I usually dread shopping for clothes. The volume of options amid mazes of racks induces nausea. But here, the tightly folded and labeled stacks convey the comfort and clarity of minimalism—even though there’s tons of stuff. “We excel in plenitude,” a staff member tells me.
Uniqlo itself is piled high with contradictions: a very Japanese clothing retailer and corporate culture that is determined to be, and go, global, with American-style transparency and entrepreneurship tethered to Japanese-style customer service in its hybrid heart;
an arbiter of basicwear that flirts with both high and fast fashion; and a promotional machine that is teeming with brand strategies even as its logo appears nowhere on its product lines. “We have a lot of paradoxes,” says Mark Johnson, the company’s executive director of global visual merchandising.
On the day I visit the Tokyo flagship for a guided tour, the entrance is dominated by a display for SPRZ NY, an abbreviation of “Surprise New York.” This is the slogan for the chain’s latest campaign, a partnership with the Museum of Modern Art (Uniqlo sponsors MoMA’s free Friday nights) that involves a seasonal line of T-shirts and assorted casualwear called the UT Collection, featuring graphics from the works of Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, Keith Haring, and other pop artists selected by MoMA. The collection also includes vintage pop imagery from brands, such as Disney and MTV, chosen by its creative director, Japanese hip-hop streetwear designer Nigo, of A Bathing Ape (BAPE) and Billionaire Boys Club (BBC). Nigo brought on board his buddy and BBC collaborator Pharrell Williams for a collection of Uniqlo T-shirts and caps called I Am Other.
Meanwhile, Uniqlo has embarked on a brick-and-mortar global rampage. Just as “SPRZ NY” was kicking off in Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue flagship—together with the opening of Uniqlo’s first-ever in-store Starbucks—the company launched its first German store, in Berlin, and debuted in Australia less than a week later. Uniqlo plans to open two hundred new stores by the end of 2014, in Boston, New York, Paris, Shanghai, and Sydney, with a long-term plan to launch twenty per year in the U.S. alone. Its target is $50 billion in sales by 2020, which would allow it to overtake Zara, H&M, and the Gap as the world’s largest clothing retailer.
Back in Ginza, samples of the MoMA T-shirt line are encased in glass, in the center of the store. The
display heightens the sense of occasion without being ostentatious. I am reminded of conveyor-belt kaiten sushi restaurants, a low-cost mainstay in Japanese cities, where one of the world’s most expensive cuisines can often be had for about a dollar or two per plate, gliding past your eyes on colored, price-coded platters that bear slabs of fish atop pods of rice. The sushi isn’t the best or the worst, and it’s not pretending to be anything but itself. It looks good, it’s edible, and it’s affordable.
Uniqlo’s principal tagline is “Made for All,” and its models resemble decent-looking college friends. The company’s utopian universalism extends to its global product line. With few exceptions, and the simplest adjustments to size charts (a medium in Japan is a small in the U.S.), Uniqlo sells the same things everywhere.
Like other Japanese companies after World War Two, including Toyota and Sony, Uniqlo seeks to be a safe, low-stress option in a world gone chaotic. There is nothing intimidating or discriminatory about its pitch. It’s like an airport lounge: Everyone is in transit, just passing through, so let’s take care of basic needs, with splashes of color to revive the spirit.
Uniqlo is the growth leader for Fast Retailing Ltd., which includes Comptoir des Cotonniers, GU, Helmut Lang, J Brand, Princesse Tam Tam, and Theory. The name is the result of a misspelling—its original brand, the Unique Clothing Warehouse, should technically have been abbreviated as Uniclo, but a Japanese employee got the second consonant wrong.
Its founder, 65-year-old Tadashi Yanai, is Japan’s second-richest man, worth an estimated $17.8 billion (as reported by Forbes), but he grew up very poor, in a rural village in a devastated and humiliated postwar Japan.
Yanai is the same age as one of his favorite novelists, Haruki Murakami. Like Murakami, he grew up steeped in American culture—seen from afar, a world of plenitude and logic, color and light. He once described the smell of chocolate and coffee as “aspirational.” His Tokyo office is lined with Time magazine covers from the fifties and sixties, and his heroes range from Bob Fisher, founder of the Gap, to Steve Jobs. Yet he retains a singular pride in Japanese etiquette and that most elusive of retail experiences, quality customer service.
At a press conference in Yokohama this spring, Yanai announced a strategic shift in Uniqlo’s focus. Going forward, he said, the company’s most critical asset is its “people.” Sixteen thousand of Uniqlo’s thirty thousand part-time employees in Japan would be offered full-time status, he announced, including health insurance and the chance to work their way up to becoming store managers. Yanai offered the assembled employees and media a bit of philosophical advice: “I would like you to spend most of your time as store managers listening to what your staff has to say. Hear ten times more than what you say.”
In the twenty-first century, the Japanese-ness of Uniqlo is embedded as a key part of its appeal. When the first New York store opened in Soho, in 2006, I was startled by its signage: The English alphabet hung next to its katakana equivalent (Japanese syllabary for non-Chinese or non-Japanese words). Dangling above lower Broadway, with its raffish admixture of high-end design shops and low-budget retailers, the Japanese script looked appealingly out of place. Now it just looks cool. Little wonder that Uniqlo’s current slogan is quizzically Zen: “Global is local; Local is global.”
For Uniqlo employees, the two key Japanese cultural concepts are kaizen (constant improvement) and monozukuri (making physical things well). Uniqlo staff members are happy to drive these points home, citing the innovative product lines called Heattech, a synthetic long-underwear fabric that keeps you warm without bogging you down, and Airism, another fabric that keeps you cool while absorbing your sweat. There is also a line of thin, lightweight down jackets called Ultralight Down.
Although Uniqlo is routinely lumped into the fast-fashion camp with outlets such as Zara and Forever 21, it really isn’t that. The quality of a pair of socks, for example, or a down vest, means more to its customers than the lineup for summer 2014. Its “Made for All” slogan is not all puff. You are meant to enhance Uniqlo, not the other way around.
Oliver Ormrod, a bilingual Canadian from Uniqlo’s public-relations department, says he sees this as a distinctly Japanese trait, born out of the nation’s frictions with its neighbors, its natural disasters (earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons, and volcanic eruptions), and its war-inflicted damage. “In Japan,” he says, “there’s a long history of people adapting to the environment, as opposed to the environment adapting to them. We created Heattech (lightweight long underwear) with this in mind. There’s very little central heating in Japan. You need to find ways to keep yourself warm.”
Uniqlo’s emphasis on customer service can be difficult for its employees. Each morning, they arrive hours before opening, to recite key phrases meant to instill best practices and loyalty:
- Hello, my name is _____. How are you today?
- Did you find everything you were looking for?
- Let me know if you need anything. My name is _____.
- Thank you for waiting.
- Did you find everything you were looking for?
- Good-bye. We hope to see you again soon.
When I learn this, I can’t help but think back to the eighties, when I was a kid in Boston, watching stomach-churning videos of Japanese autoworkers singing company songs and performing jumping jacks to prove their obedience to the brand.
But Uniqlo is not some Japan Inc. robot, its employees say. Most Japanese companies hire Japanese expats to run their overseas businesses, says Uniqlo U.S. CEO Larry Meyer. Not Uniqlo. In France, the French rule the stores. In China, the Chinese. And so on. “I’ve worked with a lot of companies,” Meyer says. “And this is truly the most transparent, sharing store sales on a daily basis. I think most of our customers know we’re a Japanese company at heart, and that’s good. We are of and from Japan. And I’m proud of that.”
Yanai is a Japanese CEO of a certain generation, and it’s impossible to ignore his country’s roots in Uniqlo’s character. I am told time and again that he is very hands-on, visiting stores un-announced in Japan and overseas to peruse the shelves, offering tips and comments in a soft-spoken voice, interspersing jokes with the advice. In Japan, he is something of a celebrity, but he rarely appears on television or gives interviews. In the U.S., he appears regularly at his New York stores, but he is unrecognized, and his American staff members tell me they can e-mail him at any time, and he replies personally.
Still, his global vision is not without pitfalls. In early April, Uniqlo’s stock nosedived, and the entire Nikkei stock-market index tanked with it. The reason? Faltering sales in Japan and doubts about the brisk pace of Uniqlo’s global expansion.
This was likely a mere speed bump for Yanai and others of his generation—Japanese who saw their country crushed by war, then arose from the ashes to create an economic and cultural juggernaut that remains unprecedented historically. Uniqlo, a clothing chain that embodies so much of what we love about Japan—excellent service, innovation, and smart styles—is transforming the fashion landscape, even as it remains a blank slate of identity.
In its native land, the brand’s brandlessness has been key to its appeal, particularly for younger Japanese, many of whom bristle at the designer-label fetish of their nouveau-riche elders. (Although sustaining the youth market anywhere is tricky. A few years ago, the epithet “unibare!”—a kind of “gotcha wearing Uniqlo duds!”—was hurled at the unsuspecting, prompting Yanai to cultivate higher-end real estate and designer partnerships.)
The postmodernism of Japan has always been ascribed to its ability to produce canvases that
accommodate our desires and longings. Hello Kitty wouldn’t be Kitty if she had a mouth. Karaoke is nothing if you don’t invest yourself in the singing. A tea ceremony is a drag if you don’t whisk the matcha, and there is no ikebana if you don’t arrange the flower stems.
Uniqlo slides nicely into place in Japan’s history of bold modesty. You find the store, slip into its embrace, and silently ascend. Everything is laid out neatly, and everyone is willing to help. After war, poverty, pain, and hardship, a simple, colorful sweater can go a long way.