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Uniqlo Owner Takes Stake in Lemaire

Japanese conglomerate Fast Retailing has also extended designer Christophe Lemaire’s contract as artistic director of the Uniqlo Paris R&D Center by another five years.
Lemaire's Sarah-Linh Tran and Christophe Lemaire | Photo: Courtesy
By
  • Lauren Sherman

PARIS, France —  Fast Retailing and Lemaire are deepening their relationship.

The Japanese conglomerate, which owns seven brands including Uniqlo, Theory and Helmut Lang, has acquired a minority stake in the Paris-based label designed by Sarah-Linh Tran and Christophe Lemaire. The terms of the transaction were not disclosed, although the company said that there is no plan to make Lemaire a subsidiary of Fast Retailing.

In addition, Christophe Lemaire, who heads Uniqlo's Paris R&D Center and designs the Uniqlo U line, has extended his contract with Fast Retailing by five years. Along with Uniqlo U, Lemaire's team is responsible for designing the gear worn by Uniqlo's global brand ambassadors Kei Nishikori (tennis), Adam Scott (golf) and tennis superstar Roger Federer, who in July signed a deal reportedly worth $300 million over 10 years to endorse the company on and off the court. For some time, Lemaire has also been contributing to the design of Uniqlo's main line.

"I am pleased to deepen our partnership with Mr. Lemaire even more," Tadashi Yanai, chief executive of Fast Retailing, said in a statement to BoF. "I hope that our new level of involvement will help to facilitate further growth and development of the brand Lemaire."

Since exiting his post at Hermès, where he was artistic director of womenswear from 2010 to 2014, Lemaire and Tran have been focused on developing his namesake line, gaining a global following among the gallery crowd. In a period when maximalism rules, Lemaire's elegant modernism stands apart at multi-brand retailers. And with much of the collection priced under $1,000, it's far more accessible than many of the brands serving a similar customer, including Loewe and Phoebe Philo's Céline. Womenswear accounts for 75 percent of the business, with menswear making up the other quarter.

In 2017, sales at Lemaire were $12 million, doubling from just two years earlier. Revenues are set to hit $14 million in 2018, with more than 200 retail partners across the globe. Thirty-four percent of the business comes from Europe, with 18 percent of sales coming from Japan, 27 percent from the rest of Asia, 18 percent from North America and 3 percent elsewhere.

“This partnership is a coherent and natural evolution of Fast Retailing’s relationship with the brand Lemaire," Tran said. "We fully agreed with Fast Retailing that we will pursue organic growth, and we are very much looking forward to develop the brand with their support and confidence.”

For Fast Retailing, having a vested interest in Lemaire strengthens the ties between the eponymous designer, his partner Tran and Uniqlo, which has come to rely on his contribution.

"We are very pleased that this new phase of partnership will support Uniqlo overall, and not just the work of the Paris R&D Center," said Yuki Katsuta, Fast Retailing group officer and head of Uniqlo R&D, which has outposts in New York City, Los Angeles and Shanghai in addition to Paris and Tokyo. "At the same time, we are able to benefit from Christophe's knowledge regarding apparel design and creative talents. And we can tap into Christophe's network to help us secure creative talents in the future."

Under his new contract with Fast Retailing, Lemaire will continue to develop the Uniqlo U line, which is produced in much smaller quantities than the main line, with a significant number of items selling out each season since its September 2016 debut. "Working with Uniqlo has proven extremely stimulating," Lemaire said. "I am proud of what my team and I have achieved at the Uniqlo Paris R&D Center these two years, and I am excited to pursue the development of the Uniqlo U line.”

Today, Uniqlo U, with its seasonal, limited-edition releases, is a tenet of the brand’s store experience, styled on mannequins with pieces from both the main line and one-off collaborations. The company says that sales for Uniqlo U are growing steadily, although it doesn’t break out figures.

Uniqlo U's success may not make or break its bottom line, but it has certainly been a marketing win for Fast Retailing, which has, at times, struggled to communicate its "LifeWear" concept in the West, especially in the all-important US market where the company remains in the red.

However, spectacular progress in Asia, shrinking losses in the US, news of the Federer deal and higher-than-expected sales and profits in the first nine months of its fiscal year — sales were up globally by 15 percent, while operating profit was up 32 percent — have buoyed the company.

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