The designer and the brand are now mutually invested—literally—in each other’s success.
A striking, maybe-obvious truth about fashion in 2018: the fastest way for a brand to go from no-name to always-selling-out is by collaborating. The current environment for collaborations typically dictates that brands grab onto the nearest, biggest star—whether that’s in fashion, entertainment, or sports—and hold on for dear life, hoping some prestige or recognition sticks. Uniqlo seems to do collaborations unlike any other brand, though, by picking partners that really match the sort of clothes it’s already making and generally committing to those people long term. And a report from Business of Fashion that the brand’s taken a stake in the namesake brand of its collaborator Christophe Lemaire is more proof the Japanese brand’s method stands out in a world littered with capsule collections.
The Japanese brand has always worked with designers who share certain thoughtful, understated qualities—Jil Sander, say, or Tomas Maier. Initially, Lemaire fit in the same bucket, pushing clothes in line with his own label’s flowy, relaxed gear. Then Uniqlo gave him the keys to his own permanent collection named Uniqlo U.
Uniqlo also started spreading Lemaire's talents around the brand. In 2016, a year into their partnership, Lemaire was named an artistic director, and tapped to head up the brand’s development offices in Paris. Uniqlo also got him to design for the brand’s athletes, like Kei Nishikori and Roger Federer.
Uniqlo’s investment in Lemaire’s own brand only makes sense because the pair are now so inextricably linked. It feels fair to say that where Uniqlo U goes Lemaire goes, and vice versa. “For [Uniqlo’s parent company] Fast Retailing, having a vested interest in Lemaire strengthens the ties between the eponymous designer, his partner [Sarah-Linh] Tran and Uniqlo, which has come to rely on his contribution,” BoF writes. While most collaborations are marketing plays, Lemaire is now a designer that Uniqlo relies on. His clothes aren’t housed in some remote corner of a Uniqlo store—they’re actually mixed in with the brand’s core collection in stores and on mannequins. He makes Fed look good, and Uniqlo even hires people from Lemaire’s world, according to BoF.
And it’s not just Uniqlo that’s benefitting from the partnership. Since Lemaire joined the brand in 2015, sales at his own brand have doubled. 2015 was also the year after Lemaire left Hermès to bulk up his brand, but permanently having your clothes in one of the world’s biggest retailers definitely doesn’t hurt.
Today, Uniqlo is signing Lemaire to another five-year deal, meaning he’ll be with the company through at least 2023. Most big-time collaborations between high-fashion designers and mall brands are limited to a single explosive day. Uniqlo, on the other hand, is a sorta-mall brand signing a really talented luxury designer to a long-term deal, hoping to bake his qualities into its own DNA. Lemaire and Uniqlo isn’t necessarily a big splash—although some Uniqlo U items do sell out—but a partnership that will elevate the brand by slowly nudging its clothes closer to perfection.