Uniqlo Makes a Designer Bid for Your Warm-Weather Wardrobe

Posted May 16, 2018 8:22 p.m. EDT

The designer-mass market collaboration has become as stale an idea as week-old banana bread: Take a buzzy name, combine with a volume expertise, remake runway looks in less expensive fabric, promote wildly for a month or so, crash a website — and move on.

But every once in a while a different approach is served up. The Japanese giant Uniqlo, best known for its heat-tech puffer coats, has teamed with Tomas Maier, the reticent creative director of Bottega Veneta and founder of his own label, for a one-time-only resort-focused collection.

Maier, while a respected fashion figure, is not exactly paparazzi fodder. He doesn’t hang out with celebrities, have a social media account or play the fashion show game with his own label — which makes him an unexpected choice for a big-box brand pairing. But he has one thing Uniqlo wants: warm-weather credibility. (He spends most of the year in Florida, and his label began life as a swimsuit line.)

In turn, Uniqlo has global reach and a history of working with designers who tend to prioritize “intellectual” over “hot.” Previous collaborators include J.W. Anderson, Christophe Lemaire and Jil Sander.

Together, Uniqlo and Maier mind-melded over minimalism and the importance of a garment’s architecture. The results are 15 pieces for men and 36 for women, from $9.90 (for bathing suit separates) to $99.90 (for a cashmere hoodie). The collection goes live online Thursday night and will be in stores the next day.

Here, Maier discusses how they cooked it up.

Q: This is your first mass-market collaboration. Why did you do it?

A: I had it in my mind a long time. I like their approach, not copying a trend but making something with its own integrity, to last a long time, even if it isn’t very expensive. Also, I’m a client of theirs. The first time I ever bought, it was when Jil Sander was working with them. She opened the door for a lot of people to look at Uniqlo: We all went and looked and shopped, and then I kept shopping. I like their black sweatshirts.

And they wanted to introduce the idea of the beach getaway, which is not their forte, but it’s my world. It’s what I stand for.

Q: How did it work?

A: We started talking last June, and were thinking we would do it in a year, but I said, “Why not just do it now?” So we did. We started last September. The team came to my place in Florida once a month, and then in March I went to Japan for the reveal. It’s all about the idea of escape and freedom through clothes. It’s very casual, mostly cotton, color blocking. There’s a palm tree print, which is kind of my signature.

Q: Bottega Veneta is a very expensive brand. How was it to do something at the other end of the price spectrum?

A: You know, this was not the first time I worked with mass market. Before I was at Bottega Veneta, I worked at Hermès, I worked at mail-order companies, at industrial companies. So it wasn’t completely out of my experience. But it was a very nice challenge, not because of the price points but because you are making clothing for so many shapes and ages and different kinds of people. So you have to always be thinking: Will this look good on everyone? We did two fits: one for the world, and one for Japan and Asia. In terms of design, they gave me carte blanche.

It was amazing: Whatever you want, it’s just a go, because the quantities they are manufacturing are so big. You want a zipper in four colors? Fine. You want a shoelace like this? No problem. It’s going to be in 1,400 stores and 19 different global markets. They ordered millions of pieces. Those are crazy numbers. My brand is like 1 percent of that.

Q: Uniqlo usually has multiseason relationships. Why do this one-time only?

A: I don’t want to be anybody’s staple. I am my own person. So I said: “Let’s talk after sales. Let’s do it one time, put my heart into it, and if it’s not a success, OK, fine, it was worth a try. But if it pans out, let’s talk again. We can always pick up the phone or send an email. You know where I am.”