Having served as the creative director for celebrated fashion houses such as Givenchy and Chloe, Clare Waight Keller is no stranger to working at the top rungs of the industry. Probably best known to mainstream audiences as the designer of Meghan Markle’s elegantly simple wedding dress, the British designer also re-introduced haute couture — the intricate pinnacle of fashion — at Givenchy during her tenure.
Even so, the fashion veteran was surprised by the meticulousness of the production processes at Japanese clothing-retail giant Uniqlo, which she recently collaborated with on a new womenswear collection, Uniqlo : C. Combining the fabric innovation that Uniqlo is known for with Waight Keller’s refined yet relaxed design sensibilities, the 34-piece Uniqlo : C debut collection includes thoughtfully designed pieces such as oversized coats made from lightweight Pufftech, pleated skirts differentiated with a graphic band along their hems, as well as a range of footwear.
Here, in an interview with The Peak via e-mail, the designer shares more about her partnership with Uniqlo, having the luxury of time to create, and what effortless style looks like today.
1. How did you and Yukihiro Katsuta (group senior executive officer and head of R&D of Uniqlo) first start discussing the possibilities of a collaboration?
We started talking about it two years ago. I have known about Uniqlo for more than 10 years, and it all started with “+J,” which Uniqlo worked on with Jil Sander. I thought it must be an interesting brand because someone like Ms Sander would collaborate on such a large scale, and I felt that it would be fun if I could do what Ms Sander had done with Uniqlo.
2. Many mass retailers that collaborate with fashion designers tend to do one-off capsule collections, but Uniqlo takes a long-term approach to working with designers such as Christophe Lemaire and Jonathan Anderson. Did the long-term nature of Uniqlo’s designer collaborations attract you to working with the company?
Uniqlo has an incredible legacy of working with great designers: Jil Sander, Jonathan Anderson, Christophe Lemaire, among others. And as a brand they’re also very technology-driven, which was particularly appealing. Our collaboration started very organically. As we worked on this collaboration, we felt very strongly that it was a story, and that perhaps it could develop into its own label.
Another deciding factor in my involvement in this project was the ability to create a capsule collection. I have never had my own brand. I’ve always worked for other designer brands, often heritage companies or companies with a very long history or (acclaimed) founder, where I have dived deep into their DNA, aesthetics and ethos. And so, for the first time, I was really going to be working solo, with my own idea of what I wanted to create and express. This became the chance for me to work on a collection from my own archive and my personal opinion of effortless and classic style.
3. What were the biggest challenges of creating your first collection with Uniqlo?
First of all, the scale of Uniqlo’s business is completely different from the brands I have worked for. Despite its large scale, it was a pleasant surprise to me that this is a company that pays attention to very small details and demands high precision in everything it does. Before a product is launched, the entire design and production process is checked and checked again and again, and the manufacturing process is truly meticulous. I had not expected them to go this far.
There have been some interesting challenges along the way in creating the collection, and some of that is because I wanted to incorporate a few interesting techniques I’ve used in my past. The idea of pleating — I’m using very textured fabrics for pleating and fine gathering. These tiny little spaghetti string coulisse, similar to a drawstring that runs through the dresses, which makes everything adjustable and easy. You can create different silhouettes using the drawstring in various ways.
There’s also a beautiful satin pleated skirt with a graphic band across the bottom. That was logistically quite difficult to manage — the pleating and the graphic element — to get everything to work so perfectly, but we achieved everything in the best way.
4. Uniqlo has a technical-driven approach to fabric development. Coming from the luxury fashion industry, you would be used to working with more traditional, refined fabrics. How did working with Uniqlo influence your design process, and were there any particularly interesting fabrics used in this collection?
The Uniqlo team considers the purpose behind every piece, and how that item becomes an essential part of your wardrobe. Every detail is equally important, down to the colour of the thread. I did more fittings for Uniqlo : C than I’ve done for collections in the past! That really tapped into my own approach of creating clothes for women to wear in their everyday lives — we were really aligned on this.
When you’re working at a different price point, the way the fabric translates is very important in achieving the right silhouette, and so this was a critical part of the work I did at the beginning. Really looking at what were going to be the most special fabrics and ones that would create the most successful and beautiful result for the price. And I have to say, I’ve been very impressed. Things like the cottons, and the nylons, are of an exceptional level. They really are. So that was a nice surprise when designing the collection.
In terms of processes, the Parisian brands I have worked for have had to create collections in a much faster cycle and did not spend that much time on fittings. Uniqlo : C is on a two-season annual schedule, but when I was working in Paris, we had four seasons a year and had to finish one collection in 12 weeks. Compared to that, I can spend more than twice as much time now. In the past, in order to finish a collection in a short period of time, I would concentrate on design and leave the production and quality checks to my staff, but with Uniqlo : C, I could check the entire process myself.
5. There’s quite a bit of faux leather used in the shoes and bags. Was this a choice made with sustainability in mind, or were there other considerations?
With this collection, we wanted to deliver comfort and functionality to support and align with people’s lives today. We wanted to create pieces that can stay with wearers for a long time, and that they can invest in. I believe this is the modern way of dressing.
In the design process, we choose fabric carefully and consciously; we are always asking ourselves how we can do this better and how we can be the most sustainable when we think of fabric choices. The second thing for me, personally, is to choose products that will stay in the wardrobe for a long time. That is a very integral part of sustainability in fashion – it’s to keep things and not throw them away. Each of the pieces I have here are the pieces that I would still happily wear five years from now.