UTme AppIt’s a matter of time when smartphone applications will do every up-to-the-minute thing for you. Not an outrageous thought, really. Fashion has become so apps-centric that many live and consume fashion via their mobile devices. It’s a cultural shift and consumption habit already noted, and they threaten to leave slow-to-adopt brands unfashionably behind. It’s no longer enough to engage followers via social media. Letting them in on the creative process is now elevating interactivity to the next level.

Last night, Uniqlo launched a customisation program called UTme! at its Bugis+ store. The create-whatever-you-like, wherever-you-are service is available for T-shirts, and they’re executed via a smartphone application, also called UTme. So compelling to use is the app that attendees at the launch event were willing to brave overwhelming demand to wait till closing hours of the store to receive their customised T-shirt. Before using it, few could have imagined that graphics to be emblazoned across the chest of a tee can be easily and quickly done via an app, but Uniqlo shows that coding and creativity can pair as naturally as, well, T-shirt and jeans.

UT (Uniqlo Tee) itself has been a wildly successful product category, buoyed by its embrace of commercial logos, popular icons, and collaborations with creative enterprises and individuals, all (presently) steered by ex-Bathing Ape designer Nigo. Through UT, Uniqlo has been able to elevate the T-shirt from its humble place in our wardrobe, and, in the process, propel its sales. It first appeared in 2007 in the concept store, The UT Project—a futuristic, multi-storey block, smacked in the heart of Tokyo’s Aoyama district, a skip away from Harajuku. It was a store that would not be out of place in the New York City of the 1977 film The Fifth Element. UT products were rolled into plastic canisters not unlike those used to contain tennis balls (the T in the abbreviation could, therefore, also stand for Tubes!) and covered with red screw-top caps. They were displayed in shelving units that could have been conceived by whoever designs the vending machines across Japan. Conceptually, The UT Project was as strong as it was visually arresting. It was a marketing sensation too, more so when you consider that it was a fast fashion company behind it. During the early days of rapidly-issued, trend-focused, and wallet-friendly merchandise, how clothes were wrapped was of no importance. UT’s packaging then was really half of its appeal. Shoppers came away from the store with so many UT canisters that you would not be considered ridiculous for thinking they were buying cans of their favourite soda or beer for watching the English Premier League at home.

UTme app interface

The Interfaces of UTme app

The UT Project was, unfortunately, canned. But it’s not in the nature of Uniqlo to let its T-shirts lose their vim. Customisation is in keeping with the self-promote-and-share ethos of the Instagram generation. And it can only augment the already vast styles and graphics available in-store. The UTme app may seem gimmicky, but to customers whose smartphone is the centre of their universe, it’s relatable and usable. It’s also intuitive to navigate. Once loaded, its colourful and simple interface, with huge tiles as buttons, would not confound even those who infrequently click on apps stores. The sequence of actions to be executed is logical—input-effect-ouput, and each step can be backtracked to undo a move. This allows the user to play with the numerous effects before confirming the final design. Graphics to be used can be from the stock shapes and stickers offered by the app or any picture from your phone’s album. Selfies are, therefore, not left out.

The functionality and features are indeed rather amazing for an app that takes up only 125MB of space on your phone, and, can be moved to the SD card, freeing up onboard memory space. Apart from the usual tapping and swiping, shaking the phone (gently or vigorously), not dissimilar to the WeChat function that allows you to randomly find other users to interface with, transforms the chosen graphic into bursts of twists, streaks, and tiles, thus distorting it for some rather startling and unexpected result. The more you shake, the more disfigured the image becomes, so much so that the final can be unlike the original. There’s also a ‘Glitch’ function that, when shaken and then paused, allow for Jean-Paul Goude-ish shredding.

Interestingly, UTme does not output terribly garish designs however dubious the initial image you choose (unless you prefer to use it unadulterated). It works rather like Singtrix, that karaoke machine that “makes bad singers sound good and good singers sound amazing”. Many of the effects are so delightfully abstract that, chances are, you’d be amused rather than repulsed. Choice is also the operative word, and within impressive options, some are no doubt artistic. The effect ‘MoMA: Early Modern Style’, for example, allows you to choose an ‘Effect Style’. One of the three available is ‘Pointillist Dot”. While it’s unlikely that the average Uniqlo customer is a Georges Seurat fan, it’s good to know that the brand does offer something that’s a little more sophisticated that the usual tools in apps such as Paint.

UTme tees

Some of the graphics created by SOTD using the UTme app

As you play with the app (and you should before confirming the final design) to get a better grip of it, you’ll be even more delighted with what else it has to offer. One that amazed us was the ‘Add Layer’ capability. This is not unlike what Photoshop offers, only easier to use, and simpler to execute. Each layer basically allows you to add effects to your chosen image or text. The maximum number of layers the app will accept is three. As for the image and text, it’s not unreasonable to assume that overzealousness sometimes begets inappropriate expressions. It would be naive to think that Uniqlo customers only wish to say I♥SG, or print a picture of Ginger the cat. According to the Chief Operating Officer of Uniqlo, Sei Tomochiko, the app itself does not gag unsuitable or sensitive user inputs. Censorship is left to the UTme! counter staff, who, when in doubt, are “instructed to consult the store manager”. On that note, users are also advised that copyrighted materials are not permissible.

The app and the output do have other limitations. If you leave the app, say, to answer a Line message, you won’t be able to go back to where you last were; you’d have to start from the beginning, which is frustrating, especially if you have completed all the layers you wanted and liked. Moreover, with high user traffic, uploading your design may require some effort. We were advised to tap on the ‘Done!’ button repeatedly. Patience is required for this task. If you pull down the notification bar to check your WiFi connection or allow your screen to go to sleep, your return to UTme may mean starting all over again. Your final graphic will be printed only on a white cotton T-shirt—no colour option. While the printable space on the tee is rather large, it covers only the upper portion of the body, which means if you want a neckline-to-hemline image, it is not possible. And only the front is accepted for printing, not the back, and certainly not the sleeves. Photo print-resolution varies: it is less sharp if the image is shot with the front camera of your smartphone. Colour intensity tends to favour pastel shades than jewel tones. As the T-shirt is fed into a direct-to-garment (DTG) printer that allows the printing to be finished in a single pass, the registration is as good as heat-transferred photo-prints. Furthermore, the print has a soft hand feel. Once the design is uploaded and the payment paid, you’ll be able to collect your T-shirt at Uniqlo, Bugis+.

The customising of T-shirts by garment retailers is not new to Singapore. Several years back, at the now-closed Nike flagship store in Wisma Atria, tees purchased at the store were customisable on-site. For reasons not known, the service was discontinued. We’re inclined to believe that what Nike offered was limited, even pedestrian. There were mostly letters and numerals to choose from, and the placement of text was limited to what hand-positioned transfers could do. No special effects, no images, no selfies. So, unless you were a fashionista keen on customising your boyfriend’s football jersey, there was little appeal in Nike’s service. Uniqlo, conversely, took the best of graphics editing and availed them in one nifty smartphone app. The rest is left to the imagination of the user. More importantly, they made it entertaining and fun.

This post has been updated (16 July 2015) to reflect the replies to questions posted to Uniqlo earlier

The UTme app can be downloaded from the Apple Apps Store as well as Google Play Store. The T-shirts to be customised, S$29.90, are only available in white. Net proceeds from the sale of UTme! T-shirts between today and 10 Aug 2015 will go the Community Chest. Funds raised will be matched dollar-to-dollar by our government in support of the Care & Share Movement. Photos: Jim Sim