Japanese retail chain Uniqlo has created a niche for technologically innovative and comfortable casual wear. Journalists were invited to its autumn/winter preview in Tokyo earlier this year and met with senior members of the team to learn more about the brand’s unique philosophy and vision of being the world’s top clothing retailer by 2020.

On an overcast day in May, a packed room of journalists wait to hear Uniqlo founder Tadashi Yanai and president of global creative John C Jay speak. Media members from 18 countries have been flown in for the brand’s autumn/winter preview at the Belle Salle Shibuya Garden event hall in Tokyo.

Bespectacled and small in stature, Yanai is dressed in a simple, understated style very much like that subscribed by the brand he founded. Seated beside Jay on the podium, he is poised to discuss Uniqlo’s plans to build a global clothing brand and the challenges it faces.

The son of a tailor, Yanai opened his first store, Unique Clothing Warehouse, in the Hiroshima prefecture of Japan in 1984 — the same year he took over his father’s clothing chain, then comprising 22 outlets.

Uniqlo, a combination of the words “unique clothing”, was registered in 1988. It is dedicated to selling basic, quality apparel to the masses. Today, it has more than 1,600 stores worldwide, with over 800 in Japan and 400 in Greater China.

According to a Financial Times article, Uniqlo is a US$33 billion ($44.7 billion) business today, making it the fourth-largest fashion retailer in the world after Zara, H&M and Gap. Yanai aims to make Uniqlo the top clothing brand in the world by 2020. The 67-year-old himself is worth an estimated US$15.4 billion and tops Forbes’ list of Japan’s richest people.

Uniqlo is owned by retail holding company Fast Retailing, of which Yanai is chairman and founder. Fast Retailing also owns retail chain GU, which is available across Asia, as well as fashion labels Theory, J Brand, Helmut Lang, Comptoir des Cotonniers and lingerie company Princesse tam.tam.

‘Not a fashion brand’
Though now successful, Yanai is no stranger to failure. The mild-mannered gentleman very ambitiously launched 20 Uniqlo stores in various small towns across the UK in 2001. Sadly, they failed to attract customers and Yanai was forced to close them all. His first venture into the US was similarly unsuccessful, with all three outlets there forced to close its doors. These lessons proved invaluable to his growth and eventual success, inspiring the title of his 2003 autobiography One Win, Nine Losses.

Uniqlo entered the UK market again in 2004 with four stores in central London. That number has grown to 10 in the city alone, thanks to a stronger and more effective strategy — since 2005, the brand has concentrated on opening megastores in major cities across the world as part of its international expansion plans.

Yanai is keen to highlight that although Uniqlo is a key brand in the global fashion industry, he does not consider it a player in the traditional sense. “Uniqlo is not a fashion brand,” he declares. Rather, its focus is on functionality and product development through innovative manufacturing techniques.

Over the past few years, in its quest for global expansion, Uniqlo has focused on perfecting the quality of its clothes instead of chasing trends. For example, its Heattech range offers practical clothing designed to keep the wearer warm. The full range includes T-shirts, leggings and socks. At the other end of the spectrum, the AIRism range provides comfortable clothing that quickly absorbs and evaporates sweat. This allows Uniqlo to cater for consumers in cold climates as well as the tropics.

The brand’s philosophy extends to its designer collaborations with fashion personalities such as Jil Sander, Christophe Lemaire, Inès de la Fressange and Carine Roitfeld. Uniqlo adopts a more discreet approach to such partnerships, shying away from the intense fanfare that designer collaborations by other high street brands tend to generate. The selection of design partners reflects the style preferences of its customers.

“Collaborations with designers is something we have always put effort in,” says design director Naoki Takizawa. “Right now, we are working with Inès and Carine — they are not designers; Carine is an editor and Inès is a former model. They lead lifestyles that others aspire to, so collaborations with such influential personalities indicate what customers are looking for in contemporary fashion.

“Yanai-san had read a book that Inès wrote and he brought it to the company, saying, ‘This is a person with a wonderful perspective and living a true, enriched life, not necessarily running a luxury brand’,” he continues. “For example, she was wearing a T-shirt that she had bought at a flea market in India, or perhaps clothes bought at a vintage shop. So, she was mixing and matching different elements to create her fashion. Yanai-san asked if there was an opportunity to get her to work with us, and that’s how it all started.”

Meanwhile, Roitfeld’s experience as a fashion editor helps in the styling of the clothes and highlights how details are important when putting an outfit together. “A customer who often wears Carine’s clothes says she feels uplifted. Those who wear Inès’ clothes say they are comfortable and make them feel so good, they want to buy multiple pieces,” adds Takizawa. “Customers of both collaborations have different feedback because of the different philosophies of the designers.”

LifeWear concept
At the forefront of this season’s collection is the LifeWear concept, which comprises four lines: essentials, work, sport and home. At the Belle Salle event hall, we had a chance to see how the clothes reflect everyday lifestyles. The lines were presented using theatre sets, with models posing in different settings. The runway show held later featured a combination of dressed-up basics for autumn/winter that had a strong streetwear aesthetic.

Uniqlo’s collaborations follow the Life- Wear concept with its functional and uncomplicated approach to sophisticated clothing. Among its biggest design challenges over the years has been to appeal to female customers looking for trendy clothes with a more tailored aesthetic, which inspired collaborations with the likes of de la Fressange and Roitfeld.

For menswear, Uniqlo created a stir recently with its appointment of Lemaire as artistic director of a new R&D centre in Paris. The former creative director of Hermès unveiled an affordable line called Uniqlo U, which includes womenswear, at Paris Couture Week in early July. With “elevated” basics and a minimalist aesthetic, the new line is a natural progression for Lemaire, who designed the Uniqlo and Lemaire collections with his partner Sarah-Linh Tran.

Takizawa himself was previously creative director at Issey Miyake. On his transition from high fashion to clothing for the masses, he says, “If I had worked for a maison in Europe, I don’t think I would have been able to adjust to Uniqlo’s culture. But Issey Miyake sees clothes as a product. The development process is connected to the design, fabrication, yarn, cutting and production methods.”

Uniqlo’s head of research and design as well as group senior vice-president Yukihiro Katsuta also hails from a high-fashion background, having worked as vice-president of men’s sportswear at luxury department store Bergdorf Goodman in New York City. A conversation with Katsuta reveals that designing basic clothing is not as simple as it looks. The brand has invested a significant amount of time and resources into this and aspires to continue improving. His role as head of research and design also gives him the chance to determine and further develop seasonal trends and essentials, such as tunics and skinny jeans.

“We do a lot of monitoring tests ourselves,” he explains. “I often wear an item because unless you are confident about it yourself, you will not be able to sell it with confidence. For outerwear, I will wear the outfit for 10 consecutive days. By doing so, I may discover something with the stitching that I did not notice the day before or have an idea to add something.”

Managing the pricing of both materials and final products is one of the biggest challenges of providing quality clothes to the masses, says Katsuta. “The cost of labour is going up as well, so it is not simple. In the worst-case scenario, where we have to increase the price just a little bit, we could, for instance, add value to the product to justify the increase. Otherwise, customers may not accept the higher pricing — around the world, everyone is very sensitive about retail prices.”

Sales at Uniqlo in Japan were volatile the past year after the brand raised prices by 5% to 10% to boost profit. However, in April, Yanai announced an aboutturn and prices of the clothing returned to what they were before. This led to improved sales in the following months.

Both Yanai and Jay were not deterred by the drop in sales, however. They believe their specific design strategy for Life- Wear will transcend borders as Uniqlo’s clothing can be worn anywhere in the world. They also know that they have to balance local demand with their quest to become a global brand. “We are not yet a global brand… we have barely scratched the surface. There is a long way to go,” Jay declares.

Yanai sees Uniqlo’s concept of clothing as a way to celebrate Japanese culture. “Global is local and local is global,” he says.

Technology and the internet have shaken up the fashion and retail industries in the past decade, effectively making them more democratic but also more unpredictable. Jay, whose previous roles include global creative director of legendary Portland- based advertising agency Wieden + Kennedy and marketing director at New York department store Bloomingdale’s, is keen to take advantage of these uncertain times. “The fashion world is in crisis right now. Everything is changing. It is time to take advantage of that. When you make clothes, they must fit in with contemporary culture. Everything is about speed today,” he says.

Both executives feel that adapting global trends to local markets outside of Japan is a good strategy to serve a growing international audience. For instance, the brand’s attempts at serving the Southeast Asian market led to the creation of stylish modest wear for modern Muslim women. The collaboration with British-born designer Hana Tajima combines a contemporary yet conservative aesthetic with Uniqlo’s practicality and comfort. Pieces include straight-legged trousers, long tunic tops and inner hijabs (worn inside the headscarf) that utilise its AIRism technology. The versatile collection is also available in China, South Korea, Taiwan, Japan and Australia.

The right balance
Finding the right balance in terms of product mix is key to reaching sales targets, says Taku Morikawa, CEO of Uniqlo Southeast Asia. For example, selling winter clothing in tropical countries can be a challenge, but Asian travellers often get their winter clothes from Uniqlo. “Winter wear accounts for substantial sales in Southeast Asia. We are also developing summer wear that can be worked into our autumn/winter collections in this region.”

The opening of Uniqlo’s Global Flagship Store for Southeast Asia at Orchard Central in Singapore on Sept 2 creates the ideal setting for the brand’s largest product line-up anywhere in the region. Spanning 2,700 sq m across three floors, it highlights the LifeWear range and provides a compelling shopping experience to locals and tourists alike. When asked about opening a similar space in Malaysia, Morikawa is enthusiastic. “We aim to open a flagship store there as soon as we can.”

Uniqlo’s stock-in-trade remains its promise of stylish, practical and affordable casual wear that serves any customer anywhere in the world. These pillars support its plans for international expansion and are key to its continued growth. “We don’t want to create just fashionable and trendy items,” Morikawa says. “We want to create innovative and comfortable clothing that will suit everyone in everyday life.”

Hannah Merican is a writer with Options at The Edge Malaysia.

This article appeared in the Options of Issue 746 (Sept 19 ) of The Edge Singapore.