In conversation with John Jay
In conversation with John Jay, president of Global Creative at UNIQLO, about LifeWear, the impact of art and culture and abandoned refrigerators.
Interview by Jan Morrison Schmid
Who is John Jay and how did your relationship with UNIQLO evolve over the years?
My name is John Jay and I have a long relationship with UNIQLO which dates back to 1998 before Fast Retailing had stores in Tokyo. I helped to launch the brand in 1999 with their first-ever advertising campaigns. Currently, I am the president of Global Creative for Fast Retailing, which is a holding company that owns UNIQLO. I normally live and work in three cities. Recently, I said to friends that if there's an explosion in New York and Tokyo simultaneously, have no worries, it's probably because I haven't been home in those two places and I haven’t emptied my refrigerator for over a year. My third base is in Portland, Oregon since I was a partner and creative director at Wieden + Kennedy.
Because of the recent situation, which makes traveling harder, I fully moved to New York six months ago. I am here at the Global Creative Lab, which is a creation of mine that I started six years ago to answer a question from our founder, Mr. Yanai. He asked me how we could evolve ourselves from being a great company from Japan to truly becoming a great global brand. I watched UNIQLO grow over the years and it's been an extraordinary journey. Today, I'm fortunate to be able to work in many different areas of creativity. We have a very strong allegiance to the arts and culture. On the surface, it may seem like we are in the apparel business, but we're actually in the business of culture.
What is the idea behind the Creative Labs?
I came to New York to take over the global Creative Lab and responsibilities here. There are global Creative Labs in Portland, which is the very first one, New York, Tokyo, and Shanghai. The idea of the mobile Creative Labs was to begin to grow and nurture creativity as the center of a company within our DNA. We retain our learnings, our processes, and our research. It works very much like a magazine. With every new issue and the more you grow and nurture, the more your team begins to understand the deeper meaning. That's what we're trying to do at UNIQLO.
What does a usual day look like to you?
In Tokyo, I'm in my office at 5:45 am. Since I'm a night person, it was quite an adjustment for me. I do like to start early to write all my thoughts and notes down. The schedule is nonstop so it’s very important to prepare in the morning. I'm currently back in New York which means that I'm back to my New York ways. Last night I was up until 3:45 am, writing notes and brainstorming.
How do you maintain a good work-life balance?
I may be unusual in this aspect. What if your work is even more exciting than your play? I do have hobbies and I enjoy free-time activities but I have to say that my work is the most exciting thing to me.
From my point of view, the distinction between vocation and vacation may be inseparable. Some time ago I was in Milan at the Design Festival with a client and I was being given an overview of an art installation. I remember how exciting, intellectually invigorating, and rewarding that was. I can't separate the experiences I make while working from the ones that happen in my personal life. Not everyone has the great fortune to have that in their life and I'm not saying that it's healthy to live by this idea at the time. But I am very happy about the fact that I've been able to carve out a career where I make these kinds of experiences quite frequently.
I always say that it is not a company's job to inspire. Everyone has to find their own path to inspiration. As a creative director, my number one responsibility is to inspire. It's about lifting the abilities, aspirations, and futures of all the people that surround me. It is my responsibility to lift every person that looks to me for guidance. I have to make sure to give them the opportunity to succeed. I say to my co-workers that whenever they are going to leave and go to their next job, I want them to say to themselves that they've had an unbelievable experience and that they are proud of what they have achieved.
How have your milestones and experiences throughout your career shaped the professional creative that you are today?
I've had an interesting history, and I hope to continue that. I first started in journalism in New York. All my superiors were editors, which was an incredible learning experience. The magazines that I worked at were small, but they were focused on social issues. I did not come from a fashion lifestyle background. I worked on magazines that were about business, science, Wall Street, and technology. I learned so much about how to make good stories about topics that are highly conceptual and difficult to express. This field differs a lot from a fashion story where one can show the beaches of Ibiza or the clothing that is fresh off the runway. When it comes to a highly conceptual story it is important to think about how to make it interesting for people.
This is why I love doing the magazine at UNIQLO because it brought me back. I love making magazines and books and the editorial journey from the front page to the back page and the interaction between copy and visuals and how they intersect. Storytelling is embedded in me from my early days in New York.
From that, I jumped to becoming creative director at Bloomingdale's, the famous department store, which was the cultural force of New York back then. I managed to work with every person that I admired and dreamed of working with and traveled to India, China, and many other countries. I went from business and science magazines with no experience in lifestyle or advertising, to Bloomingdale's for 12 years. It was like my graduate school of culture and an extraordinary time.
The next step on my path was Wieden + Kennedy where I worked on Nike, with no previous experience in the advertising agency world, and later I landed where I am today at Fast Retailing. The journey has been very interesting because I'm able to switch from one type of business of creativity to another.
What is your vision at UNIQLO?
What makes us so unique is this philosophy of LifeWear. First of all, it's a very radical idea and I say that with love. As a baby boomer, anything radical is beautiful to me, so I'm a little biased.
When we think of LifeWear and the exhibitions that we've had all over the world, of course, we're very proud of the technology, and the quality. But quite frankly, culture is a strong part of LifeWear itself. It is not simply about the clothes but also about the philosophy of how we look at the world. LifeWear has a lot to do with how we act in your region, in your city, and your neighborhood.
Clearly, the DNA from Japan has a strong hand in the brand core of UNIQLO. Every day in Japanese culture is exalted. It has a very special place in the philosophical ideas of the culture. My job is to help create the highest quality of experiences for the greatest number of people on Earth. We live by the idea that quality is affordable and deserved by everyone.
We heard about the „Made for All“ campaign which we are very excited about. How were you involved in this project and what does it mean to you?
LifeWear is made for all. The descriptor "Made for All" is the basic foundation of what makes it so unique. The communication of LifeWear is often about the product and the technology that is being used. Yet a huge part of why we exist in every community is the service that we give back to the community. Most people don't know that we work with nonprofit organizations to distribute our clothing to the ones in need. Just recently the entire office of our Paris store, including the president of our French company, volunteered on the streets of Paris together with an organization that helps to take care of homeless people. In the neighborhoods of Brooklyn, we provide a space for challenged and underprivileged kids where they can come together and use sports as a tool for education, self-improvement, and gaining self-confidence. We don't spend enough time talking about these things because we're a very modest company. Yet, I wanted to make sure that people understood that "LifeWear – Made for All" has a deeper meaning than just clothing.
We're very committed to helping in the refugee crisis around the world, beyond the act of donating clothes. One of the great joys that we had, was to include a refugee, who had the dream to work in the fashion business. He now is part of the team of the UNIQLO store in Milan. We talked to him about his journey and we shared his story in our Video campaigns to help people to see that the dreams they have do come true. "Made for all" is about providing jobs and helping to educate and to inspire young people in need.
Can you tell us anything about exciting future projects?
We have quite a few exciting things that we're doing at the moment. We just came up with our magazine "The Spirit of Soho", which celebrates legends in the future of art and culture in Soho. Every major city in the world has its own. The spirit itself was not delegated only to the 10 blocks in New York, but it is more of a global feeling. The spirit of creativity also gave birth to what we call Downtown. Every boardroom of every luxury brand and record label is highly influenced by the spirit of Downtown at this moment. To us, it is very important to help our audience dive deeper into the culture which leads to a greater understanding of our society and current issues.