In 1998 a provincial Japanese clothing company known for flogging imported brands like Nike and Adidas opened its first shop in an upmarket district of Tokyo. Surprisingly, it chose a zip-up fleece as its new signature line. Until that point, fleeces had been expensive items usually worn by climbers, hikers and other outdoorsy types who had little interest in fashion. But Uniqlo’s fleece, which by the following year came in 50 colours from lavender to burgundy, was an immediate hit. Launched in the wake of the Asian financial crisis, the top was noteworthy because it was so cheap – it sold for just ¥1,900 ($19), around half the price of those in other shops. Two million were sold within 12 months. Within two years, enough fleeces had been bought to clothe nearly a third of the population of Japan.
A couple of decades on and the fleece that changed everything hasn’t changed much. The piping now hugs the wrists for extra warmth and the side pockets are angled downwards, making it easier to defrost your hands. The price has increased by less than a dollar, even though the technology has been refined. Uniqlo was the first clothing company to use special C-shaped fibres that capture dead air, which the company claims makes the fleece 1.5°C toastier than others on the market. Minerals have been added to the material that supposedly transform the sun’s heat into infra-red emissions to make the item even warmer.