Kashiwa Sato Exhibition: UNIQLO
Sato and UNIQLO Logo
UNIQLO is a Japanese fast fashion brand that saw a rapid growth over the last couple of decades by disrupting the apparel industry. Just like Spanish Zara and Swedish H&M, it offered its core values – moderate quality yet highly functional everyday clothes – at sensationally low prices. A transformation of a small local Japanese company to become one of the major global brands is a rare success story, and behind it was Tadashi Yanai, a Steve Job-like founder and CEO of Fast Retailing, a parent company of UNIQLO. As a smart leader who is not afraid of making bold decisions swiftly, Yanai kept innovating his small retail business he inherited from his family to make it a national brand, then a global brand, and to become Japan’s richest person with net worth of $42 billion.
If you don’t have UNIQLO stores in your neighborhood, you might have seen its logo on the tennis shirts worn by Novac Djokovic, Roger Federer or Naomi Osaka, as UNIQLO is a major sponsor for tennis and golf players.
Kashiwa Sato worked directly with Yanai, and he designed that logo.
How UNIQLO/Yanai tapped Sato for logo design is quite a story, as it happened exactly when it made a leap to become a global brand. As a fast fashion brand focused on functionality, it released light, soft, warm and colorful fleece jackets at unbelievably reasonable prices at the end of the 90’s, which became a sensation. It ended up selling a record shattering 26 million pieces in 2000 to make UNIQLO a genuine household brand. But the sudden success led to excessive inventory, from which the company suffered significant losses in early 00’s. In reaction to the sharp decline, Yanai made a move in 2005 which was similar to what Steve Jobs did in 1996: he returned as top executive from Chairman so that he could oversee day-to-day operations by himself again. He wasted no time to re-build the brand by taking bold steps. One of his major strategies was to expand overseas market aggressively. He decided to open a flagship shop in NYC in 2006, which was supposed to be a declaration for UNIQLO to become a true global brand overcoming a growing pain.
That’s when Yanai tapped Sato, directly and personally. In their first meeting, Yanai decided that Sato was the one who could, and should holistically supervise marketing strategies for NYC store, which also meant supervising UNIQLO’s overall global marketing. As mentioned in the introduction post, Sato tends to work with top executives, many of whom see Sato their personal strategic advisor, not just a graphic designer or marketing expert. UNIQLO is a prime example how the ultimate decision maker like Yanai worked directly with Sato to produce highly effective branding/marketing results, as UNIQLO kept growing globally: it now has more stores (2,300) than Zara (2,200).
One of the first things Sato tackled as part of the NYC store projects was brand logo renewal (above images), as Sato always believed that logos were the most compressed representation of what brand was all about. What kind of logos UNIQLO would need to become a truly global brand? In order to send consistent messages to customers around the globe, he started by designing original font, which was used not only in UNIQLO’s logo but also other printed/online materials. He also created a Japanese katakana-letter logo. Most people in NYC won’t be able to read Japanese, Sato figured, so he wanted to design a visual that would catch people’s eyes by how it looked, not by how it read. The final product looked far from authentic Japanese letters, but Sato thought it looked something like the weird symbols you see when you had a computer bug. Yanai loved it, as he thought it looked novel, cool and fun, which is fashion is all about.
Since 2003, UNIQLO has been producing unique and extensive T-shirts collections by collaborating with various artists, creators or witfully adopting iconic symbols or brand logos. In 2007, the collection became “UT,” a T-shirt only sub-line under UNIQLO, supervised by Kashiwa Sato. UNIQLO’s flagship shop in Harajuku became “UT STORE HARAJUKU,” which starred more than 1,000 T-shirt varieties. Sato led the renewal, inspired by the success of “JAPANESE POP CULTURE PROJECT” at the NYC store opened in 2006 as mentioned above. In the project, UNIQLO featured 34 popular Japanese artists, cartoonists, photographers and musicians such as Yayoi Kusama, Tomoo Gokita, Keiichi Tanaami, Go Nagai (Mazinger Z), Takehiko Inoue (SLAM DUNK) and Daido Moriyama, Nonbuyoshi Araki, to design a T-shirt that would represent “Tokyo now.” New Yorkers loved the idea of a Japanese fashion brand saying hi to the city using their own product (T-shirt), on which artists drew colorful pictures of where the brand came from. As the shirts sold out at the store, UNIQLO renewed their belief that T-shirt was pop culture in itself. It committed itself to become the best T-shirt brand, and that passion fueled the creation of UT. It appointed Sato to supervise it.
The Harajuku store was designed to look like a futuristic convenience store, rather than an apparel shop, and T-shirts were often packaged in plastic bottles and stored in shelves almost looked like the ones used for cold beverages. Each T-shirt container had its own label, which made them look like soda bottles. The picture above is a store exclusively designed for the exhibition, and each T-shirt is in a special package, not in a bottle, which is shown in the below photo.
The UT is a potpourri of pop art. For the exhibition, Sato prepared 27 different T-shirts that featured so many different faces of pop culture: edited ukiyo-e (Katushika Hokusai, Utagawa HIroshige), Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Mickey Mouse, Hulk, Spider-Man, Pokemon, Super Mario Brothers, Gundam, Japanese manga (Tensai Bakabon, Devilman, Ge Ge Ge no Kitaro, Garamon, Osomatsu-kun), and Tokyo Miyage (souvenir) series.