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The Emperor Has New Clothes

Irresistibly low prices and an uncanny sense for how the world wants to dress have made Uniqlo's owner the richest man in Japan. As Asia's largest clothier readies yet another monolithic flagship store - this one in Paris - we wonder: can anything stop it?

Author Mark Healy Photography Joshua Lutz

The richest businessman in Japan believes in you. He believes in your taste, your good sense, your personal style. He thinks you’re smart and sophisticated and discerning. He knows you value style over status, design over ostentation, and quality over fleeting fashion. He knows you’re too independent to chase trends, too smart and self-assured for slavish brand identification. More than anything, he’s confident that you know how to dress yourself. Since 1984, these beliefs have made Tadashi Yanai, the 59-year-old founder of Uniqlo, one of the world’s most successful retailers. And now, while other big apparel manufacturers are limping through a global recession, Yanai is positioning the low-key store he started 25 years ago in a Hiroshima shopping center to be the largest, most dominant clothing company in the world.

He’s off to an impressive start. Built on the simple promise of well-made, smartly designed clothes at practically irresistible prices, Uniqlo’s parent company, Fast Retailing, posted an increase of 28 percent in profits over a nine-month period that ended in July, while Uniqlo’s April sales were up 19 percent over the previous month. Yanai was recently added to Forbes’ list of the world’s 10 wealthiest executives, with a reported worth of $6.1 billion.

Shrewd business moves are part of the story, of course, but central to Uniqlo’s success is what has so far been a firm grasp of how the world wants to dress. Already the biggest retail clothing company in Asia, and with more than 750 stores in six countries around the world, Uniqlo (a contraction of “unique” and “clothes”) now finds itself with the money, the reach and the ambition to challenge the Gap and H&M for world dominance. The Gap opened in San Francisco in 1969 and essentially invented the formula that Uniqlo has adopted: stylish and affordable basics. Now, as the Gap has spent the past year limping along with double-digit sales declines, Yanai is publicly flirting with buying the competition outright, calling the notion “not such a crazy idea.”

Once as unmistakably Japanese as nori rolls and Hello Kitty (Uniqlo has provided the uniforms for Japan’s Olympic teams in 2002 and 2004), the company’s expansion beyond Japan—throughout Asia, Australia, the U.K., the U.S. and, most recently, to France—is proof of its universal appeal. But after building its reputation on staples like fleece pullovers, sweaters and polos in a staggering variety of colors, Uniqlo appears ready to take some risks. After watching its competitors forge high-profile, fashion-forward alliances—the Gap hired Patrick Robinson (formerly of Perry Ellis) to update its lines; Swedish giant H&M established buzz-generating partnerships with brand-name types like Karl Lagerfeld, Stella McCartney and Madonna; and this past spring TopShop released its ninth collection designed by Kate Moss—Uniqlo is following suit. This summer, Yanai announced what could amount to an industry game-changer: German design stalwart Jil Sander will become Uniqlo’s creative director. On the surface, it’s unquestionably a major coup: Sander’s low-key sophistication is as good a fit with the Uniqlo philosophy as her famous stovepipe trousers. Then again, the arrival of a top fashionista would seem to contradict the understated, proudly generic charm of a brand that still gives its denim styles names such as S-001 and S-002.

Ten years ago, Uniqlo opened its first Tokyo store in the trendy Harajuku district. By the end of 2009, it’ll have 900 spread across four continents. The lone American location, a 36,000-square-foot monolith in the heart of New York’s downtown flagship district (Apple, Prada, H&M, Old Navy and others all have high-profile stores nearby), opened three years ago. “Uniqlo makes sense in all areas of the world,” claims Liz Meltzer, senior vice president of global merchandising. “We make clothing that can be worn by everyone.”

This fall, Uniqlo will put that boast to the test, opening a new flagship in Paris—its first full-fledged foray into the crowded, cutthroat fashion world of continental Europe. The invasion started with a modest Paris test store in 2007, but the real charm offensive began in May, at the Cannes film festival, where Uniqlo erected pop-up shops and sponsored a contest to design the festival’s official T-shirt. Then, in July, the company opened a series of temporary stores around the über-trendy Marais district, which displayed just enough of Uniqlo’s basics to get the message across.

But what exactly is the message? Meltzer offers up a bit of corporate boilerplate—“It has always been the company’s goal to give the people what they want: exceptional clothing at affordable prices”—which differs not at all from the Gap’s. The thing that really distinguishes Uniqlo, and that it hopes will lure Parisians, just as it lured Londoners and New Yorkers before them, is its supersoft secret weapon: the jarringly inexpensive $90 signature cashmere sweater.

Uniqlo’s cashmere calling card is cleanly and classically cut, comes in 20 colors (enough for a decent Crayola set) and is made of quality knits that rival sweaters retailing for double the price. This is the end result of Uniqlo’s remarkable economy of scale. When you sell more than a million cashmere sweaters a year and police the manufacturing from shepherd to clothes rack, as the company does, it’s not too hard to undercut rivals. And that’s part of what makes the company recession-proof. When Uniqlo opened its New York store, its reputation as “the Gap of Japan” (a comparison Uniqlo’s executives bristle at) was already percolating. But it was the sweater that made the typically jaded fashion press—from market editors at Elle to bloggers like The Budget Fashionista—take note.

This is not “disposable” fashion, however. Yanai still examines many new designs before they reach the racks. When New York designer and boutique retailer Steven Alan went to Tokyo to fit some limited-edition items he created for the company, he was shocked when Yanai himself stopped in to approve it.

“We were in the room, and there’s probably about ten very high-level people there, and Yanai walked in,” Alan says. “It was as if a three-star general had just entered a room full of new recruits. Everyone backed up, like, five steps, and there was dead silence for a long time as he looked at everything. Then he smiled and shook my hand and said, ‘I like it.’”

In the large storefront windows of Uniqlo’s New York flagship, passersby see…practically nothing. There are no tableaux of the good life as lived in Uniqlo casualwear, no clever, carefully accessorized arrangements of colorful merchandise. But just inside the entrance stands a massive glass box with an enormous, handcrafted bamboo koi fish. The work of artist Stephen Talasnik, it is simple, precise, playful and undeniably Japanese. Lest we forget this is a clothing store, beneath the koi are rotating mannequins in summer specials: plaid sport shirts and polos over cargo shorts, accessorized with rubber boots and fishing nets. (The koi, it is promised, is crossing the pond for the Paris opening.)

Beyond the sculpture, we see another side of the Japanese aesthetic—the glossy, frenzied pop of the Shibuya district—which immediately sets Uniqlo apart from the H&M down the street. Stacked 50 feet high on the walls is a vast array of kooky, colorful street fashions: graphic T-shirts depicting a myriad of manga characters, doodles by artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring, and images by countless lesser-known designers. Somehow these coexist with the ultratraditional (Women’s Yakuta Set, $39!) and summer suits that could have stepped off a Merchant Ivory set. It’s part Brooks Brothers, part Hot Topic, but without the strenuous pretentions of either.

The company’s high-low embrace is calculated. To celebrate Pac-Man’s 30th anniversary, the SoHo store hosted a Pac-Man bonanza, with two machines on the mezzanine. But Uniqlo has figured out that the kid in the skinny jeans and day-glo shirt may be the same guy (on the same budget) trying on a wool navy suit. On a recent trip to buy a whipcord summer suit I’d heard about, I also picked up three pairs of dress trousers practically identical to ones I’d paid much more for elsewhere. The total? $209. And they hem the pants for free.

Uniqlo’s attire has a sophisticated, slender fit—one that’s decidedly un-American. In fact, few things at the New York store would look good on an XXL frame, which raises the question of just how easily Uniqlo will win over shoppers beyond the skinny precincts of Manhattan. Yanai has made clear he intends to expand throughout the U.S. (and has even indicated a willingness to adjust the fit of some items), but to do so effectively, the company will likely stick to the trendier areas.

If things go according to plan, in the next five years Uniqlo will have opened stores in dozens of major cities in Europe, North America and Asia. No wonder, then, that Yanai has become so outspoken about his goals. “I want to be No. 1 in the world…to be bigger than the Gap,” he said last year. “I think it is only part of our human nature that we want to be the best at something.”

In this anything-goes economy, when seemingly impregnable corporate titans collapse overnight, being the best is riskier than ever. But Uniqlo marches on: Today the cashmere sweater, tomorrow the world.

The director of editorial projects at GQ, Mark Healy buys his pants—Uniqlo slim fit flat-front trousers—three at a time.

2 Responses to “The Emperor Has New Clothes”

  1. DJ Sworobuk Says:
    September 21st, 2009 at 4:18 pm

    DJ,

    Here is the retailer I mentioned. If you're on LinkedIn.com, you might try locating one of their RE contacts in the US.

    http://www.hemispheresmagazine.com/2009/09/01/t

  2. Pond Aeration Says:
    September 24th, 2009 at 11:54 am

    test

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