Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
Like rogue national park accounts, the Merriam-Webster dictionary, and Teen Vogue, Uniqlo recently enjoyed its time as a momentary liberal icon. The company’s perceived “wokeness” went up tenfold when Tadashi Yanai, president of Uniqlo parent company Fast Retailing, told Trump to “shove it.” Yanai was celebrated for coming back against the administration’s proposed tax on imports and threatening to pull Uniqlo stores from the States if the policy is put into law.
Seen through nonpartisan glasses, though, this feels simply like a coldly calculated business move. “We would not be able to make really good products [in the US] at costs that are beneficial to customers,” Yanai told a Japanese newspaper. “It would become meaningless to do business in the US.” This isn’t a “threat” to punish the president. It’s a man being realistic. While Uniqlo has thrived in cities, the store hasn’t caught on in the rest of the US — and even where the brand is popular, the company has seen what happens when it tries to raise prices.
Customers balked after Uniqlo upped retail prices in 2015, and the company vowed its “lowest prices” would come back just a year later, in May of 2016. Yanai understands that if faced with a border tax, Uniqlo loses its most powerful customer proposition: value. Retreating from the US would be a huge sacrifice, though. Uniqlo has tried to make inroads in the States for over a decade, and not doing business in the US would mean waving a white flag on its mission to be the largest retailer in the world.
As legend has it, Uniqlo was supposed to be named Uniclo, a portmanteau of “unique” and “clothing.” But someone accidentally trademarked Uniqlo, so they just went with it. What’s truly bizarre is that, on the surface, “unique clothing” might be the least fitting description for the brand.
When you walk into a Uniqlo, you are instantly greeted by basic T-shirts in every color, housed in columns and columns of pristine white cubbies. What makes Uniqlo unique is not the clothing offered, but the thought and constant retooling that goes into it — one of the company’s slogans is “simple made better.” Essentials are the currency that Uniqlo trades in; the T-shirt, pant, or jacket that’s rarely your most thrilling purchase, but still a vital one.
They’re products made for the average American, but they aren’t necessarily bought by them. “It's not that they don't like us in the suburbs, it's just they’re less familiar with us,” explains Fast Retailing’s president of global creative, John C. Jay. Like two soulmates waiting to be put on a blind date.
It’s the battle Uniqlo has faced ever since it came into the US in 2005. Its first stores, opened in three different malls in New Jersey, closed two years later. In 2015, the company was forced to scale back its ambitious expansion plan of opening 15 US stores a year to five. That detail comes from a Fortune article with the headline “Uniqlo’s big American mistake? Betting on suburban malls.” In 2016, the company closed five additional stores, all in suburban malls in New Jersey, Connecticut, California (Northridge), Pennsylvania (Willow Grove), and New York (Staten Island). Uniqlo moved away from its mall strategy. “The brand penetration in big cities such as New York, San Francisco, and Chicago is good, but not in the suburbs,” Yanai said on a 2015 conference call. Now, Uniqlo is focused on opening stores in big cities and hoping the people already familiar with it will hook up their friends in smaller ones.
“If we're not known in the larger cities, we're not able to spread out into the suburbs,” Uniqlo US CEO Hiroshi Taki says. Struggles in rural areas have not kept Uniqlo from dreaming of being the biggest retailer in the world. In early 2014, Uniqlo even had hopes of opening 1,000 stores in the US by 2020, but that goal was scaled back amid lower-than-expected profits.
When asked what markets Uniqlo is looking to add new stores to at the moment, Taki lists off all major cities that already have a Uniqlo. Washington, DC, because the sales have been great at the pilot store, might get a “second or third” location. Maybe a second store in Seattle; possibly another flagship, this time in Los Angeles; and Chicago is also ripe for more locations. “We need to have larger stores here in the US,” Taki explains.
Thomas Jastrzab, a Hong Kong-based analyst for Bloomberg Intelligence, says that the brand is “taking a longer-term approach in the US,” not atypical from the route it’s gone in other markets. “When they moved from Japan to greater China, for example, there was a little bit of growing pains,” Jastrzab says. “They had to learn the market, where you test different store formats and also merchandising, just to figure out what works in the individual market.”
At the very least, it doesn’t seem that products are the reason Uniqlo can’t break through. “We provide high-quality items at a very low price point,” Taki says, “items that anyone can wear.” They’re clothes you can bring home to Mom. The problem is that people don’t even know Uniqlo is an option. “The brand awareness is still very low, so that's where our issues lie,” Taki concurs.
Uniqlo is saying and doing all the right things to make itself attractive to the mainstream, though. While its store strategy is geared toward attracting the city slickers, the new global LifeWear campaign is all about the normies.
The slo-mo commercials ask the big questions about clothes: “Why do you get dressed?” “Can a shirt change how I feel?” “Am I fitting in? Why do you want to fit in?” Besides giving fodder to midnight dorm-room discussions in colleges across America, the ads intend to send the message that Uniqlo is everyday clothing to keep you warm, dry, and comfortable. Things that we can all agree are desirable, no matter if you’re from New York City or Iowa City. “For a professional marketer, that's a complete flip of what the norm is, right? What the influencer model is,” Jay says.
Uniqlo has used tag lines like “Made for All” in the past, but Jay says LifeWear goes beyond that; it’s now the starting point from which the whole company operates. “LifeWear is not a tag line, LifeWear is what we make,” he says.
The new global campaign was launched during Uniqlo’s fashion show in November 2016 — the brand’s first ever. Uniqlo put its own spin on the show. Out came a man and a woman walking — strolling, really. I wouldn’t disagree if you called it ambling. Behind the stage, a screen depicted a park scene, and a jogger followed the first couple; then a pair of friends; then a family, crying baby in tow. The models weren't just showing the latest designs to the assembled fashion editors and front-row celebrities; they were showing life, in LifeWear. A simple message communicated through an elite platform — it’s the Uniqlo way. “The show, you can argue, was very conceptual, but it was conceptual about normality, everyday life,” Jay explains.
Making clothing for everyday people and everyday life means a different set of influences for Uniqlo’s creative staff. Its design director, Naoki Takizawa, says 70 percent of his design is influenced by market research — what colors, fits, and fabrics are going to meet his and Uniqlo’s daunting goal. “I have to design clothes that will generate one million pieces. Try to imagine that,” he says. “I think it's unimaginable how much pressure you are under if you have to develop clothes that need to sell one million pieces.” He repeats his one-million-piece goal six times throughout our conversation — as if he still can’t believe it.
On top of the fits, fabrics, and colors, Takizawa says a primary concern for him and the company is price. In 2015, Uniqlo attempted to up its prices, offering what was advertised as a better-quality product. Customers weren’t buying it — literally.
Sales dipped in the face of higher prices; in some cases, raising costs of material just a dollar can cause retail prices to spike out of the price range customers want to pay. “Of course we want to use an expensive fabric, but the dollar more makes a big impact,” Takizawa explains of the delicate balance. That single dollar increase in material can set off a chain reaction that inflates the retail price by $10 and bumps it out of customers’ price ranges, Takizawa says.
Jay puts a positive spin on the constant feedback: “It just makes you sharper in your manufacturing and your sourcing and everything.” Takizawa, who designed Steve Jobs’s signature turtleneck, compares the process to the design of an iPhone: pulling away the inessentials and “paying attention to the details.”
The clothes aren’t intimidating, and Jastrzab agrees that it’s not so much the clothes as it is a lack of awareness. He also believes in Uniqlo’s strategy to approach the US market as a strong Japanese brand. “What they're trying to do in the US and Europe is to try to leverage the perception of a focus on quality and consistency in the product,” he says.
Taki, Uniqlo’s US CEO, believes stores are the biggest obstacle in attracting customers outside the city. In Taki’s perfect world, customers who walk into the store immediately understand another one of Uniqlo’s differentiating factors: its proprietary fabrics, like AIRism or Heattech. “We're not able to communicate the good qualities of each and every item in the store,” Taki says. “First we need to communicate how or why the items are good. It may be a [point of purchase] sign or a simple tag.”
The Heattech infused into everything from jackets to pants to keep you warmer, the light AIRism T-shirts and underwear, the warmer-than-they-look Ultra Light Down jackets: These technologies separate Uniqlo from fast fashion retailers that may occupy the same price band but not the same space in shoppers’ minds.
“Fast fashion is about seeing what the creators on the runway shows do and how quickly can you copy it,” Jay explains. “Our point is longevity. If we can make a cashmere sweater extremely affordable for you, that doesn't mean we're interested in making disposable clothing. Despite the price, we want that sweater to remain in your wardrobe for years… We're making it so it has value in your life.”
We can use denim as a case study for the value the brand brings to your life, since it’s the category Uniqlo is pushing this season.
When you consider Uniqlo’s goal of lifewear, denim becomes incredibly important. “It's the essentials, something that you need at all times,” Masaaki Matsubara, director of Fast Retailing’s Denim Innovation center and head of design at J Brand, tells me. Jeans fit this quality to a T. They’re losing ground in the US market, but still make up a $13 billion industry and are a staple of many people’s wardrobes. Uniqlo hopes to strike the delicate balance of stylish and average. “Capturing both the trend and the everyday aspect is going to be important,” says Matsubara. The most immediate thing that makes these jeans “everyday” is the price.
Uniqlo’s selvedge denim costs $50. Gap sells its selvedge denim for $108; Levi’s base pair is $148. This is where Uniqlo earns its Unique Clothing moniker: not in the visible benefits, but the hidden ones. “Sometimes ‘Simple Made Better’ could be the pricing and the sourcing,” Jay says. Yuki Katsuta, Uniqlo's head of research and design, explains what this entails: exploring different iterations of the simplest items by reconsidering fabrics, proportions, and working through endless fittings for even a T-shirt. “The price is really affordable, but the process is luxury,” Katsuta says.
It’s the same reason that Uniqlo will put on a fashion show in hopes of selling $6 T-shirts. “Certain people will appreciate it at one level, and other people will appreciate it at another level,” says Jay. This comes up throughout my conversation with him. “The philosophy of ‘Let's respect everyone,’” as Jay puts it. It sends my mind back to a poster on the wall in Uniqlo’s Japan office. It reads: “Global Is Local, Local Is Global.”
“In order to be a great global brand, you need to be a great local brand,” Jay says. Uniqlo’s done this with varying degrees of success by tailoring its new stores to each community, sometimes mixing both so that by leveraging its global roots, the brand becomes local. When opening in London, Uniqlo put together a guide of the neighborhood to promote local businesses in the area. The Singapore store opened with murals by local artists on the outside and a soundtrack created by DJs from the area. Uniqlo does this to show “respect to the people who've already been there for a long time before we ever got there,” Jay says.
Uniqlo is still grappling with how it can make a great American brand out of a great Japanese brand, but it’s possible Jay had it right from the beginning. “When we entered America my advice was to be a confident, contemporary Japanese company,” he says. This can get lost in translation. I naively — maybe ignorantly — asked the Uniqlo rep I was with when we entered a store in Japan whether I would find traditional Japanese clothing. Noragis, kimonos, something I wouldn’t find at my local New York City outpost. No such luck.
However, Uniqlo does have a Disney World-adjacent store in Orlando that is Kabuki theater for visiting tourists. The store celebrated its opening by inviting guests to participate in Japanese game show-style competitions, and Taki, the brand’s US CEO, says customers are attracted to its “store's Japanese heritage section.” And, according to Taki, it’s “seen great success.” Uniqlo is thriving as a confident, contemporary Japanese company — as imagined by Americans.
Jastrzab says that Uniqlo typically enters a new region for the long haul, and the Orlando store is proof the brand continues to tinker to see what gets a reaction. He’s optimistic that Uniqlo will find the right equation, but it’ll all be a moot point if a border tax takes away the ability to price its products at a value. In a statement, Uniqlo says “the US represents one of our top priority markets as a global company,” but stresses that offering the “highest-quality apparel at accessible prices” remains its top priority.
If Uniqlo does evacuate the States, it should be a disappointment to matchmakers everywhere. Rural customers would probably really like Uniqlo, if only they had the chance to meet.