Earlier this week, in the Frank Gehry–designed IAC building — which resembles a spaceship that just happened to dock on the side of the West Side Highway — LeAnn Nealz was getting to work. The recently appointed chief creative officer of Uniqlo (she joined the company in January) walked purposefully from display to display, taking visitors through the different parts of the retailer’s spring 2015 offering. She joined, she says, because “Uniqlo has a strong philosophy and value system that I believe in.” That doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a few plans to shake things up, though: While the brand has long been known for its basics, Nealz has said that she is interested in making the aesthetic more feminine.
It was clear that Nealz, who was sporting a polka-dot scarf tied like a cravat, had already applied her print-happy eye to the pieces: There were entire sections devoted to dots and stripes, expanded collections of Ultralight Down (now, she pointed out, the parkas come in prints), and tanks made with Airism, the company’s proprietary heat-regulating fabric.
One section hosted a collaboration with MoMA on tees decorated with Warhol and Basquiat prints, while in the back, a South of France–inspired installation (complete with sprigs of lavender in tiny vases) hosted Inès de la Fressange’s capsule for the brand, now in its third season. Nigo, the founder of A Bathing Ape and now Uniqlo’s UT creative director, presided over an array of T-shirts, some of which featured Disney characters or Hello Kitty. Through a translator, the designer explained that with his first collection, “I wanted to focus almost exclusively on American pop culture — that was a very strong theme for it. Then, this time, I wanted to make it a little bit more global, so there’s Tintin, Hello Kitty, etc. There’s always going to be some Disney in there, but I want to do it in a way that feels fresh.” Other inspirations began much closer to home: a black sweatshirt, which bears the skull-and-crossbones logo of Brooklyn Machine Works, comes from Nigo’s friend Joe’s garage. And while he recently collaborated with Pharrell on the I Am Other line for the store, he remained mum on any future celebrity linkups.
With the Tokyo-based company aggressively pursuing the American consumer — it’s opened 18 U.S. stores this fall and has many more to come, including a 60,000-square-foot Chicago outpost — Nealz says she is ready for the challenge. “It’s about creating new successes,” she says, “providing a creative perspective and design point of view that invigorates the brand globally.”