The Daily Heller: How Jason Polan Made “SPRZ” for Uniqlo
Jason Polan was a beloved New York City sketch artist who became a beloved global sketch artist, mentor, teacher and influencer (in the best sense). In 2011 he launched a project to sketch every person in New York City. He published a book four years later that contained some 30,000 people. He died in January 2020 at 37 (not of COVID) in New York, the city he loved. As Neil Genzlinger wrote in The New York Times, he was "one of the quirkiest and most prolific denizens of the New York art scene."
John C. Jay is one of Polan's leading patrons (and also an influencer, in the best sense, of retail brand design). He is the president of global creative for Fast Retailing, the parent company of Uniqlo and a portfolio of other global apparel brands in the U.S., Asia and Europe. His work addresses the future of the company through creativity and innovation, and he is the founder of the Art J Foundation in Portland, OR, that supports emerging contemporary global artists.
As you will read in the interview here, along with Nick Grover, VP Licensing, Merchandising, & Design, Jay was responsible for Uniqlo's uniquely intimate engagement with Polan as a talent in residence in their stores all over the world.
How did you become acquainted with Jason Polan's work?
I had heard about him through different artists in NYC. I had heard that he and artist Barry McGee were friends. I knew about the “World’s Biggest Drawing Club" through artist friends. But the real turning point for me was when I saw his work in the Uniqlo 5th Ave. shop. He had transformed the second floor as his studio as an artist studio when Uniqlo launched its “Only in New York” promotion on our “SPRZ” (surprise) floor in the flagship store. He drew anything for anyone who asked. Our concept for clothes is called LifeWear, which is Made for All. Jason represented that philosophy so personally, so it was a natural bonding that just grew around the world.
His mission was eccentric but simple—draw everything or everybody in NYC. How did that fit into your creative plans?
We are constantly looking to support artists and the creative work they produce. Uniqlo sponsors the Free Friday Nights at the Museum of Modern Art, the Tate Late events at the Tate in London. Our collaboration with MoMA produces many products based on the concept of their artists. For decades Uniqlo has produced a global competition for new artists for our UT T-shirt program. I have helped to host sponsorships of major museum exhibitions of artists such as Kaws in Shanghai and Melbourne. We work with Disney, Marvel and Pixar artists for UT. Uniqlo UT held an internal competition with Pixar artists and the winning 10 were made into T-shirts for a pop-up shop built in their HQ lobby. We are big supporters of Japanese manga, anime and game artists. I travel all over the world meeting and working with artists of all genres. However, in the case of Jason, it was the brilliant work of our UT marketing executive, Nick Grover, VP Licensing, Merchandising, & Design, who first brought Jason Polan’s work to the attention of the chairman of Uniqlo, Mr. Tadeshi Yanai in Tokyo.
Jason represents our sense of democracy and positive voice to the fullest.
He was a big hit, I presume?
When Jason was working in his “studio” in the store, fans came from all over and he drew pictures or portraits for many of them … upwards to 500 drawings a day. His enthusiasm, honesty and respect for all people was inspiring to us. When Uniqlo and Jason met, he was known inside the artist community in NYC. Our goal was to help share his talent and enthusiasm to the world.
There are dozens, if not hundreds of NYC sketch artists. What makes Polan's work so special?
I think the answer is in my above comments. His style is so simple yet engaging for all people. He captures the essence of the person or the moment. He drew me with just a few lines in Paris when I was speaking on stage and whenever I show that sketch, people invariable say, “That’s so you.”
One critical moment was when we invited Jason to Tokyo. In 2017, we launched the Jason Polan “SPRZNY” collection, featuring artwork from everyday life in NYC as well from his trip to Tokyo. We then took Jason to Singapore, Tokyo, London, Paris, Toronto and LA to participate in special events for his art. He held drawing classes for kids and lifted spirits wherever he went. It was truly inspiring to all of us.
You are no stranger to making art for consumer experience. Where does Polan fit into your many successes?
I don’t know if I have “many” successes, but I have been swinging the bat for many years in varied creative arenas, so I may have a few doubles here and there.
I can’t take a lot of credit here. Both Nick Grover and Uniqlo’s talented team helped to create the platform for Jason to take off beyond his beloved NYC. In my old days of creating the no name, no logo Bloomingdales shopping bags, I would have loved to have collaborated with him. During my Wieden + Kennedy years, I took great pride in bringing new artists and cultural influencers to Nike. From Hiroshi Fujiwara, Tom Sachs, Michael Lau and many others, having the stage to create new collaborations was one of my great joys. Opening the Tokyo and Shanghai W+K offices gave me inside relationships with the local art community, which was very important to my work. Recently, I opened the Art J Foundation and building in Portland to further my support for new contemporary artists. As the Uniqlo support for art and artists grows around the world, I have the great pleasure of helping to grow our engagement. On the personal side, my support for creativity and contemporary art will be an important part of my expansion as a creative director. I will continue to write on the subject of culture and creativity as long anyone will invite me!
Did Polan define your retail identity or brand? Or did he add another dimension?
Jason helped to further articulate our art. His ability to bring people together, no matter their age, gender, race or social background made him a very special contributor to our brand. He brought many of our feelings about respect for everyone and our goals to improve people’s lives to life.
Jason loved Marvel [comics] and he tried to redraw Marvel covers as a child. Marvel was one of his influences that inspired him to be an artist. The author of Spider-Man, Steve Ditko, had a secret studio in the neighborhood where Jason lived. His dream was to work with Marvel. The Uniqlo Marvel collaboration with Jason Polan was the last project before his passing.
It was my honor to help lead the efforts to celebrate his life after his passing. The Uniqlo Creative Lab, which I opened with Creative Director, Shu Hung, was responsible, along with Nick Grover, in securing the participation of MoMA to celebrate the life and art of Jason with the “World’s Biggest Drawing Club" at the Uniqlo 5th Ave. flagship store. There will be more such activities going forward.
Are there any other posthumous releases of his work?
Our LifeWear Magazine has a feature on Jason and essays by friends and fans, including Paola Antonelli.