Uniqlo and the future of fashion
Recently Uniqlo, one of my favorite clothing brands, made news with a pointed message for Trump: We'll leave the U.S. if you insist we make all of our clothes in America. Now you may be asking, what's a Uniqlo? Well Uniqlo (originally named 'Unique Clothing Warehouse') is a Japanese brand under the Fast Retailing group, the third largest clothing retailer in the world. Despite having 50+ stores in the US, Uniqlo may STILL be the biggest brand you've never heard of.
I first discovered the joy that is Uniqlo in 2008 during a college trip to NYC. At this time, the Japanese brand only had 1 US store, a flagship in NYC's SOHO neighborhood. Picture it: three-story-tall stacks of folded polos and sweaters, in beautiful rainbows of color, video screens, bright wall graphics, moving mannequin instillations, all in a sleek modern interior. Also imagine that Uniqlo's full-priced items cost less than sale items at retailers like J.Crew, Club Monaco and Gap. You can then imagine why their SOHO store, and future NYC flagships, became wildly popular.
Uniqlo has long been one of my favorite brands. Think Gap: affordable basics, but on steroids! During my time working for Gap we always looked in envy at all the cool things Uniqlo was doing with their stores in visual merchandising, store design and artist collaborations.
Beyond the clothes, what really makes Uniqlo unique is their culture of service and quality. The genius behind the brand is Tadashi Yanai, and he knows a thing or two about retail. Yanai is is credited with turing a single mens tailoring shop in Japan into the retail giant Fast Retailing, a global fashion empire with revenues of over $15 billion.
While Uniqlo's entrance into the US hasn't been the smoothest (they've expanded and retreated several times), the brand's soul is what will help it resonate with US consumers, and help it stand out in the crowded world of fast-fashion. Yanai says "Without a soul, a company is nothing." Many of todays retailers are dying because they don't stand for anything, and have no soul. When their brand falls out of fashion, people move on (see Abercrombie, Wet Seal, etc). Sears used to be THE largest retailer in the country, and revolutionized the retail landscape and the lives in millions for decades. It was truly both the Walmart and Amazon on its time. Look at Sears today. Their CEO recently announced he "had substantial doubt" the brand could survive. In another post, I'll outline what's killing Sears, and many other brands, but in the simplest terms, it boils down to a lack of soul. And if Uniqlo has anything, it's soul!
In an interview with Business of Fashion, Yanai says, "Nobody can predict the future. So why don't you venture out and create one? Those who create the future will be blessed with luck." What a powerful message for anyone out there, in retail, design and beyond. You can also read about the "The Yanai Doctrine," Tadashi Yanai's 23 management principles distilled to eight key themes, in the interview.
My advice for Uniqlo, keep opening large flagship stores in urban centers (Atlanta next please!!). This store format is the best reflection of the brand. Flagships are visually exciting and engaging, and a destination worth visiting. I personally don't think the smaller mall-sized stores are the best reflection of the brand. They lack the impact of the flagships. And does any retailer today need a store in every mall? Those days are over ...
Uniqlo pop-up store concepts (above).
Uniqlo is still the biggest retail brand US consumers don't know about. Shoppers just need a proper introduction to the brand, and time. Enter new markets with a pop-up shops. Then draw people into the big flagships, advertise in print, OOH and online. Get them in the door first, then online. Think long game, with soul! And when Uniqlo opens in Atlanta, I'll be there opening weekend!