides offering product. In creating that for us, I always think, “If we’re not here tomorrow, would our audience miss us?” Having brand principles and values that you share with your consumer, and constantly reinforce and reaffirm in everything you do — through collaborations, events, on the runway, in campaigns, in store — that’s incredibly important. For us, we feel we’re at a point of pivot: We started as a fashion brand, and we need to redefine ourselves in a sense. Because being a fashion brand doesn’t feel that relevant anymore.
Is transitioning to a direct-to-consumer model needed to achieve that?
That’s not to be revealed yet, but we’ve been putting a lot of resources in building out our direct-to-consumer. It’s something that’s incredibly important today: to have that relationship to understand what customers are looking for, and what’s working and what’s not working in terms of fit, quality, all of that. The closer we can be to them and the more we can have our ear on the ground, that’s a priority for us.
How has the new pace of the industry changed your business?
For me, [the demand for speed] has created a lot more discipline around process and the product we create. There’s so much noise and product, and fashion’s become a spectator sport, something everyone can participate in. As a brand, we have controllables — the process, the supply chain, the design — we just have to be more methodical and thoughtful about them. That’s why we’ve changed so much of our design process; we’ve changed the design cadence and how we show, and where we show, and simplifying. It’s really about simplifying, at least for our brand right now.
You’ve collaborated with Adidas Originals, H&M, Uniqlo now twice. What would you say is your collaboration strategy?
Accessibility is something that’s incredibly important to me; I like to create relationships and trust and familiarity through the things I make. To only create for an exclusive audience feels limiting, and there’s different product that feels understood through different categories. I love being able to have a platform to be able to relate to a different audience through a kind of product I normally wouldn’t be able to do in my own line. And I always like to work with people who are leaders in their field — people who are doing something different and very much their own. Stay tuned.
Was anything unique about this collaboration, in particular?
Everyone is so fatigued by collaborations; every day, there’s a new collaboration, and there’s always this topline idea of this brand and this brand coming together. We didn’t have that novelty anymore — [Uniqlo and I] had already come together — so it had to be: What’s the concept? What are we trying to say? We wanted it to be very simple and straightforward; even though there’s a concept to it — marrying HeatTech and underwear — we made sure it could be understood universally.
What’s proven most valuable about working with Uniqlo?
I’ve been really inspired by its commitment to a very strong, singular vision. Despite how big the brand’s footprint is and how much product they offer, the concept is still very simple: everyday wear made for all. That’s been a learning experience for me, to know: You don’t have to limit your capabilities to be able to speak to a wide audience.
People are constantly going back [to Uniqlo] to buy that T-shirt or underwear, or leggings from you, and it means they’re invested in the brand. And when a brand can build trust with consistency, that’s something that’s so relevant today. Building a community is incredibly important, in terms of defining your purpose as a brand — otherwise, you’re just making product, and no one needs more product.