Kosuke Kawamura and Jean Shein take us backstage at Uniqlo.
The renowned Japanese artist, Kosuke Kawamura, is known for his signature collages that work with shredded materials and graphic designs. Seen in shows at spaces like Gallery Common and HVW8 Gallery, as well as permanently in places like the renovated Tokyo Dome, his works merge street culture and contemporary aesthetics with an array of traditional art techniques. For brands like B@rbrick, Adidas, Nike, and Uniqlo—for its 2019 Dragon Ball x Uniqlo UT collaboration—we’ve also seen his creations take design center stage, with prints and patterns made from shredded paper, or even filling the interior of the product.
Most recently, Kawamura was appointed the Creative Director of Uniqlo UT—Uniqlo’s famed art-forward T-shirt line, known for its collaborations with museums and foundations around the globe. His start kicked off with a new launch last November in celebration of the UT collection’s 20th anniversary, as well as spearheading the third installation of Uniqlo’s charitable PEACE FOR ALL project. The latter uses t-shirts as blank canvases for the public to express their individuality. Proceeds from the anniversary’s ten new designs were donated to three organizations—Save the Children, UNHCR, and Plan International—that provide humanitarian aid to those impacted by injustices like natural disasters, discrimination, violence, and poverty.
Uniqlo’s dedication to people and the planet, of course, does not stop there. The brand’s Global Director of Sustainability, Jean Shein, is hard at work to ensure that high-quality materials have the potential to be lifelong pieces. Most recently, he spearheaded the launch RE.UNIQLO Studio, allowing repairs to customers of treasured LifeWear pieces; oversaw a shift in how the brand creates denim with significantly less water; and pushed to shift to 100 percent renewable energy used in the brand’s North American and European operations. By 2030, his hope is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in Uniqlo’s supply chain by 20 percent.
Kawamura and Shein both shared with Whitewall details about their roles at Uniqlo, and how a shared love of art, design, philanthropy, and sustainability is guiding new programs at the Japanese brand.
WHITEWALL: You are the Creative Director of UT, which stands for UNIQLO T-Shirt. How would you describe this line?
KOSUKE KAWAMURA: It’s a line of graphic t-shirts that celebrates the expression of the individual, culturally or artistically. Coming from an artist background myself, I have enjoyed building off of the foundations of UT, for transmitting this culture, while creating new collections within UT that are unexpected. I also plan to collaborate with young artists around the world to make UT a platform for the next generation of artists.
WW: The Spring/Summer 2023 collection is the first season line you’ve led as Creative Director. What can we expect?
KK: It’s filled with a broad range of graphics from different mediums, cultures, and time periods, as UT is known for—from the recently launched Mickey Mouse x Keith Haring collection and the popular manga series collection Attack on Titan to a partnership collection with The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, featuring artworks from three great Ukiyo-e (woodblock print) masters of the 19th century.
I also introduced collections that draw heavily on street culture, like Skater, in collaboration with Los Angeles-born creator Alex Olson and filmmaker and professional rider Shinpei Ueno, and The Message, created with three modern artists who are driving the art scenes in the U.S. and London. We rethought the classic UT silhouette for several collections, in an oversized fit, heavy-weight cotton, and long-sleeve options to reflect real street trends.
And, as a celebration of the 20th anniversary of UT, we launched the “ARCHIVE” collection—bringing back carefully-selected designs from iconic artists in past UT collaborations, including Andy Warhol, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Keith Haring.
WW: Japanese culture has strong ties to art and design, as well as time-tested quality in materials and craft. Does being a Japanese company, with offices and stores around the globe, impact your approach to the label?
KK: Much of what UNIQLO offers—innovation, longevity, superior quality—is rooted in its Japanese heritage. We call all of our apparel—from HEATTECH and jeans to UT—“LifeWear” because it’s designed with the intention of making everyday life better. This is a universal philosophy we bring to everything we do.
For me, my background as an artist has impacted the way I approach the UT collection. Before I became Creative Director, I was involved in UT purely as an artist, creating my usual work that was then laid out by a UT designer. Now, I look at it from the perspective of making it work as a graphic t-shirt. I’m constantly inspired by street culture, and it’s been a rewarding challenge bringing some of these more niche aspects of culture to t-shirts intended for a mass audience.
“It’s designed with the intention of making everyday life better.” –Kosuke Kawamura
WW: The PEACE FOR ALL project launched in June 2022. Why is this important for the brand?
KK: PEACE FOR ALL is a special project in collaboration with Uniqlo’s friends and supporters, from artists to pro athletes, who share our values for peace around the world. Though expressed on t-shirts, the heart of this project is its mission, and its impact on people suffering around the world. 100 perent of profits from sales go toward three charity partners: Save the Children, UNHCR, and Plan International.
Since launching the project in June 2022, we have donated over 2.4 million dollars to charities in support of their vital humanitarian work. On April 20, we launched our newest wave of t-shirts for the project with six new collaborators: Roger Federer, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Christopher Makos, Dick Bruna, Akamai Technologies, and Cristina de Middel of Magnum Photos.
I participated with a design for the second wave of the collection. It features the message “Give this world good energy.” I created it thinking that if everyone could transmit even tiny pieces of positive energy in their own way, then the world would move in a better direction. It has been an incredible way of partnering with our customers in creating a true impact in people’s lives around the world.
The diversity of PEACE FOR ALL’s collaborators is quite natural, as UNIQLO’s values of enriching the lives of people of all ages, genders, races, ethnicities, and backgrounds are shared by many people, not just those in the fashion industry.
WW: Uniqlo is regarded for its collaborations with artists and institutes around the world. Of what importance is collaboration to Uniqlo? What do you feel it gives its final products?
KK: Uniqlo has a longstanding heritage in the arts, and we’ve loved bringing artworks from renowned museums around the world—including The Louvre in Paris, Tate Modern in London, MoMA in New York, and The MFA in Boston to life through t-shirts. We take incredible care and thought into any collaboration, most importantly aligning with artists, designers, brands, and institutions that understand and share our LifeWear philosophy to clothing.
WW: Do you personally collect art?
KK: I own some artwork, but I don’t feel like I have a “collection.” I tend to collect records and secondhand books.
WW: What are you working on next?
KK: I am working on my next exhibition. And as the Creative Director of UT, I am spending a lot of time gathering information and collaborating daily with my team to create collections and develop partnerships that will be exciting and new for the brand.
WW: Jean, the brand is known for its approach to functional fashion, with a sustainable twist. How has that evolved over the past few years?
JEAN SHEIN: UNIQLO is clothing that is meant to last. It is high quality, timeless, perfected basics that are meant to stay in your wardrobe for a long time. That longevity is rooted in our Japanese heritage. We recently expanded RE.UNIQLO Studio, where customers can have their treasured LifeWear pieces mended—to 5th Avenue in New York, Disney Springs in Orlando, Beverly Center in L.A., and State Street in Chicago, with an existing location at SoHo in New York. It is a dedicated space for pursuing a new future for clothes, and is part of our larger RE.UNIQLO program—committed to extending the life of UNIQLO clothes through repairing, reusing, remaking, and recycling.
WW: At a recent preview, we learned about Uniqlo’s latest approach to denim, using less water. Can you tell us a bit about this latest innovation?
JS: Our jeans are developed by a team of denim experts out of the Jeans Innovation Center in L.A., who are committed to continuing to evolve and improve denim. They’ve developed BlueCycle jeans, reducing water used in the jeans finishing process by as much as 99 percent, achieved through the facility’s bio-washing and nano-bubbles.
WW: For those who aren’t familiar with Uniqlo’s overarching focus on sustainability, what would you want them to know?
JS: Uniqlo has been committed to sustainability for a long time and our LifeWear concept embodies our approach to sustainability through our products. LifeWear is timeless, thoughtful, and essential apparel designed with life’s needs in mind, meant to be a part of your wardrobe for a long time. And beyond the longevity of the products themselves, LifeWear serves a purpose: to make everyday life better and to contribute to society, both directly and indirectly. If our products do not fulfill this mission, then they can’t be LifeWear.
For many years we have collected and recycled customers’ clothing donations to people and communities in need—partnering closely with UNHCR to support refugees as well as the homeless community. In addition to this we have set clear goals that we’re actively progressing toward for a better future. We have shifted to 100 percent renewable energy in our North American and European operations; and by 2030, we will reduce greenhouse gas emissions in our supply chain by 20 percent, and will increase the percentage of women in managerial roles to 50 percent.
“Uniqlo has been committed to sustainability for a long time.” —Jean Shein
WW: What type of innovations or new techniques is the brand working on today?
JS: We’re expanding UNIQLO items using recycled materials, for the first time introducing this under the UT line with the Yusuki Hanai UT, made with recycled polyester. Additionally, we continue to grow our Recycled Down collection, which are made using 100 percent recycled down from customers’s previously owned UNIQLO down jackets.