When the luxurious Train Suite Shiki-Shima launched earlier this month people ogled at its sumptuous bar car, first-class dining room and lounge car with its large windows and couches. But when it comes to the service industry, one design detail that often gets overlooked are the staff uniforms. But this is expected. After all, it’s not a fashion show. The customers are meant to be at the center stage while the staff quietly orchestrate. But behind many great experiences are the people that make them happen. And behind many successful uniforms in Japan is fashion designer Naoki Takizawa.
Takizwa got his start at Issey Miyake in 1982. After climbing the ranks, he became creative director from 1993 to 2006, during which time he was responsible for producing Steve Jobs’ iconic black turtleneck. In 2010 he spent a year at the helm of Helmut Lang and then joined Uniqlo in 2011 as Design Director.
But there’s an interesting anecdote about Jobs’ black turtle neck that also speaks to Takizawa’s design philosophy about company uniforms. And it also helps explain why corporate uniforms are more common in Japan. In his biography, Steve Jobs talks about going to Japan in the 80s and visiting a Sony factory. Here is the actual quote from his biography:
On a trip to Japan in the early 1980s, Jobs asked Sony’s chairman Akio Morita why everyone in the company’s factories wore uniforms. He told Jobs that after the war, no one had any clothes, and companies like Sony had to give their workers something to wear each day. Over the years, the uniforms developed their own signatures styles, especially at companies such as Sony, and it became a way of bonding workers to the company. “I decided that I wanted that type of bonding for Apple,” Jobs recalled.
Sony, with its appreciation for style, had gotten the famous designer Issey Miyake to create its uniform. It was a jacket made of rip-stop nylon with sleeves that could unzip to make it a vest. So Jobs called Issey Miyake and asked him to design a vest for Apple, Jobs recalled, “I came back with some samples and told everyone it would great if we would all wear these vests. Oh man, did I get booed off the stage. Everybody hated the idea.”
In the process, however, he became friends with Miyake and would visit him regularly. He also came to like the idea of having a uniform for himself, both because of its daily convenience (the rationale he claimed) and its ability to convey a signature style. “So I asked Issey to make me some of his black turtlenecks that I liked, and he made me like a hundred of them.” Jobs noticed my surprise when he told this story, so he showed them stacked up in the closet. “That’s what I wear,” he said. “I have enough to last for the rest of my life.”
Takizawa maintained his own separate design office, where he’s created company uniforms for museums, restaurants, hospitals and, his latest, train car attendants. For Train Suite Shiki-Shima he created all the staff uniforms from train conductor and engineer with Summer and Winter variations for each (a total of over 20 different uniforms). The uniforms were inspired by the Tohoku region of Japan where the train will traverse, but each is also the result of studying the different movement patterns required for each job. Lacquered buttons from Miyagi prefecture and kumihimo braided cords from Aomori finish off the outfits.
But when it comes down to it, “the most important things is that the working staff feel comfortable,” said Takizawa. Functionality informs the shape; the design follows.