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Home » Archives » November 2006 » US Says Konnichiwa to the Style of Uniqlo

US Says Konnichiwa to the Style of Uniqlo

Wednesday, November 22, 2006 Posted: 06:38 AM JST

(by Jean Scheidnes, in the USA) - Watch out, Gap. A Japanese apparel giant has just landed on U.S. shores with a long-range plan to challenge your supremacy.

Uniqlo is often called the Gap of Japan, but that designation, believe it or not, understates the store's ubiquity there. Japan has 17 percent more Uniqlos per capita than the U.S. has Gaps. And it has them all in an area the size of Montana.

Last week Uniqlo opened its biggest store in the world, a 36,000-square-foot flagship in Manhattan, and I went to see it. I was disappointed that it wasn't more, well, Japanese. After all, Japan is hot right now. The Arthouse gala earlier this month had a Japan-pop theme: "Harajuku Nights," after the Tokyo district renowned for wildly dressed youth and inspiration for Gwen Stefani's secondary apparel line, called Harajuku Lovers.

How did Japanese pop culture become the epitome of cool? For about 15 years, American children have been obsessed with Japanese exports — anime and manga comics, video games, karaoke machines, robotic pets, Sanrio, Power Rangers, Tamagotchi and Pokémon. So Japan has a direct line to the fickle favor of American youth, who set trends for most of the developed world.

Furthermore, Japan is famously fashion-conscious because its young women typically live with their parents, and therefore have a lot of disposable income to lavish on designer goods. Fashion is a race to conform, and few modern societies value conformity as much as Japan does. Along with the population density, it enables trends to saturate the consumer market with incredible speed.

Japan is the most thrilling place I've ever shopped. When I travel, I prefer to explore and experience my surroundings rather than shop. But retailing in Japan is practically a cultural pageant, and it is dazzling.

If you are one of the first customers of the day at a high-end department store, all of the white-gloved employees will be lined up to greet you with a bow. Every time you enter a salesperson's realm, he or she will holler or screech, "Irrasshaimase!" That means welcome, though it doesn't often sound welcoming. Their equivalent of a dollar store has nifty household gadgets you've never imagined. The stationery stores are overwhelming. And everything you buy is meticulously wrapped.

Uniqlo's New York flagship is predictably dazzling but not so predictably Japanese. The white light of the sleek, three-story emporium bursts from behind a landmark-designated, whitewashed cast-iron facade in SoHo. Inside, the architecture is transparent, so the hundreds of people there on a Sunday morning can see each other. The centerpiece of the entrance is a huge, floor-to-ceiling terrarium containing 30 rotating mannequins dressed in monochrome outfits that fade from white at one end to black at the other. Around it, the soaring, white walls are neatly stacked with Mongolian cashmere sweaters.

But there are only three signs of Japan here — a free magazine called Uniqlo Paper that has Japanese themes, a small music selection that is heavy on Japanese DJs and a wall of T-shirts designed by more than 100 Japanese artists ($16). A few of the T-shirts are packaged with Tamagotchis, those demanding little digital "pets."

The store name, pronounced yoo-nee-klo, is a hybrid of "unique clothing" — ironic since the clothes are the furthest thing from unique. They are mass produced, more than 400 million garments a year, mostly in China. But for the price, the quality is amazing. Or maybe I should say, for the quality, the prices are amazing. (About 20 percent lower than Gap's, by my unscientific survey.)

And rather than hyper-trendy, disposable fashion like you'd find at H&M or Forever 21, Uniqlo sells well-made staples that can be integrated into any wardrobe.

Whether your preferred look is professional, preppy, sporty, urban, outdoorsy, arty or romantic, you can find plenty of contemporized basics to build upon. Uniqlo has office attire, outerwear, athletic wear, loungewear, casual wear and seasonal accessories.

Perhaps you've heard of denim worshipers who plunk down $200 to $400 for Japanese denim brands such as Tsubi. For that kind of money, you could hop a flight to JFK and buy a pair of Uniqlo jeans in the trendy wash and fit of the minute. You want them grey? You want them tight as leggings? You have $40? You're done.

That's about as trendy as it gets at Uniqlo. Most of the clothes would blend right in at J. Crew or Gap. But Uniqlo has none of J.Crew's blueblood lifestyle branding. In fact it is totally devoid of imagery or decor to suggest any spirit in which the clothes should be worn. It is egalitarian and ambiguous, more like Gap. But while Gap will take an item and showcase its multiple personalities — Wear it like this! Or this! Or THIS! — Uniqlo says nothing and makes the consumer figure it out. Upon these blank slates, Japanese youth can rewrite their style manifestos over and over, according to the whims of fashion.

The first Uniqlo opened in Hiroshima in 1984. Now there are 733 stores worldwide. Tokyo alone has 99. That's more than all the Gaps in Texas and Louisiana.

Before the New York flagship opened, there were already three small Uniqlos in New Jersey and a few pop-up shops operating out of cargo containers placed around the city. (I can't explain, but a temporary store is one of the most reliable ways to whip New Yorkers into a frenzy.)

But do the clothes fit American women? As much as I loved shopping in Japan, I couldn't buy clothes there because I am 5-foot-8-inches tall and a size 4 in the U.S., which makes me a monstrous doughball in Japan. The places I shopped only carried extra-small, small and medium, and the mediums might have fit me when I was 11 years old.

A few times in Tokyo department stores I foolishly inquired after a large, which was never to be had. Once, the petite saleswoman responded by steering me to the fitting room with the medium, which I struggled in vain to stuff myself into, then showed her my hopeless situation and asked again for the large.

"I am sorry. We are regular size," she replied. Spreading her spindly arms wide like she was attempting to hug an elephant, she added, "BIG size, six floor." The sixth floor was for pudgy grandmas and, needless to say, had nothing to my liking. Thoroughly shamed, I gave up on Japanese clothes.

So imagine my shock at how deftly Uniqlo adjusted its sizing for the U.S. market. I found it just right, from top to bottom. The store offers free alterations on pants, but I didn't need them.

I walked out with a pair of velvety corduroys, a trench coat with removable lining and two cashmere V-neck pullovers. Nothing thrilling, but all of it flattering and sure to be worn for years. The damage? Just $214.

Sayonara, Gap.

Jean Scheidnes is a US based journalist who writes about style

Keywords: trends_lifestyle

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The now legendary Sir Ernest Mason Satow (1843-1929) was a member of the British legation in Tokyo for twenty-one years. This classic book is based on the author's detailed diary, personal encounters, and keen memory. In it, Satow records the history of the critical years of social and political upheaval that accompanied Japan's first encounters with the West around the time of the Meiji Restoration. Fascinating.
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