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The art of collaboration with UNIQLO UT

Words by Alyce Greer

It all starts with a passionate love letter.

I recently travelled to Tokyo and I can now confirm three things: everything is cuter in Japan, the spicy chicken snacks from 7-11 are actually pretty yum, and nobody does a collaboration like UNIQLO UT. 

A sub-brand of the iconic Japanese apparel brand, UNIQLO UT focuses on the humble T-shirt.  Every so often, they collaborate with equally iconic brands, designers and artists to release a limited-edition collection that promotes Japanese culture and sends a strong, shared message out to the world. 

I must admit, before this trip, I kinda thought the T-shirt was, well, just a T-shirt. But it feels almost embarrassing to admit that, having learned so much about the UNIQLO UT philosophy and meeting with UNIQLO UT’s Director, Rei Matsunuma.

According to UNIQLO UT, a T-shirt is not so much a T-shirt as it is a platform to make a statement, and an opportunity to create together. Just a T-shirt? WASH YOUR MOUTH OUT WITH SOAP. I sat down with Matsunuma to learn more about the art of collaborations, UNIQLO UT-style. 

You encourage people everywhere to ‘wear your world’ through a UNIQLO UT tee. Can you tell me a bit more about the brand’s philosophy?

A T-shirt should always enhance the personality of the person who wears it. In 2007 we started a new concept: to take a T-shirt – a canvas – and deliver strong messages. Today, UNIQLO UT is a cultural crossing between fashion, art, music and other forms of expression. 

UNIQLO has always been a big advocate for the T-shirt, but what is it about the humble tee? What can it do that other items in our wardrobe just can’t?

If you look globally, T-shirts are the one item that every single person has. And it’s the same for everyone: when you’re young, you want to wear a T-shirt with a band you like, or an artist you like. The T-shirt is always the wardrobe item you use to express your favourite things; it’s the medium. If you want to express yourself, you always grab the T-shirt first.

UT has done some incredible collaborations in the past – some for fun and some that make a powerful statement. Which collaborations have stood out for you?

There are now more than 1,000 UNIQLO UT designs to choose from, and every year there are so many incredible collaborations. We’ve worked with artists like Kaws and Takashi Murakami, and Japanese manga Weekly Shonen Jump. 

If I had to choose one, I’d pick Takashi Murakami x Doraemon, which is a collaboration between the artist and the characters from Japanese manga, Doraemon. This one is so representative of Japanese culture. It was an amazing opportunity to bring them together – we’re so proud of not only the culture it represents but that we’re able to send our culture all over the world. 

Why not create these designs in-house? What do the collaborations bring to the UNIQLO UT brand?

We want to create T-shirts, but we also want to create culture. And of course, we can’t do it alone. We collaborate with a brand or a designer, but we know one plus one does not equal two – it can be 100, it can be 1,000. We believe collaborations are the best way to create something new and fresh. The collaboration with Kaws is a great example: with this collection, we created a huge global movement.

Getting the collaboration just right is a fine art. Can you walk us through the process of finding – and persuading – a new brand, designer or artist you’d like to work with? 

First of all, we create a strong team within UNIQLO UT, then we come up with a theme we’d like to work with. We brainstorm suitable brands or artists, and once we’ve reached a decision we make a proposal. But it’s not just any proposal. For each collaboration, we have to express our passion – it’s like a love letter. We confess our love to the person or brand and explain to them how we plan to work together to send a message to the world. 

You’ve got an exciting new collaboration with Ambush and Minnie Mouse. How did you land on this pairing and what do you believe it will bring to UNIQLO UT?

To both UNIQLO and Ambush, Minnie Mouse is not just a character – she is a fashion icon; a muse that’s recognised globally. UNIQLO UT has always promoted culture. We’ve included Ultraman and Japanese manga in our collections. We offer works from around the world, like shodo art, texts from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and music-inspired design from Peter Saville. We celebrate movies too, such as La La Land and The Devil Wears Prada. The collaboration between Ambush and Minnie Mouse is another great opportunity to share these cultures while providing good quality products that Ambush and UNIQLO are both known for. 

Are there any other collaborations we can look forward to? 

We are working with contemporary artist Daniel Arsham for our upcoming collection, but I can’t reveal all of the secrets just yet. 

Can we take a peek at your list of dream collaborations or what you’ve got planned next for UNIQLO UT?

There are so many people we’d love to collaborate with! One thing I can say is that we’d like to support up-and-coming designers and artists. For example, before their UNIQLO UT collections, Kaws and Takashi Murakamai were not famous – they were students trying to become artists. They had great talent but maybe financially or because of the environment they were in, they couldn’t share these talents. Through UT, we’d like to send their creations to the world, whether that means supporting them financially or giving them the right environment to express their creativity. If you have creativity in your life, your life is so much deeper, so much more enriched, so we like to support that.

Alyce was hosted by UNIQLO at the UNIQLO UT x Ambush x Minnie Mouse preview in Tokyo. 

Alyce is a contributing writer for Fashion Journal. She writes about career advice, pop culture and the ins and outs of how to hustle.

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