David Blecken
Jan 6, 2016

Where fashion meets culture: Fast Retailing's John Jay

TOKYO - As creative leader of Fast Retailing, John Jay is involved in everything from advertising to product design. But his current focus is on building Uniqlo's international stature.

John Jay in front of joint portraits by Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. ©2015 Johnny Le (Johnny-Le.com)
John Jay in front of joint portraits by Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat. ©2015 Johnny Le (Johnny-Le.com)

Just over a year has passed since John Jay joined Fast Retailing as president of global creative. The move was in one way a dramatic change for Jay, who had been at Wieden + Kennedy since 1997. At the same time, it was a homecoming: Jay started his career in the fashion business at the US retailer Bloomingdale's; and Uniqlo was one of the first brands he worked on when, back in 1998, he established Wieden + Kennedy’s presence in Tokyo.

He has remained a friend of Fast Retailing’s chairman, president and chief executive Tadashi Yanai ever since, and it was ultimately Yanai’s vision and ambition that he says led him to join the company.

When inspired, Jay seems impulsive. For example, the decision to lead Wieden + Kennedy Tokyo himself came on the spur of the moment; he initially went to Tokyo to interview candidates. And before joining Fast Retailing, he had been in discussion with Yanai about being a Wieden + Kennedy client again.

Jay says he was looking to “make a dramatic big step” in his career—although at the time he was not sure what that might be. The talks with Yanai “rekindled a fire”. “I had this revelation: why not just join them,” he says.

A brief history of John Jay

  • 2014 President of global creative, Fast Retailing
  • 2013 President, ECD and partner, GX
  • 2003 Global CD and partner, Wieden + Kennedy
  • 1997 ECD and partner, Wieden + Kennedy Tokyo
  • 1993 Creative director, Wieden + Kennedy Portland
  • 1980 EVP and director of marketing and creative services, Bloomingdale's

So that’s what he did. In-house creative roles remain rare, and Jay’s is still taking shape. He is becoming involved in product design, which he says requires intensive study of the different channels and brands, and is responsible for setting the tone of the company and its services. He describes the job as “very unusual … much more than that of a typical creative director” in that he is involved in “so many aspects of the business, things that will benefit the company for years to come”.

Although Jay has responsibility for all brands under Fast Retailing, which include Helmut Lang, Theory and Comptoir des Cotonniers, his current focus is very much on Uniqlo. He continues to live in Portland, Oregon, which makes sense given that the US is a priority market for Uniqlo and one where its visibility is still relatively low. But he travels to Tokyo every month and even when not in Asia finds himself engaged in spontaneous conversations with Yanai at all hours of the day, often at 3 or 4 am, on topics that range from business to politics to Banksy’s new exhibition.

Sleep, it seems, has always ranked low on Jay’s to-do lists. John Rowe, MD of Wieden + Kennedy Tokyo, recalls that when he worked at the agency in Portland and lived across the street from it, he would usually see the light of a single office—Jay’s—burning late into the night.

Personal background

  • Born Columbus, Ohio
  • Lives Portland, Oregon, and Tokyo
  • Interests Vintage cars and modern art
  • Little-known fact Has lived and worked in a Chinese laundry

At Fast Retailing, Jay certainly does have a lot on his plate and is even involved in the establishment of a global logistics centre alongside Daiwa House, a construction company, in Tokyo’s Ariake district. The aim is to take Fast Retailing’s online retail business to a new level. “On paper,” he says, “I work with Yanai on anything creative. That means anything. Now, realistically, I’ve got my hands full on the future of Uniqlo.”

The brand continues to perform well in Asia, especially China and Korea, but in October announced that it had missed its financial target for the year of a ¥200 billion (US$1.6 billion) operating profit by around ¥35 billion ($286 million) largely due to over-hasty expansion in the US, where it is still a relative newcomer.

Raising its profile there is seen as key to global expansion, and Jay’s first major piece of work since he joined aims to educate people on what Uniqlo stands for. Considering the imaginative use of digital platforms that Uniqlo is known for in Asia, it looks surprisingly traditional: full-page newspaper ads, including a signed letter from Tadashi Yanai, outlining Uniqlo’s ethos as a ‘Life Wear’ brand as well as his great respect for the US as a country.

The ads are backed by the ‘Life Wear Book’, a premium print product that at first glance looks like a well-produced brochure but is actually much more meaningful. It showcases the clothes, but also seeks to humanise the brand and explain how it fits into daily life, while highlighting its status as a global yet Japanese brand. This approach includes essays by endorsers, among them sportsmen like Kei Nishikori and Adam Scott, Chinese actress Ni Ni, Columbia University professor and anthropologist Laurel Kendall, and kabuki actor Ichikawa Ennosuke IV, who writes: “Traditions should not be preserved. Rather, they should be broken. Any time there is too much focus on preservation and on protecting something against change, that something loses more and more of its vitality.”

Just as surprising is the amount of detail given on the technology behind the products. Articles such as ‘A jean generation’, for example, outline Uniqlo’s reinterpretation of Japan’s traditional indigo dyeing process, aizome; ‘Powers of warmth’ uses diagrams to elaborate on the company’s Heattech fabric.

“Life Wear was 20 years in the making,” Jay says. “This is just the beginning. We’re only just starting to talk about it in a concise way…Every ad so far has been some expression of Life Wear. The [newspaper] letter came from a truth because Mr Yanai speaks openly about America and the things he admires, the ability to dream big.”

Jay says that cracking America is not a marketing issue. He acknowledges that it is very much about knowing the consumer inside out. “It’s a complete thinking process,” he explains. “It’s not just a case of making cool ads or building new stores [the company currently operates 42, having opened 17 in the last year alone]. It’s basically a question of what is the strategy and what is the vision. We’re working that out every day.”

Jay at the Portland Art Museum ©2015 Johnny Le (Johnny-Le.com)

Where Jay makes his expertise felt most strongly is perhaps in linking the brand to contemporary culture. At Fast Retailing, he is closely engaged in building creative R&D centres. This is partly to facilitate product innovation, but more importantly as a way of ensuring the brand is able to interact with the people it makes things for.

“These are not simply about how we can make a new fabric,” he says. “It’s also a case of ‘do I really understand the fabric of the community. I spend a lot of time talking about cultural connections. We see evidence of many great brands that lost their way, not solely because they lost their sense of culture, but that’s part of it. They were no longer part of the zeitgeist. Zeitgeists come and go; here [in Tokyo] there’s a new one practically every weekend.”

How does one ensure their brand doesn’t lose touch? There’s no easy answer. “It’s hard work,” Jay says. “But part of it is just personal. I love interesting people, to have dinner with interesting people. I bring my personal connections into communities.

“The art of the salon is something I learnt a long time ago. [While at Wieden + Kennedy] I would hold cultural salons all over Asia, making sure the guests were diverse. We would have beatboxers alongside fashion designers and financial journalists.”

As popular as it is, Uniqlo has its challenges. Indeed, its mass appeal spawned the term 'unibare' several years ago among Japanese students, essentially mocking the wearer of Uniqlo clothing for their mainstream tastes. Jay’s aim to strengthen the brand’s ties to more interesting cultural movements, even subculture, is justified and perhaps even overdue. Doing it for a big brand like Uniqlo might not be as easy as for a small, creatively acclaimed agency.

However, having the full support of someone like Yanai, a highly creative leader in his own right, is a big help. “He’s a tremendous dreamer but one who puts those words into action and makes them become reality,” Jay says. “He keeps pushing the finish line further out. For any creative person, to have the opportunity to partner with someone in management like that is extraordinary.”


Campaign Asia

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