I was in the City and just happened to walk by the new (October 2012) Uniqlo store on Powell Street, between Union Square and the Powell Street Cable Car turnaround. Uniqlo is the Japanese casual wear designer, manufacturer and retailer, who is taking the fashion world by an almost literal Japanese tsunami.
Their first store opened in 1984 in Hiroshima, and has grown to a family of more than 1,132 locations in 13 countries. In fact, several years ago, we exchanged Christmas presents with a dear friend from Tokyo. Little did we know it was Uniqlo’s ultra light down jacket, which is as warm as any old-fashioned down on the market. But, to make it more wearable and portable, it is compact, thin, and stylish. It folds into a pocket-sized bundle, which they call a “burrito.” It comes with its own pouch, and is perfect for travel. They have recently added water repellency, and it weighs less than the Uniqlo booklet I am reading right now!
Here are some statistics that will blow your mind. Eighty percent of the population in Japan lives within 20 minutes of a Uniqlo store. Started in 1984, they had more than 100 locations by 1994. Of course, the Tokyo store is located in ultra fashionable Harajuku district. In fact, there are 847 Uniqlo locations in Japan alone.
The U.S. stores employ 2,300 sales associates and staff. Forty different colors of T-shirts are offered by Uniqlo. Ten million pairs of Uniqlo jeans are made each year. The one constant is the raw material, Uniqlo’s durable and high quality Japanese denim. And over 300 million heattech garments have been sold since their introduction. Heattech is Uniqlo’s signature creation, a tech-advanced fabric. It keeps you warm but is light enough not to weigh you down. Uniqlo calls it the perfect mix of form and function.
I did not know Uniqlo was Japan’s leading clothing chain retailer in both sales and profits. Amazing what can be done with $19.95 pieces of clothing. The name Uniqlo comes from their original unisex clothing store, opening in May, 1985. The name was “Unique Clothing Company” with the contraction, Uniqlo derived from unique clothing. Clever,
From there, they followed the strategy of “The Gap”, the American retailing giant. It meant they would produce their own clothing and sell it exclusively. They did outsource their clothing manufacturing to China, where labor is cheap. As you may recall, Japan was in a recession at the time, with cheap but high quality clothing proving quite popular.
Their first flagship store opened in the Soho Fashion District (New York) in November, 2006. They have since added new fashion designers to boost fashion catering to the American market. But they closed three New Jersey locations, as well as four others in New York. But then in October 2011, they opened flagship stores on Fifth Avenue and 34th Street near Herald Square. Then they opened their largest mall store worldwide in New Jersey’s Garden State Plaza Mall (Paramus).
The German designer, Jil Sander joined Uniqlo in 2009. She is known for her minimalist aesthetic, launching a new label, called J+, which won the 2011 Brit Insurance Design Fashion Award. Perhaps more importantly for locals here, they hired former great Forty Niner Joe Montana as a spokesman. They have also appointed Number One ranked tennis player, Novak Djokovich as their global brand ambassador.
More on their clothing now. Their 100% cashmere sweaters come in 25 colors. The denim is manufactured in a partnership with Kaihara, a century old leading supplier of denim in the world. Uniqlo dyes only the surface of their jeans, allowing it to age with a life of its own.
Heattech is a technology developed by Uniqlo with Toray, a Japanese company known as a maker of materials for aerospace and sports. Bottom line, it enables the wearer to stay warm without bulky layers. Heattech is thin, soft and wicks away moisture. It also converts body moisture into heat, which is then stored between micro-fine fibers. It also contains special anti-bacterial agents to combat the embarrassment of malodor.
It will be interesting to see how well Uniqlo catches on here in the Bay Area. Though the company is obviously a powerhouse around the world, its foothold into the U.S. is still uncertain. Warning: their website has prices in Pounds Sterling. But do not order online, as you must set foot in this incredible business. I did my small part with the warm lined pants that I bought yesterday for $19.99.