In Uniqlo’s Spring ’18 marketing video, the company’s 24 Hour Jeans campaign comes to life with people leaping, stretching, working and playing in their favorite denim while a clock ticks off the hours. The spot shows the company’s awareness that we all live in our jeans.
It also acknowledges a simple truth: while we love jeans, we’re all now spoiled by athleisure. The more time consumers spend in yoga pants, the more influenced they are by their stretch and performance capabilities, raising shoppers’ expectations for everything in their closets. That new standard is helping drive Uniqlo to produce jeans with unmatched stretch and hand that both flatter the figure and go the distance.
To meet that goal, the retailer, which is part of the Fast Retailing fashion juggernaut, launched the Jeans Innovation Center (JIC) in Los Angeles in 2016. Part laboratory, part design studio, the JIC is denim focused and customer obsessed.
“The mission of the Jeans Innovation Center is to make the ideal jeans, experimenting with different styles—modern, classic, vintage—and incorporating details in fit, fabric and finish to meet the needs of any lifestyle,” said Fast Retailing’s JIC director Masaaki Matsubara.
The company said that though most people own enough jeans to start their own highly curated denim boutiques, the reality is they typically have only one or two that they reach for time and again. And Uniqlo wants to be the one to sell them that go-to pair.
Applying the same laser focus it does to all product categories through research and development centers around the globe, the Japanese company is focused on perfecting three things: fit, fabric and finish.
The fourth pillar of the retailers’ design focus is sustainability, as the world has become more sensitive to apparel’s effect on the environment.
“We see the trend of simple and organic lifestyles more and more today. We as a retailer need to adjust not only our product assortments to our customers’ aesthetics, but also our method of manufacturing to be more sustainable,” Matsubara said, adding that ensuring the longevity of the finished product also plays a big part in responsible design.
When it comes to offering product consumers will want to live in, fabric development is a crucial step. Uniqlo focuses on comfort, stretch and lightness—properties it achieves by collaborating with industry experts.
“We are constantly thinking about how we can bring more comfort or lightness of stretch to our jeans to make everyday life better through clothing,” Matsubara said.
When searching for the right textile manu-facturers to work with, Uniqlo has been careful to select only those that share its quality and value ethos. The retailer has teamed up with Kaihara, which has been a mainstay in Japanese denim for more than 120 years. The company, which commands half of the denim market there, is fully integrated from spinning to finishing.
Through this collaboration, Uniqlo has achieved selvedge jeans it says transform the typically stiff style into a supple, stretchy option.
Combining the expertise of Kaihara with that of Toray Industries, Uniqlo’s long-time partner on a wide range of innovations, the retailer also developed its Miracle Air fabric. As the name suggests, these jeans are designed to be roughly 20 percent lighter than conventional denim, while providing about 15 percent more stretch, achieved by using a hollow-core fiber woven into the cotton.
To achieve the faded aesthetic popular on many styles of jeans, the company uses a new laser technology that provides the desired look with a quick zap rather than the chemical-laden, water-intensive wash cycles that were once required. Similarly, the company’s Eco-Stone Wash replaces pumice stones, the mining of which has had an adverse impact on the environment.
To ensure the painstaking development work is reflected in the final product, Uniqlo goes one step further. “We share our washing methods which developed at JIC with our factories, and our wash specialists conduct training sessions with them,” Matsubara explained. “This helped the factories to execute the original design and allowed us to deliver higher wash quality to our store worldwide.”
By developing new processes and working hand-in-hand with its factories, Uniqlo is able to offer a wide assortment of styles each season.
When it comes to improving fit, Uniqlo turns to collaboration here, too. The retailer works closely with sister label J Brand on design and fit to bring its finishes and fabrics to life.
The first designs from the JIC, which debuted for Fall ’17, included the women’s High Rise Cigarette style, which features a straight leg designed to accentuate the length of the leg and uses Kaihara denim for stretch. For men, the Ultra Stretch Skinny offers a slim cut and Kaihara stretch that Uniqlo said recovers to maintain its shape. EZY jeans for both men and women are constructed from a fabric with a soft pile for a feel that’s meant to be akin to sweatpants. The style also features an adjustable elastic waistline to ensure the pants stay in place without the need for a belt.
Looking ahead to future collections, Matsubara is reticent to divulge too many details, but it’s clear that his team is focused on balancing outside influences with Uniqlo’s core philosophy, which is grounded in innovation and attention to detail.
“While we remain informed of the latest fashions and L.A. denim culture to experiment with different fits, fabrics and finishes for FW2018, our overarching mission is to make improvements to our products season after season—whether it’s the smallest detail on a button or a more stretchable fabric in our Ultra Stretch Jeans—in order to continuously make everyday life more comfortable for our customers,” he said.