Right around the corner from the Louvre, designer Christophe Lemaire oversees his 15-person team in a stripped-down office with spare industrial fixtures and long wooden worktables. It is a philosophically ideal space in which to create Uniqlo U, a smart, sharp collection of sportswear for Japan’s largest apparel retailer.
In 2015, Lemaire, like fellow creatives Jil Sander and Inès de la Fressange, collaborated with the Japanese mega-retailer on a capsule collection. It flew off shelves so fast that Tadashi Yanai, the chairman, president, and CEO of parent company Fast Retailing, appointed Lemaire the brand’s first high-fashion artistic director. Asked what he wants to accomplish with Uniqlo U, Lemaire says, “I’m interested in something that fits your everyday life—timeless, essential. I’m obsessed with doing the right thing.”
Throughout his previous gigs as creative director, first at Lacoste (2000–2010) and then at Hermès (2011–2015), Lemaire has also maintained the beloved namesake label he founded when he was just 26. Now co-managed by Lemaire’s girlfriend, Sarah-Linh Tran, 29, the label has a store in Paris’s hip Marais district, where the walls are all white, the curtains are linen, and the clothes—the ideal pleated trousers, the cozy structured sweater, the clean white shirt—appeal to the notion of investing in the perfect (read: expensive) version of a simple item one can wear every day. “People have been realizing that [fast fashion] cannot go on anymore like it used to go—overconsumerism and overproduction are a disaster,” the designer says. “You just need a good pair of pants. If you find a good pair, you don’t have to change every six months.”
Since Lemaire launched his first U collection last year, his mission has been replicating that perfection for the mass audience of a company best known for colorful, cost-friendly T-shirts and puffy down jackets. It helps that the designer is an ardent fan of Japanese workmanship. “The beauty of details, the honesty of quality, the respect for people—there is a deep understanding of quality in Japan,” he says. He especially loves the concept of iki. “It’s hard to define,” he says. “It means being really elegant but not showing off.”
U’s muted dresses, blouses, and light sweaters must be ultra-iki, then, in that they mix elements of sport, normcore, and tailoring with of-the-moment detailing, all in the sophisticated palettes for which Lemaire is known. Think of it as slow fast fashion: low-priced (though slightly more costly than Uniqlo’s main line) and accessible, yes, but with a know-it-when-you-see-it specialness. The designer invokes Charles and Ray Eames’ famous quote, “We wanted to make the best for the most for the least.” After all, Lemaire says, “If you do good things, people recognize it. It’s a bit idealistic, but I believe it.”