Uniqlo is aiming to create "modern classics" that people wear for longer to be more sustainable, says the clothing retailer's UK COO Alessandro Dudech, but questions remain over whether the strategy is working.
Speaking at the opening of the Japanese brand's latest UK store in Covent Garden, Dudech explained how Uniqlo aims to differentiate itself from fast-fashion brands by incrementally improving the design of its clothes and focusing on longevity, including by launching repair services in its stores.
Known for affordable, preppy basics, Uniqlo's popularity is on the rise across Europe and Dudech is charged with leading its expansion in the UK.
"What we go for is not big, outlandish design, it's just subdued, subtle quality," Dudech said of the brand's ethos.
"We call them modern classics," he continued. "So taking a classic silhouette but then adding a modern functionality like, for example, Heat Tech [thermal properties] or stretch. And I think the zeitgeist is very much behind this way of seeing clothing."
Uniqlo's latest UK store is a 1,450 square-metre space inside a Grade II-listed former Victorian carriage hall. Following the trend of retail spaces geared increasingly towards experiences, the three-storey shop features a cafe, a florist, a roof terrace and t-shirt personalisation service as well as a repair shop.
It is Uniqlo's 17th store in the UK, almost all of which are in London.
Shoulder bag success "caught us by surprise"
The company is already a household name in Japan with more than 800 stores and now has a target to open 30 outlets a year across Europe, up from the current total of 67.
That ambition has been partly fuelled by multiple items becoming runaway successes over the past two years, most notably the banana-shaped round mini shoulder bag.
The bag has arguably become a design classic already, selling out seven times in the UK over the last 18 months following a young buyer's viral TikTok video.
"It caught us by surprise," admitted Dudech. "It became an overnight sensation."
"That was very much a sudden realisation of the power of social media and just how quickly information disseminates, especially among younger people," he added.
Rather than attempting to engineer further social media successes by manufacturing content, Dudech said Uniqlo is focused on using these viral moments to improve its products.
"We're trying to leverage this information, but perhaps not in the way that other brands do," he said.
"Meaning that what was very useful for us was actually to see what customers appreciate about this bag specifically," he continued.
"They really liked how much you could fit inside, but at the same time one of the comments we heard on TikTok was, you know, what about more colours? So that's when we decided to increase the colour range."
"It's about making small incremental improvements"
This approach, he claims, forms part of Uniqlo's central philosophy for designing and selling apparel. Instead of changing its range every season like rival retailers, it introduces new lines one-by-one and seeks to steadily improve them over time.
"It's a different understanding of what design is, right?" said Dudech. "It's about making small incremental improvements to make the product ever-better."
"As a company we are really focused on letting the products do the talking and building this relationship where our customers help us improve them continuously."
Re.Uniqlo Studio, the new Uniqlo repair service currently in four London stores, but set to be in every UK outlet by the end of the year, has unexpectedly been contributing to this process.
"We can see first-hand where the product is deteriorating," explained Dudech.
"We didn't think about this when we introduced the service but it's really helped our R&D team realise, 'okay, our knit sweaters might get a bit weak in the shoulder after a few years, so we need to make that stronger'."
The repair service forms a major plank of Uniqlo's efforts to make its operations more sustainable.
"If we want to become sustainable, we need to make sure that products can last longer and can be utilised, passed down to the next generation," said Dudech.
Next in the journey to make its products last longer, he hints, the brand could change its advice to customers about how to wash Uniqlo clothes.
"The way you wash your product has a huge impact on the wear and tear and durability," he explained.
"Ultimately, the future of sustainability is going to be about providing more and more services to really extend the life of products that are already in circulation."
The fashion industry has an enormous environmental impact, accounting for up to 10 per cent of global carbon emissions and using more energy than shipping and aviation combined.
Uniqlo argues that its "modern classics" approach makes it more sustainable than the standard fast-fashion brands.
"Fashion is inherently transient, but we want to make it more durable – not just production longevity but also emotional longevity," said Dudech.
"Because when you have the confidence that something will not go out of fashion, you also wear it longer," he continued.
"What's the point of calling yourself sustainable if you're just shooting out thousands of lines every season that nobody's ever going to really need?"
Criticisms over sustainability strategy
However, questions have been raised over Uniqlo's sustainability progress. A Corporate Climate Responsibility Monitor report published in February by Carbon Market Watch and the New Climate Institute rated Uniqlo parent company Fast Retailing "low" for integrity on its sustainability targets – worse than rival retailer H&M.
The report said Fast Retailing's headline pledges equate to a 19 per cent reduction in emissions by 2030 compared with 2019, "fall[ing] far short of what is needed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius".
"Fast Retailing's emission reduction measures focus on emission reduction plans for supplying factories, but details on how the company engages with suppliers – the company's main source of emissions – remain limited," it added.
Rather than answer when asked about these criticisms, Dudech directed Dezeen to the Uniqlo press office.
"The Corporate Climate Responsibility Monitor report is an important resource for all corporations taking action to address climate change," the press office said in a statement.
"Fast Retailing has been making steady progress in its sustainability initiatives after formulating its 2030 target and action plan," it continued.
"We welcome dialogue and scrutiny of the company’s climate commitments and goals, and remain committed to continue to make progress and to share more information about our initiatives in the future."
"Products should be brought to market when they serve a real purpose"
Across several industries including fashion, improved sustainability is often associated with higher price tags, but Dudech dismissed the idea that Uniqlo clothes could get more expensive.
"I think that trade-off, in my opinion, it's a non-starter. Because why should the customer suffer?" he said.
The Corporate Climate Responsibility Monitor report warned that repair stations "would have a significant impact in emission reductions only if they would lead to a shift in consumer behaviour and a reduction in the volume of new garments purchased and produced".
Dezeen pushed Dudech on whether producing less clothing – as called for by the British and American fashion-industry bodies – will inevitably lead to higher prices.
"Our goal is to make just the right amount of product, and absolutely, the industry needs to come to grips with the fact that, you know, products should be brought to market when they serve a real purpose," he said.
"I think, rather than think of it as like, we're just gonna sell less, it's like, this is helping us innovate and continuously adapt to customers' needs."
Other recent Dezeen interviews with fashion-industry figures include conversations with Nike vice president Darryl Matthews, British designer Christopher Raeburn and Loewe creative director Jonathan Anderson.
The photography is courtesy of Uniqlo.
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