When it came to figuring out how to handle Japan’s sweltering weather during the Tokyo Games, Sweden’s Olympic and Paralympic teams decided to look for local expertise.
That led the Nordic nation to sign a contract with fast fashion titan Uniqlo, who outfitted Swedish athletes at Tokyo 2020. The two parties announced an extension of their partnership on Wednesday, ensuring that Sweden will continue to wear Uniqlo through the Paris Games.
While Uniqlo is no stranger to the Olympics — the company outfitted Team Japan for the 2002 Winter and 2004 Summer Games in Salt Lake City and Athens, respectively — it was the company’s first time supplying clothing outside of its home country and a new opportunity to showcase its strengths.
“The Swedish Olympic Committee (SOC) recognized our quality and innovation, but they wanted to know about our sustainability,” Koji Yanai, group senior executive officer at Uniqlo owner Fast Retailing, told The Japan Times ahead of Wednesday’s announcement.
“Sweden has a strong global reputation for sustainability, and that’s something we’re committed to improving, and we thought that this partnership would be a good opportunity to share that with the world.”
When Uniqlo was working on their uniforms for Tokyo 2020, company officials met with groups of Swedish athletes in Stockholm to review fabric samples, take measurements and solicit feedback. Of prime concern was Tokyo’s notorious summer weather and how it would affect competitors.
“The SOC put a lot of importance in getting the players involved and listening to their opinions,” said Yanai, who is in charge of Uniqlo’s Olympic and Paralympic endeavors and is the second-eldest son of company founder Tadashi Yanai.
“People in Sweden haven’t usually experienced Japanese summers. They were concerned about temperatures near 40 degrees and all of that humidity. But their Uniqlo clothing wicked off their sweat and dried quickly.
“For them to believe our clothing contributed positively to their performances is a big takeaway for us.”
Among the feedback they offered Uniqlo designers was a demand for designs that would inspire them during competition, leading to a collection featuring an eye-catching neon yellow that might surprise consumers accustomed to the company’s typically muted color palette.
“It’s the clothing they compete in, the clothing they fight in, so they wanted designs that would fire them up,” Yanai said. “In training or relaxing in their rooms, they were fine with wearing regular Uniqlo clothing, but at the Olympics they’re representing Sweden, and they’re in a battle to win gold, and so they don’t want to feel relaxed.
“They wanted designs to help get them ready for battle, and that stood out to me. It was very important for the athletes.”
Uniqlo first began sponsoring athletes in 2009, when wheelchair tennis star Shingo Kunieda became its first ambassador. Since then, the company’s stable has expanded to include several sports, with Kunieda rival Gordon Reid, snowboarder Ayumu Hirano, golfer Adam Scott and tennis players Roger Federer and Kei Nishikori also signing on.
Their continued success on the field of play could give Uniqlo, which began marketing its sportswear products in 2016, greater access to what market analysts consider to be worth over $200 billion annually.
Yanai believes that the company’s sports items, which it brands as “Sports Utility Wear” to reflect that they can also be worn in casual settings, are at the same level as products released by major athletic brands such as Nike and Adidas.
“Uniqlo may be considered a lifestyle brand, but sports are a part of life,” Yanai said. “Our athlete ambassadors are all performing at a world-class level and that’s proof that our clothing can be worn in those situations.
“The clothing we sell is made of the same material and created with the same manufacturing methods as the clothing that Kunieda and Federer use, and we want consumers to know that.”
Swedish athletes wore Uniqlo on the podium a combined 17 times at the Tokyo Games, winning three gold and six silver medals at the Olympics before taking one gold, five silver and two bronze at the Paralympics.
But expectations will be even higher in February, when Sweden will be looking to break its Winter Games record of seven golds — first set at Torino 2006, then matched three years ago in Pyeongchang.
There, Uniqlo hopes to leverage its popular line of cold-weather technology — including Heattech, the lightweight thermal fabric released a year after the company outfitted Japan’s delegation in Salt Lake City — to help Swedish athletes finish on top of the Beijing podium early and often.
“There was a lot of concern over the hot conditions in Tokyo, and similarly we’re getting a lot of requests to manage very cold weather in Beijing,” Yanai said. “Our biggest goal is that we want to create clothing that will let Sweden’s athletes compete as comfortably as possible, and we hope to be able to put all of our technology into use.
“We want Sweden to win even more medals than they did in Tokyo. And we want Uniqlo clothing to be able to help them accomplish that.”
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