1843: The United Nations of Uniqlo
The United Nations of Uniqlo
Can a Japanese label famous for its simplicity take over the fashion world?
Jul 6th 2020
by Amelia Lester
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.
Uniqlo’s parent firm, Fast Retailing, is now the world’s third-largest clothing company, after Inditex (which owns Zara) and h&m. Its success has been driven by technology, both the fruits of the company’s own research and developments that have transformed the way people live and work. Even before the outbreak of coronavirus, advances in communications and cloud computing meant that the professional classes could do their jobs anywhere. Dress codes have become less formal. One sign of this shift is the shrinking market for office attire: according to Euromonitor, a research group, sales of men’s suits in America shrank by 14% in value from 2013-18. The rise in athleisure – gym kit worn as everyday clothing – means that we now work out and hang out in the same gear. The covid-19 pandemic has only hastened the decline of what we once called “workwear”. Casual clothes of the type Uniqlo offers, in which you can both take a Zoom barre class and watch Netflix, have become ubiquitous.
Unusually for a clothing company, Uniqlo measures its significant milestones not in iconic outfits but in manufacturing breakthroughs. After its success with the fleece, Uniqlo rolled out more product lines that were distinguished by their functionality: a first-of-its-kind bra top with sewn-in cups, thermal underwear, moisture-wicking fabric and lightweight puffer coats filled with down. It sold more than 11m warm, easily packable “Ultra Light Down” pieces in the two years after they were launched in 2009. The vests in this range are especially popular with finance bros the world over.
An industrial operation called Toray, which is just outside the city of Kyoto, has been at the heart of these hi-tech innovations (it is best known for developing the carbon fibre used in Boeing’s Dreamliner aeroplanes). Uniqlo’s founder, Yanai Tadashi, approached the head of Toray in the late 1990s to develop the material used in the fleece. Today over 1,000 researchers there work on inventing new fabrics. Yanai initially envisioned Uniqlo as a Japanese version of Gap, selling simple, functional clothes. But over the past decade Yanai’s company has grown internationally and outstripped the label that inspired it. A brand that started by selling American sportswear to the Japanese has ended up selling Japanese ingenuity to the world.
Gold at the end of the rainbow Inside the Ginza flagship store
Every day Yanai Tadashi comes to work in the same $15 navy-blue Merino-wool crew-neck jumper. This is significant for two reasons. First, Uniqlo’s offerings are versatile enough to suit anyone from a billionaire to a Brooklyn barista. Second, though Yanai became rich through fashion, he isn’t obsessed with it. He grew up above his father’s clothing shop in Ube, a small town in western Japan, but “never felt any value associated with clothes”, he told me matter-of-factly when we spoke by phone earlier this year (the coronavirus outbreak put paid to our plans to meet in person).
As a child Yanai was scared of his father, who would beat him for not finishing his breakfast quickly or spending too much time reading after bedtime. But a sense of duty lured him home after he graduated from university and he took over the family enterprise as its employees began to retire. Yanai resolved to “commit to the business, everything I had, with determination”. As he sees it, this drive was shared by many people in his generation, who grew up with the memory of the country’s ruinous defeat in the second world war and were determined to prove themselves. He grumbles that younger Japanese lack “inspiration”, as he calls it. Aged 70, he continues to work as hard as ever: our appointment was set for 7am and it isn’t unusual for him to arrange meetings even earlier in the day.
But Yanai also chose to overturn almost everything his father had created. When he took the reins in 1984, the company had 22 shops across Japan. His father was a tailor who made all the clothes in-house. Yanai instead imported well-known American labels. The chain’s new name, Unique Clothing Warehouse, was intentionally ironic (it was shortened to Uniqlo in 1988). Branches of Uniqlo proliferated outside the big cities. According to the most important metrics, Yanai’s pivot was a huge success: by its tenth anniversary, Uniqlo was Japan’s fastest-growing retailer and Yanai had become the country’s richest individual (he has jostled for the title ever since with Son Masayoshi, the chief executive of SoftBank). Many Japanese, though, regarded the brand as provincial and cheap.
In 1995 the chain launched a campaign, “Say something bad about Uniqlo, Get ¥1m”, which triggered nearly 10,000 complaints about everything from the poor quality of the discounted clothes to the sub-standard customer service. “To be known for being cheap is sad,” Yanai has said. He knew he needed to return the company to its roots by taking the manufacture of clothing back in-house.
Yanai, who had spent time in Britain and America, was impressed by Next, a British retailer that in the 1980s became one of the first stores to sell well-made, stylish clothes at affordable prices. Yanai wondered whether he could do something similar in Japan. He realised that Uniqlo would have to take charge of every stage of the manufacturing process. He instigated the collaboration with Toray and drew on Japan’s rich tradition of textile design (few things get Yanai as animated as discussing the history of Japanese textile exports). As significantly, he became one of the first Japanese clothing entrepreneurs to turn to Chinese factories to make goods on a mass scale. Once a production line had been established, a million items could be stitched together with little more effort than it took to produce 5,000. The combination of cheap labour and bulk orders allowed Uniqlo to keep prices low.
Yanai was less sure-footed when it came to launching shops abroad. “When we first opened in China, we offered pseudo-Uniqlo at a cheaper cost, but that was never accepted by Chinese consumers,” he said. The company’s first forays into America and Britain also failed (Yanai has written a number of business-strategy books, the most famous of which translates as “One Win, Nine Losses”). Yanai had thought he needed to tailor the shop’s offerings to each country. But it turned out that Chinese consumers, like Americans, Brits and others, just wanted “great access to a great product”.
Today the ubiquity and predictability of Uniqlo’s products are part of the brand’s identity, an essential component of Yanai’s aspiration to become “the first truly global clothing brand from Asia”. The company won’t even disclose which items or colours sell best in any of the 25 countries it operates in. Thermal wear, I was told, sells as well in tropical Singapore and mild Melbourne as in colder climes (the only difference a company spokesperson would concede was that sizing for Western customers is bigger than for Asian ones). Yanai believes that globalisation and the rise in international travel has led to a confluence of taste across the world. Hipsters in India and Vietnam want to wear the same clothes as their peers in Tokyo and Paris. “Very few retailers tend to think this way because they focus on their own country’s clothing only,” he said.
But Yanai is not complacent enough to believe that Uniqlo has cracked the problem of global fashion. On the wall of his office there is a photo taken of a crowded pavement on Fifth Avenue in New York in 1947, which at the time was the most modern city in the world. Men wear suits, women wear gloves, everyone is in a hat. “As time goes by, how people styled themselves went through a dramatic change,” Yanai said. “We need to be prepared for what happens next.”
Last year, I visited Uniqlo’s vast global headquarters in Ariake, an industrial district of Tokyo, to understand in more detail how the company had reinvented itself. In a handsome communal library featuring a spiral staircase, a shelf of Yanai’s books and a café selling green tea and piping out soft jazz, I met Katsuta Yukihiro, Uniqlo’s head of research and development. Katsuta began his career working for luxury companies such as Bergdorf Goodman, Ralph Lauren and Barney’s. But he began to notice that, like a growing number of people around the world, he preferred to spend his money on experiences rather than status symbols. “People used to work hard to get more money to buy a Rolex. Now people go to Whole Foods, buy organic food, cook in the kitchen. People’s satisfaction has changed from buying material goods to something more mental,” he said. (Katsuta wears an understated Swatch.)
In 2005 Katsuta jumped ship to Uniqlo at a time when the retailer was better known for selling socks and underwear than anything more fashionable (underwear or “innerwear”, in Uniqlo’s coy locution, still accounts for a substantial amount of the company’s sales). “Half of my friends in the industry thought I got fired because...Japanese people didn’t recognise it as good taste, or as a fashion company,” he recalled. There was even a derogatory slang term associated with the brand: uni-bare, meaning “you’ve been caught wearing Uniqlo”. The quality was decent, Katsuta said, but the clothes needed “spice”.
The new super model Robotic arms in a Uniqlo warehouse
The firm made a concerted effort to court high-profile designers and, in 2009, it announced its first collaboration. Collaborations were already common on the high street: Karl Lagerfeld’s partnership with h&m had begun five years earlier. Uniqlo’s was different. The designer was Jil Sander, a German minimalist, and the association gave the company much needed cachet among the fashion set. Tomas Maier, the designer at Bottega Veneta who himself became a partner further down the line, told the New York Times that the Sander collaboration “opened the door for a lot of people to look at Uniqlo”.
The Sander collaboration lasted five seasons. Since then, Uniqlo has established many other partnerships with designers such as JW Anderson, Christophe Lemaire (who after two seasons came in-house to design the edgier U diffusion line) and Alexander Wang. What they all have in common is a preference for the “intellectual” over the “hot”, according to Vanessa Friedman, fashion critic at the New York Times. Other collaborations catered to specific kinds of customers: kurtas (collarless shirts) for the Delhi store from Rina Singh, an Indian designer, and a line of modest wear for countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia with large Muslim populations. The perception of unsophisticated provincialism had been shed.
The intellectual approach extends to the unveiling of the company’s collections each year. Rather than host catwalk shows, Uniqlo organises an annual “exhibition”. Last year’s, which was held at Somerset House in London, featured various “experimental zones” including a tunnel constructed from airism fabric, one of Uniqlo’s trademarked fabric innovations, and a mirrored room displaying the full spectrum of Uniqlo sock colours on the feet of disembodied mannequins.
Uniqlo’s lack of flamboyance chimed with the times. As austerity bit in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008, ostentation was shown the door. “It was suddenly so uncool to look rich,” Christina Binkley, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal, told Vox in 2018. The rhinestone-encrusted 2000s in all their blinged-out glory were done: the past ten years have seen an impulse towards simplicity. Uniqlo’s low prices and cerebral patina proved popular with young, urban professionals, and gained the backing of voices that mattered. In 2010 New York magazine wrote that “seemingly out of nowhere, [Uniqlo’s] cheap, skinny, rainbow-coloured basics became a kind of New York uniform”. Last year the Atlantic postulated that “Uniqlo is Gap for Millennials”.
Every clothing brand tries to create classics. Few actively avoid the latest fashion. This is precisely Uniqlo’s promise. Katsuta and his team try to work out which trends won’t resonate on a global scale and pounce on ones that do. He claims that he knew from the minute he saw skinny jeans on the streets of Los Angeles that they were versatile enough to become what Uniqlo calls “essential”. “I still remember when I started talking about skinny jeans in our Tokyo office,” he told me. “People say, ‘Yuki, that’s going to be great for tall skinny American ladies but our nation is completely different, we are small and wide.’ But it turned out in Japan that skinny jeans were like the new tights, and a lot of ladies wear a longer sweater or a tunic with them.” He added in a generous amount of stretch and they became even more “useful”, as a favoured Uniqlo expression has it. “Now you can wear them not only outside but also inside the house,” he said. “They’re comfortable, but with the spice of fashion.”
Pile ’em high Uniqlo’s flagship store in Ginza
When you ask Uniqlo executives to explain the appeal of their brand, they invariably circle back to their own portmanteau coinage, “Lifewear”, a concept that proves rather slippery to define. Katsuta describes it as “quality clothing at affordable prices to make everyday life better and more comfortable”. Aldo Liguori, the Italian-born head of publicity at Uniqlo, told me that it means, “I cannot tell you what you need. Only you know what you need and how we can fit with your daily life.” Yanai insisted to me that Lifewear was not just a “slogan” but “means quintessential, everyday life”.
“Everyday” is a buzzword that recurs with frequency when you talk to Uniqlo execs. John Jay, president of global creative at Fast Retailing, said that the company was motivated by “respect [for] everyday people”. It struck me as a strange value for a fashion company to tout, given that people so often express their individuality through their choice of clothes. But then, Uniqlo’s neutral, even bland basics, convey the kind of low-key self-assurance that’s always in style, perhaps because it hints at wealth. (A headline from the Cut last year confirms as much: “How to look rich wearing only Uniqlo”.)
Uniqlo produces a relatively limited number of lines – Retviews, a firm that analyses retail sales, found in October 2019 that the Japanese firm offered fewer than 2,000 distinct items in its European stores over the course of a year, compared with more than 6,000 by Zara and 17,000 by h&m. But many of these are multiplied through a rainbow of colours. Katsuta argues that this lets customers find their own style through combining items. “Our clothes shouldn’t have individual attitude. People should create their own by mixing and matching,” he said.
Similarly, the interior design of Uniqlo stores around the world is deliberately spare, creating a blank canvas for shoppers. “It’s a white box, always on a white background. It’s not a lifestyle brand,” said Markus Kiersztan, who helped design the flagship store in New York in 2010. Unlike competitors that often feature aspirational pictures of models in perfectly fitting garb, Uniqlo stores use rotating putty-coloured mannequins (“a neutral colour that is not white”, a pr officer tells me). These are generally dressed in three or four layers, a styling trademark introduced by Jay, the company’s president, who sees layering as the simplest way to create your own look. Jay was also responsible for scrunching the sleeves up, now another Uniqlo trademark. Yuniya Kawamura, a professor of sociology at Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, told me that it reminded her of the 12-layer kimonos that court ladies wore during the Heian period in the 9th to 12th centuries: “They sometimes wore even more [layers], and the different arrangements and combinations of colours showed a wearer’s unique taste and style.” Underneath the layers of clothes are layers of history.
For all its desire to take on the world, Uniqlo is keen to stress its Japanese heritage. Yanai took pride in pointing out to me that the denim in the men’s selvedge classic-fit jeans is spun, dyed and woven in Hiroshima by a manufacturer that uses traditional techniques. (He did not mention, however, that the jeans were designed in Uniqlo’s office in Los Angeles and that a factory in Bangladesh sews and finishes them.) “We are from Japan”, reads the company’s promotional brochure that was handed to me when I visited its headquarters, “and this naturally affects how we make the clothes we make.” The fundamental Japanese design principles Uniqlo invokes are “deep thoughtfulness”, “practical beauty”, and “simple made better”.
At first glance there seems nothing obviously Japanese about Uniqlo’s wares. But a strong strain of minimalism pervades Japanese culture. Buddhism remains an important influence on Japanese society even in an increasingly secular age, and among its core tenets are renunciation and detachment – concepts that mean being able to suppress one’s lust for the material elements of daily life. Mario Praz, an Italian critic, contrasts the Japanese style with the suffocating abundance of Victorian interiors in Europe and America which, he says, stemmed from horror vacui (fear of emptiness). More recently, young people in the West have also grown less enamoured with acquiring stuff, hence the widespread popularity of another Japanese export: Marie Kondo, a professional declutterer.
Uniqlo’s plainness and restraint appeals to consumers across the globe. These design principles also help the company negotiate the tension between the low cost of its garments and the perception of good quality. Kawamura recalls an old Japanese proverb, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” She adds: “In a society that traditionally values conformity and harmony, dressing like everyone else is seen as socially desirable.” When everyone is wearing a solid-black sweater, she said, “no one knows whether that is Uniqlo or Yohji Yamamoto (a Japanese avant-garde designer).”
As a guide for its manufacturing process, Uniqlo invokes kaizen, the idea of continuously improving, which is another popular principle within Japanese management circles. Materials are constantly being refined, becoming ever lighter and less obtrusive. In 2011, HeatTech, one of Uniqlo’s flagship fabrics, contained 88 threads; in the following incarnation it was somehow warmer with only 64. “When people need to make clothes to stay warm, they are inclined to go thicker,” Katsuta has said. “We have done the opposite.” Where many other apparel-makers aim to make a splash, it sometimes seems as though Uniqlo’s ultimate goal is to refine its clothes into invisibility.
Whether this Japanese company can dominate global fashion remains an open question. Impressive though it has been, Uniqlo’s growth over the past decade has not met Yanai’s own ambitious targets. In 2012 he said he wanted Fast Retailing to hit $50bn in revenue by 2020 (at the time its revenues were $10bn a year); it reached $17bn in 2019. As for its worldwide appeal, the main source of Uniqlo’s growth these days comes not from Western markets but the middle classes of China and South-East Asia. Uniqlo has now overtaken its two closest rivals, h&m and Zara, in China; in 2018, a third of the company’s overall profits came from its 700 Chinese outlets.
The American market has proved harder to crack. The 56 Uniqlo stores in America fall far short of Yanai’s plan, in 2012, to open 200 there. They still operate at a loss. “When you think about the American market, you don’t always think of subtlety,” said Steve Rowen of Retail Systems Research, a consultancy. “This is a social-climber society. Even if you want to fly under the radar, there still has to be some indication that you’re fashion forward.” Once that urban millennial with a starter job begins to make real money, Rowen postulated, “they move past a brand like Uniqlo pretty quickly.” Americans are perhaps willing to embrace invisibility only until they are rich enough to want to be seen.
Invisible man Yanai Tadashi at the Uniqlo headquarters in Ariake
These days clothing companies have to worry about far more than merely whether people like their wares. As with the rest of the garment industry, Uniqlo faces a backlash about the hidden social and environmental cost of its products. The fashion industry accounts for some 8% of greenhouse-gas emissions, making it the world’s most polluting industry after oil, according to a report by Quantis, a consultancy, in 2018. The human toll of some clothing supply chains has come under increased scrutiny, particularly since a building that housed several garment factories collapsed in Bangladesh in 2013 (Uniqlo had moved some of its manufacturing from China to Bangladesh, where wages are lower, but was not implicated in this incident).
The expression “fast fashion” has become a watchword for low-cost, on-trend items made on mass-production lines that are soon abandoned by the wearer. The phrase is banned at Uniqlo’s headquarters – the company is not overtly dedicated to fast fashion the way that many other retailers are, and it has no interest in knocking out quick-fire responses to Instagram fads at bargain-basement prices. But as a retailer that sells more than 1bn items each year – and at low prices – Uniqlo falls foul of many of the same accusations and negative publicity directed at firms that are more obviously trend-driven.
Like other clothing companies, Uniqlo has gestured towards sustainability. Since 2006 it has invited customers to recycle old clothes in-store (the recycling boxes I examined in Japan were empty). Toray, Uniqlo’s manufacturing partner, has found a way to make polo shirts out of old water bottles: for this year’s spring/summer season, 48m 500ml bottles were used to make an undisclosed number of polo shirts. In September 2019 the company announced a plan to reuse the stuffing from its Ultra Light Down products, but down itself has become a controversial product as awareness grows of the conditions in which the feather industry keeps some ducks. Uniqlo says its down suppliers are forbidden from using methods such as plucking feathers from live birds, and that its down and feathers are ethically sourced. Recently it signed up to the Responsible Down Standard, a scheme that a number of retailers are already party to.
The company has also been criticised for alleged human-rights violations in its supply chain, especially in its Chinese factories (Uniqlo operates just two workshops in Japan because wages are so high there). Uniqlo says that it upholds working standards for people across the supply chain.
It was only this year that Uniqlo set targets for reducing its polluting emissions and even these are modest. Fashion Revolution, an ngo that vets corporate supply chains, found in 2019 that Uniqlo was only moderately open about its governance, due diligence and the sources of its materials, and lagged behind Zara and h&m on some fronts.
Yet my own buying habits suggest that Uniqlo can’t simply be dismissed as fast fashion. Last Christmas, not long after I moved back to America from Japan, I visited a shopping mall at Tyson’s Corner, a wealthy neighbourhood outside Washington, dc. h&m gleamed with sequinned tops that no one would wear in January. Gap hawked pastel-coloured puffers, improbably inflated like Michelin men. Both shops were empty.
At Uniqlo, a cramped storefront on a second floor with low ceilings, the window displayed maroon flannel shirts – with the sleeves scrunched up, naturally – and stretchy charcoal trousers. It was all a bit dull. The retail experience seemed very Japanese: the shop was crowded, though not disorganised. The long queue to pay moved swiftly, with an efficiency not often encountered in suburban America. After I made my purchase, my credit card was handed back to me with two hands, as is customary with all interactions involving money in Japan.
For $29 I bought a pair of grey wool HeatTech trousers with an elastic waist: sweatpants masquerading as smart casual. I wore them for months, eventually abandoning them only because the season changed. They are comfy, warm and unobtrusive enough to go with everything. They have pockets, which are useful, and I can throw them in the dryer without worrying that the stretchy fabric will lose its give. I wore them almost every day when stuck inside during the coronavirus lockdown, through interminable Zoom meetings and an entire series of “Breaking Bad”. When the world slowed to a near halt, Uniqlo was there to fill the void.■
Photographs Irwin Wong