If social media is a barometer of the changing winds of fashion, we can see then that subtlety is not on trend. Yet, the quiet can be discerned in the chaos, and the most persistent hush comes from the discreet styles that continue to characterise the collaborations between Uniqlo and its chosen partner-designers—none more so than the latest with the new French label Lemaire.
It may seem odd to describe Lemaire as new. Designer Christophe Lemaire has been creating under his eponymous label since 1992, following internships with high-profile names such Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Lacroix and Thierry Mugler. But he truly blipped into the radar when he was appointed the artistic director of Lacoste in 2001—a position he held for 10 years before joining Hermès in 2010 after Jean Paul Gaultier left. He stepped down as artistic director last year. The label Lemaire, conceived with his girlfriend Sarah-Linh Tran around the same time he joined Hermès, is, therefore, a baby of a venture.
Despite the relative newness of the label, and a lack of marquee-name recognition, Uniqlo was keen to initiate the collaboration with Lemaire. The brand’s appeal to Japan’s biggest fast fashion label is understandable: Uniqlo is a master of practical clothes with modern sensibility, Lemaire is a proponent of pared-down elegance. Both are clearly from the same planet. Most shoppers call what Uniqlo offers basics, but the brand prefers to market its clothing as Lifewear—to be worn, and with regularity. This is very much in line with Lemaire’s own “attentive details designed for everyday life”. As Mr Lemaire told Vogue UK, “Our philosophy is close to Uniqlo’s. Uniqlo designs quality garments for everyday life. It’s is not trend-driven.”
The result, launched today across the globe, is nothing short of splendid. In many ways, it recalls Uniqlo’s partnership with Jil Sander in 2009. If the clothes are ironed and taken out of Uniqlo’s utilitarian setting and placed on racks more suited for quality merchandise, they could have been a Lemaire diffusion line deserving of its own free-standing boutique. That, for many observers, is the true strength of Uniqlo—the ability, despite its mass-market standing, to produce superior clothes that belie their humbler production origins. These are no doubt simple garments, but the simplicity attests to Uniqlo’s strength in generating affordable and consumable sophistication that has selling power. As designers with purity of aesthetics are wont to say, it’s a lot harder to do simple than to embellish.
Uniqlo X Lemaire’s output is, however, not uncomplicated clothes stripped down to the point where they become devoid of character. The capsule of 30 pieces for women and 25 for men is clearly conceived with control: in the proportions, in the volumes, and in the details. Nothing is exaggerated, yet there’s much in the shapes (looser) and lengths (longer) to entice. Mr Lemaire’s sense of chic is reminiscent of Helmut Lang’s, circa 1986, but it’s a lot more relaxed, as in a tunic. You sense that if the late Yves Saint Laurent had the inclination to design a minimalist collection with a nod to British classics in his holiday home of Marrakesh, this would be how it might turn out. And the unexpected touches, such as the distinctive, lower-than-usual pocket placement, are rather a joy to behold. For those who know their own style (and size) well, these are clothes that allow you to skip the fitting room; you just know they look good.
After the one-hour press preview at Uniqlo’s Ion Orchard store this morning, expectant fans descended on the collection with a fervour palpable at a book launch. The atmosphere was not manic, as it typically is at the debut of other fast fashion collaborations. The shoppers picked quickly—the selected pieces stuffed into baskets, while those unable to find the right size looked with dismay. By noon, all the wearable stuff—mostly blouses and shirts suited to equatorial climate—were snapped up. It was revealed by the staff that some of the items will be re-stocked at 7pm. Fifteen minutes before that, a motley crowd had gathered. Those saleable items could not be replenished quickly enough. Many, clearly with a mission, stood around like scavenging animals, waiting to target the pieces the minute they make their appearance. It’s shopping with a mission that’s not impossible.
These are clothes, too, that are likely to survive any wardrobe’s annual edit. In fact, it is hard to imagine discarding buys from Uniqlo’s tasteful collaborations, past and present. From the European minimalism of Jil Sander (whose career comeback was made possible by Uniqlo) to the urban-military hybrid of Kiminori Morishita (of 08Sircus fame) to the happily-tweaked classics of Jun Takahashi’s Undercover, the standout is our ability to wear these clothes from then till now and, very likely, longer after. Despite the glaring shift to bombastic fashion among consumers, Uniqlo has stuck to its better-basics approach to merchandising.
While many are waiting eagerly for the season’s most touted collaboration, H&M X Balmain, and will no doubt queue overnight to get into the store on the morning of the launch, here at Uniqlo, the low-velocity scramble imparts some dignity to the experience that’s very much in keeping with the muted appeal of Uniqlo X Lemaire. Quiet may not be the new loud, but it certainly speaks volumes.
Uniqlo X Lemaire is available at Uniqlo, Ion Orchard. Photos: Uniqlo