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I asked John C Jay for career advice and he told me to be naive

Interview by Giulia Brugliera

“If you’re not curious, then go to sleep. You might as well be dead.”

After sitting down with business powerhouse and creative whiz John C Jay for the better part of an hour, the golden nugget of advice he leaves me with is to stay naive.

Jay is the President of Global Creative at Fast Retailing, the parent company of Japanese superbrand UNIQLO. He is probably most notable for bringing Nike’s iconic Just Do It campaign to life. His work with UNIQLO now spans the globe, as he continues to build strong connections through collaborations with artists like NIGO and Brian Donnelly, otherwise known as KAWS. The latter collaboration has since evolved into an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria, with UNIQLO the major exhibition partner.

But before all of this, he was a 15-year-old who had enough gall and innocence to write to the editor of GQ in New York, offering feedback and constructive criticism on every issue.

“I’d been writing to the editor of GQ every month, like some jerk. I was in high school and like, ‘I loved your cover story this month, I thought the feature story could have been a little stronger, the photography was…’” he trails.  “It’s like, who am I?”

Whether naive or gutsy, it’s a pretty clear depiction of Jay’s penchant for reaching out and making connections, noticeable as much from his manner (he made sure to give me his business card) as his words. Jay talks about his work in terms of the people he collaborates with and the teams he leads, over any other metric.

“I constantly, even today, make little lists of people in the world that I want to meet,” he says, before launching into advice tailored for me.

“Who is it that you want to meet in the world? What do you want to do? What’s of interest to you? All of these things, put on a wall, suddenly are these floating dots. You need to connect them.”

The idea, he tells me, was born from Diane Von Furstenberg, who introduced Jay to his first ever salon.

“I went to her Fifth Avenue amazing apartment overlooking the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum [of Art]. And in the kitchen was the Secretary of Defence of the United States, talking to these models about nuclear disarmament. In the library was a 17-year-old gay hairdresser who had just finished his first show in Paris, talking to a professor about Greek history and so forth. In the living room on the sofa were all these Wall Street guys and a famous Vogue editor… Diana Vreeland.”

Inspired, Jay took the concept to Nike’s Mark Parker, now chairman of the brand. “My team put together 50 different people. Breakdancers, rappers, fashion designers, journalists, financial people, bankers, as rich as possible of a mix that I could make,” recalls Jay. “[Parker] had two hours, and he says its’ the richest two hours he’s ever had.”

The question to ask, he tells me, is if you can invite the world to sit at a dinner table, who are you going to invite?

Jay recreates this process often but to a smaller scale, with 10 to 12 people. He says this is because “a lot happens over the dinner table. Kinfolk started at the dinner table, did you know?”

His prioritising connection also extends to his staffing. Jay tells me he often hires administrative teams for their personalities and cultural value, rather than business acumen.

“I used to have this reputation of having the worst administrative assistants in the company, because I never hired for that skill,” he laughs. “But, they were culturally connected.”

The focus on good character runs both ways.

“I ask people in the company, ‘Is your boss inspiring to you?’”

He says the key to becoming that source of inspiration is taking notice of each individual’s unique qualities, and nurturing them.

“You don’t have to be a ‘management person’ to have that ability. That comes from social skills, and your ability to make people feel comfortable,” he says, and it is apparent he is as sincere and good-intentioned as he is shrewd.

“Do for them before you ask them to do for you, you know, it’s the golden rule,” he says. “Just help them, and the karma will come back.”

Supporting and collaborating with others, both artistically and in business, is entrenched in the way Jay works. Most recently, this manifested itself in the now-sold-out KAWS x UNIQLO SS19 collaboration, and the artist’s exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria.

Donnelly is an old friend of Jay’s. He first set out to meet him after seeing Donnelly’s street art on bus shelters, and the two eventually met through working in similar creative industries in Japan. 

“I knew him from Japan and [we] continued to be friends and so forth and so on until about four years ago, when we decided to officially work with him and help him democratise his art.”

Jay’s personal relationships with artists such as Donnelly have created a sense of trust that has prompted other influential creatives to work with UNIQLO. The brand regularly collaborates with Alexander Wang, Carine Roitfeld, Jonathan Anderson and NIGO.

“Over the years, I’ve built a very strong network of friends, Brian’s a perfect example. And I constantly am nurturing that network.”

The secret to setting up such a network, he says, is never to shed naivety in favour of sophistication. After all, the innocent letters he penned to the editor of GQ as a 15-year-old weren’t fruitless.

“One day I get this letter, from New York City,” he recalls. “It said, ‘Seems like you are interested in our magazine, why don’t you come to New York and work for us?’”

The KAWS x UNIQLO range was available at UNIQLO stores, online and at the NGV Design Store but it sold out in a day. You can shop other UNIQLO goodies here, though. 

KAWS: Companionship in the Age of Loneliness will show at the NGV until April 2020.

uniqlo.com/au

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