March 18, 2019

Uniqlo has an important cultural piece for global expansion

Uniqlo is a brand with an ironic history. Its original name was Unique Clothing Warehouse. The literal translation of the name is something that marks many Japanese brands. But for anybody who has experienced the brand, there’s little in the form of uniqueness. Since its start in 1984, the brand has plowed its way to the top of Japanese fashion. Founder Tadashi Yanai now counts himself as the richest person in Japan. But one part of the Uniqlo empire is incomplete: The United States. How will the Japanese purveyor of basics make the move across the Atlantic? And how will it circumvent the mistakes of a fellow American staple brand, the Gap?

For those unfamiliar with Uniqlo

  • It’s about low-priced items, that have enough distinguishable quality
  • The lines often avoid trendiness and fashion, and instead focus on practicality
  • Jeans for USD 40
  • Hoodies for USD 30
  • Down Jackets for USD 70
  • 800 stores in Japan
  • 50 stores or so in the U.S. operating at a loss

The Gap comparison

Much like the Gap, Uniqlo features a line of clean and minimal offerings. As it stands, much of Uniqlo’s weakness is due to unsuccessful stores in the suburbs. Steve Rowen of Retail Systems Research, suggests a better strategy. Focus on big cities. It’s these markets which are true to the core and identity of the brand. The Gap made the mistake of pushing into new markets with customers that weren’t ready. But beyond that, the American and global job market is undergoing a huge transition. Younger entrants are stuck with grim prospects and smaller salaries. There’s also the angle that conspicuous consumption isn’t entirely well in most sectors.

The “barbell” sweetspot of fashion

A quick search of #OOTD (outfit of the day) often reveals ample amounts of Uniqlo. This is mostly true for people sharing their outfits in Asia. There’s a secondary group that’s emerging around the international fashion savvy. Uniqlo offers a solid complement to outfits for their versatility and “just enough design.” Meaning enough design to look considered. It’s clear that the high-low interaction in fashion is the new norm. Brands like Uniqlo will continue to play a part as the power of the millennial dollar stagnates. An added element of interest lies in Uniqlo’s collaborations. UNDERCOVER, KAWS, J.W. Anderson, Jil Sander, and Alexander Wang command respect within fashion. They’re continued opportunities for Uniqlo to signal their understanding and commitment to fashion.

Undone by Marie Kondo?

The Marie Kondo effect has hit consumer America in full force. Thrift stores are denying donations due to the massive influx post-Netflix series. Will Kondo’s effect push the Western world towards more considered consumption? Uniqlo’s gameplan is not be the star of the wardrobe show and not necessarily spark joy. Can fast fashion turn the corner?

The international cultural piece

John C. Jay serves as President of Global Creative at Fast Retailing, the parent company of Uniqlo. What puts Uniqlo in a position to succeed is arguably Jay’s vision and his connections. He spent many successful years at Weiden + Kennedy, helping establish the agency as a key partner to Nike. It’s his blend of vision and capability that will a big part of Uniqlo’s success outside of Asia. Many aim to connect Asia and the Americas, but what Jay offers is many cultural vectors. This could be music, art, design, fashion and more. With Uniqlo as the platform, the pieces are lining up.

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