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Is Uniqlo Having a Fashion Identity Crisis?

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Good news: At a press conference at the brand's Fifth Avenue flagship store in New York yesterday, Uniqlo Chairman Shin Odake confirmed the happy rumor that Uniqlo will indeed be launching e-commerce in the US this fall.

The launch has been a long time coming: Odake has been noncommittal on the topic for years, and when we spoke to him last March, he told us that the company would not launch online shopping until they had a solid foundation in the US. "We want to make sure that when we launch e-commerce that it is a dynamic, innovative, easy to use system for the consumer," he said.

And in the past six months, Uniqlo has made major strides in the US market. They've announced store openings in San Francisco and New Jersey, plus ambitious plans to open 200 additional doors by 2020.

That said, it looks like Uniqlo is struggling a bit with brand identity. Odake is taking great pains to change Uniqlo's reputation as a Japanese version of The Gap and position it instead as a leader in tech and textile innovation. "We are not the new Gap... We are not style-driven," a brand rep told the Wall Street Journal last April. "Our competitor is Apple. We don't see ourselves as having competitors in the fashion-retailing space."

That mentality was reiterated at yesterday's press conference, where tennis champion and brand ambassador Novak Djokovic was on hand to promote his new collection. In his interviews, Djokovic focused almost exclusively on the line's innovative fabrics and materials: "It's very important from a professional tennis player's perspective to have the most advanced and technical fabrics available in the clothes," he told WWD. "These materials absorb the sweat very quickly so they don't feel heavy on me."

In sharp contrast to, say, Roger Federer's gilded, monogramed collection with Nike, Djokovic's collection is about performance, not style.

It's a philosophy that has been carrying over into Uniqlo's regular line recently, too. When asked about brand highlights, Odake cites the 100 million units of Heattech sold worldwide last year, as well as the company's patented Ultralight down, which WWD describes as a "megahit" for the company. Again, the focus on high-tech fabrics.

Uniqlo's design director Naoki Takizawa was head designer at Issey Miyake before coming on board at Uniqlo. He described the difference between the two companies to Fast Company like this:

"At Issey Miyake, it was about putting on more and more. Here, it's about taking away... The only things that stay are the things you need: It has to protect you from the rain, and heat has to escape. In some ways, it is the same as what I was doing at Issey Miyake: Both need a high level of design sense. But it's a different kind of design sense."

So it seems that emphasizing tech fabrics and innovation is how Uniqlo is going to distance itself from The Gap's blue-jeans and basics program, not to mention trendy fast-fashion competitors Zara and H&M.

So where does fashion fit into the brand's future?

Uniqlo has done a handful of respectable designer collaborations over the years—Orla Kiely, Lulu Guiness, Undercover's Jun Takahashi, to name a few—but it was Jil Sander's +J collaboration, which ended earlier this year, that really gave the chain its fashion credibility. Without Sander, or an equally fashion-focused successor, Uniqlo could simply revert to being a performance fleece emporium (which is actually how the brand started—an exec recently described the company's origins to Fast Company as the "Old Navy of Japan, but not as nice.")

Apparently, Odake does have plans to find a designer for Uniqlo's women's line, telling WWD that he is "actively looking" for a designer to sign a multiyear deal. "Maybe not so many people are like Jil Sander's level but we love to collaborate with designers," he said.

So basically, Uniqlo seems to be in the process of deciding whether it's going to be a performance tech company, or a fashion brand. On the verge of the company's gigantic expansion plans—especially e-commerce—it's an important question to answer.

What do you think? Would you like to see Uniqlo focus more on fashion, or on affordable utility sportswear? Speak your mind in the comments.

· Fast-Fashion Face off: Here's How Uniqlo Compares to Zara, Gap, and H&M [Racked]
· Uniqlo Will Be Returning To New Jersey For A Second Try [Racked]