The Japanese for cheap is yasui. Speaking to customers at the largest branch of Uniqlo in Japan, this word pops up a lot. “It’s cheap and the quality is good, but the style is so-so,” a fashionable young man in thick-rimmed glasses tells me. “I buy my underwear here, but Uniqlo’s main purpose is not fashion.”
I am wandering around the 12 multicoloured floors of the flagship store in Ginza, Tokyo’s answer to Regent Street, to find out what shoppers really think of their home-grown clothing giant. Fast Retailing, the company behind Uniqlo, aims to overtake Zara, HM and Gap by 2020 to become the most profitable clothes retailer on the planet. Many customers are tourists, here for the Disney hoodies, souvenir T-shirts and a better range than in most of the 798 international stores – almost six times as many as there were five years ago.
To supplement its range of basics, Uniqlo has been cleverly tapping the talent of high-profile designers to create more fashion-led collections. In 2009 it employed the services of Jil Sander, whose +J collections were such a huge success they reissued them last year. In March 2014 they brought in the grande dame of French style Inès de La Fressange, followed this autumn by the ex-Hermès designer Christophe Lemaire. And a new collaboration by ex-editor of French Vogue Carine Roitfeld goes on sale this week.
Her designs are not at all what the shoppers in Ginza might expect. They exude Roitfeld’s own Parisian chic: fitted pencil skirts, faux leather and leopard print. “I started from the idea of clothes that I would want to wear myself,” she says, “and developed this into clothes that anyone would want to wear. Uniqlo doesn’t take me as a designer; they just take me as a stylist and a woman. Mr Yanai [founder of Uniqlo and Japan’s richest man] thinks the same way: valuing simplicity, ease and speed of getting dressed in the morning.”
Like HM, whose equally coveted Balmain collection arrives on 5 November, Uniqlo has recognised the seductive effect of French fashion powerhouses to draw people through the doors and raise its profile internationally. But unlike HM, which is unashamedly led by catwalk trends, Uniqlo’s take on affordable style has always been focused on well-cut basics, hi-tech underwear and functional items such as its signature puffa jackets.
In recent years Uniqlo has recruited some big names to head up its creative team: Naoki Takizawa, previously creative director at Issey Miyake, as well as Nigo, founder of cult streetwear brand A Bathing Ape, and American creative advertising executive John C Jay. “Uniqlo is completely different from 20 years ago. It has become more fashionable,” says Yoshihiro Kunii, head of production at Uniqlo. “Originally we had very low prices and so-so quality. We want people in Japan to have the same [positive] image of Uniqlo as in the UK, but unfortunately they still think of Uniqlo’s history as a discounter.”
Internationally Uniqlo is doing well – its revenues rose by almost 46% in 2015, with big gains in China and Korea. However it has decided to slow down expansion in the US due to poor sales – another wobble in its sometimes-shaky rapid globalisation. Uniqlo’s first international store opened in 2001 in London, which was chosen for the challenge of its competitive retail market, says Kunii. Twenty-one stores across the UK followed, but “failed completely” Yanai said at the time, and most shut after only a few years.
In 2007 the brand decided to try again, and now there are 10 Uniqlo stores in the UK – in London, Kingston and Bluewater shopping centre in Kent. Uniqlo failed to make a profit in Europe last year, which it put down to refurbishment of the flagship Oxford Street store. But Kunii is optimistic about the future: “We want to be successful in London, then move to the next big city.”
One range that Uniqlo hopes will help it to do this – and another reason why some still associate it with pants, vests and socks – is HeatTech. Uniqlo teamed up with Toray, a Japanese chemistry company that also makes carbonfibre for planes and anti-infection suits for hospitals, to develop a special heat-absorbing material and since 2003 has used it to sell warm undies in futuristic vacuum packs. This autumn the HeatTech line has been expanded to include jeans for men and jumpers for women, as well as thin ribbed tops that can be worn either under or over other and chic thermals designed with Princesse tam.tam, a French lingerie brand also owned by Fast Retailing.
The partnership between Uniqlo and Toray may suit the brand’s image as Japanese innovators, but how well does science fit with its new haute-couture approach? I was invited on a tour of the Toray research factory near Kyoto, where we are shown how four different super-thin synthetic fibres are produced, combined and then rigorously tested before being sent overseas to be spun into clothes.
After peering at some industrial machines, we are shown into the Technorama, described as an “almighty environment-simulation lab” which we are told can recreate the conditions of the North Pole or the Sahara. Thankfully they have set the lab to a reasonable 10C. An infrared camera points at a model walking on a treadmill in a puffa jacket who stops, unsmiling, and unzips to reveal his T-shirted torso, which glows warm on the screen.
In the tour group’s blue caps and shoe covers, I feel very far from the front row of a Parisian catwalk. However it is this combination of style and science that Uniqlo believes makes it truly unique and hopes will win over the world with the fashion of the future. As Yuki Katsuta, the senior vice president of research and design, puts it: “We don’t want to make a border between Uniqlo and our collaborations. The design process and philosophy is exactly the same.”