If you’re in any way interested in menswear and like to look vaguely “well dressed”, it’s guaranteed that you’ve heard of Japanese giant Uniqlo. It’s also more than likely that you own one or two staple pieces from the brand that fit into your daily rotation.
From the recognizable red and white logo, to their vast array of classic garments and high profile collaborations, the brand has taken the world by storm. Since its humble beginnings as an apparel company which was founded in Yamaguchi in 1949 (later established under its namesake in 1984), it now has over a thousand stores worldwide.
In true Japanese style, Uniqlo has been able to keep things classic, yet contemporary. Helping people refine and redefine their wardrobes, the brand has been instrumental in offering a wide range of well curated basics from the humble button down and chino to the parka and puffer jacket.
While we’ve covered Uniqlo before here at Heddels (with some great examples of their selvedge denim for Fade of the Day), we haven’t delved into the history of the brand and some of its key characteristics. So sit back and put your feet up as we charter the course of Uniqlo over the decades.
When and Where Did Uniqlo Begin?
Uniqlo first opened its doors in June of 1984 in Hiroshima under the name ‘Unique Clothing Warehouse‘. Since day one the brand has prided itself on producing high quality casual wear at affordable prices, which customers can combine with their own unique style. Further to this, the brand states that, “Uniqlo is more than just a clothing brand, but a way of thinking. A steady consciousness of constant change, diversity, and the challenging of conventions.”
This approach and philosophy has been central to the brand’s intended offering over the years, with a focus on well-designed clothes benefitting the consumer and making them feel better (and in turn the world being a better place).
Uniqlo is currently owned by umbrella company Fast Retailing, with 46% owned by Tadashi Yanai, founder of the brand. Yanai inherited a dilapidated men’s clothing store from his father but since its opening in 1984, 900 Uniqlos now exist in Japan alone (almost 90% of all Uniqlo stores worldwide). And while Yanai always had the intention to build an empire of menswear stores, the storied success of Unilqo could only have been a dream when he started out.
Born in 1949 into post-war Japan, times were tough. But, inspired by the teachings of American management expert Peter Drucker, Yanai came to understand that he could build his empire and become a wealthy man of good standing, without being a corrupt business tycoon. Crucial to the following success of Unique Clothing Warehouse (later shortened to Uniqlo) was Yanai’s learning to think about what the customer wants, rather than what the company wants to sell.
Japan to The Rest of The World
Another crucial stepping stone in Uniqlo’s rise to global fame was Yanai’s encounter with American retail giant GAP. After tracking down Mickey Drexler, President of GAP at the time, Yanai tried to learn everything he could in order to replicate GAP’s business model and retail success.
GAP had taken the market by storm and Yanai wanted the same for Uniqlo. Yanai saw the efficiency and strength of the ‘SPA manufacturer retailer model’, which vertically integrated product planning and design, production, distribution, and marketing into one entity.
However, in the 1990s Japan experienced an economic downturn which encouraged the brand to shift all production overseas to China (where approximately 70% of Uniqlo’s garments are currently manufactured) in order to meet the public demand for cheaper goods in hard times. Cutting production costs and in turn increasing profits, set the stage for Uniqlo to become the global giant which we know it as today. Success was plentiful for Uniqlo as 10 years after Yanai had inherited his Father’s business, there were already 100 stores in Japan.
But now the time came to expand internationally and this was where the brand began to hit stumbling blocks. In 2002, Uniqlo opened 21 stores around London and later a handful in the US. But taking the company’s success in Japan and replicating the same retail model abroad was not as straight forward as it might have seemed. Due to issues with the Japanese sizing of the garments, Uniqlo did not make as great an impact as Yanai had hoped. Shortly after, Uniqlo closed 16 of 23 London and 3 recently opened locations in New Jersey.
Collections and Collaborations
In addition to the issues with sizing, Yanai firmly believed that Uniqlo had to be accessible and stylish to succeed in overseas markets. He planned his next move wisely and enlisted the help of famed Japanese designer Kashiwa Sato to lead a creative team that would set up international flagship stores for Uniqlo.
Sato went on to take a radical approach which led to lines such as Charlotte Ronson, Vena Cava, and +J (the latter in collaboration with Jil Sander). The approach was a huge success and much of the Uniqlo’s current approach still hinges on this method. Collaboration now forms the backbone of Uniqlo’s philosophy of staying current and tapping into designers or artists who can reinterpret Uniqlo’s core approach and offer a new vision.
Now with drops selling out online in minutes and queues around the block for limited releases, Uniqlo has tapped into the psyche of new (and existing) customers by offering collections with KAWS, JW Anderson, and Undercover. Yanai’s business acumen and Sato’s design know-how has been crucial to the success of Uniqlo in the US and Europe with the brand continuing to offer its core items but crucially staying ahead of the curve.
Another string to the Uniqlo bow is its Uniqlo U and Uniqlo UT lines. Both are a constant within the Uniqlo offering and target a different type of consumer, with the former being a fashion forward contemporary line designed by Christophe Lemaire and the latter being a graphic t-shirt line directed by Japanese fashion heavyweight Nigo.
The Uniqlo U line has become a popular constant in the Uniqlo offering, with many savvy trend setters favoring its more contemporary and directional shapes over the mainline Uniqlo alternatives. Whereas Uniqlo UT has attracted a younger audience, as well as those customers who have an interest in the arts, design, and popular culture.
Uniqlo’s Unique Approach to Everyday Style
Since its beginnings, Uniqlo has specialized in everyday basics. The success of the brand lies in its simplicity, from an oxford button down and khaki chino to a puffer jacket and military parka. Rebelling against fast fashion and the offering of hundreds of different products each season in response to trends, Uniqlo’s staples fit seamlessly into the customer’s wardrobe, no matter their style.
The brand’s slogan is ‘Made for All’ and the offering truly reflects that, regardless of age, ethnicity, or gender. Huge production runs also keep costs low and items affordable for the customer. Even the more limited and in-demand products offered by Uniqlo, such as the fleeces released in collaboration with Engineered Garments, were still incredibly affordable, coming in at under $100.
And for the discerning denimhead, Uniqlo strayed into the selvedge game with a 12oz. Japanese denim from Kaihara which is available in a variety of fits. Sure, it might not be a Studio D’Artisan or Stevenson Overall, but the Uniqlo selvedge is a great alternative if you’re on a budget or need a back-up.
Since its debut in 1984, Uniqlo has fast become Asia’s biggest clothing retailer and an internationally recognized brand. Uniqlo has successfully managed to retain its core principles and identity, while continuing to remain relevant in the twenty-first century by carefully choosing its partners and collaborative concepts.
Some may argue that Uniqlo is still fast fashion but Yanai has ensured that the brand remains distinct by offering its own take on Japanese simplicity, functionality, and practical design. With a clear brand identity and well-earned respect amongst the general public and fashion enthusiasts alike, Uniqlo continues to innovate, think creatively, and maintain its core business.
In addition, the brand aims for fairness, transparency, and equal opportunity. For example, Yanai has proposed a global pay scheme, where managers (irrespective of location) would receive the same wage, as he believes that equal work deserves an equal wage. Although the founder is now in his mid-60s and worth a lofty $15 billion, he doesn’t feel able to retire just yet as he hasn’t met a successor who could meet his expectations.