Saturday, November 11, 2006

 

Not Your Mother's Uniqlo

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The wall of color and the simple lines may look like Uniqlo to you, but I promise you, this is NOT the same store you might visit in Japan. I was privileged enough last night to attend the flagship store opening ; longtime readers of Japundit will remember that we had a lively discussion last year about the early test-marketing attempts of Uniqlo corporate here in NYC, and that we speculated how it would fare long term against global competitors such as H&M and Zara.
I overheard one fashionista complaining last night that he had no idea how the clothes really looked like, what with Iron Chef Morimoto serving up sublime toro flown in from Japan and with the sake flowing and the DJ spinning music over repeated exclamations of kampai. (For the record, I eschewed buying any $89 cashmere sweaters and took home the sake cup instead. It smells like hinoki).
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The store is a labyrinth of glass and spinning mannequins and simple clothes (think J Crew, but sturdier). The fashionable--and the money-minded--mingled together
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I've specific thoughts to share with you on the merchanise, which is an interesting mix, and there are definitely items that Japundits will love. But I'll close for now with this thought. The American press so far has been very quick to say that Uniqlo is where hip Japanese go to find basics. The funny thing is every time I'm in Japan, friends look stunned when I say that Uniqlo is coming to America; it isn't exactly considered hip. It's viewed more like the Kmart of the 80s.

Looking around the store (when I could focus), I kept asking myself, "What's so Japanese about Uniqlo?" The Gap likes to point to certain American classic icons (James Dean, Audrey Hepburn) to market their stuff. H&M has English eccentricity as its muse and Zara can play up a general sense of European mystique. What is Uniqlo to do? A great deal of it is and will be designed by Westerners, and not by the Japanese, so it isn't the clothes exactly that are transferring from Japan to America.

Well, read the press release carefully and you'll see that Uniqlo's launch isn't an attempt to recreate what exists in Japan.

Japan’s most popular apparel retailer and a worldwide leader in casual wear, opened its first global flagship store and the world’s largest UNIQLO in New York City, the fashion capital of the world. Located at 546 Broadway, the 36,000 square foot UNIQLO SoHo NY features the very best of UNIQLO - stylish, high-quality and affordable clothing and accessories, complemented by an unparalleled modern Japanese shopping experience in a stunning architectural landmark.

This is a global store; it's not intended for an American audience looking for a recreation of a Japanese experience. And this is why the marketing materials emphasize modernity, service and design, things that Americans always notice when they visit Tokyo. There are also small pockets of Japanese specific designs that play into our notions of what is cool in Japan (more on these later).

All these decisions strike me as smart. I, for one, and rooting for Uniqlo's success. It's about time a Japanese company entered into the discount fashion fray. If Uniqlo succeeds in America, it will be very interesting to see if this version of the store will then inform the Uniqlo back home in Japan.

First posted at Japundit.

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