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April 16 2014

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With Ambition To Dress 100 Million, Is Uniqlo The Retailer Of The Future?

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Uniqlo recruits from fashion, but its aims are larger than fashion. That was the overriding message at this week’s presentation of its new self-designated category: LifeWear. “Yanai-san always says Uniqlo is not sportswear or casualwear,” said the company’s design director, Naoki Takizawa. “We have a function. This is clothing for a new category.” Yanai-san is Mr. Tadashi Yanai, founder of Uniqlo’s parent company, Fast Retailing, and his ambitions are global. No surprise that Uniqlo’s push into the U.S. and globally in the last few years will keep going strong. The label will open more stores here in the next year, as many as 20 in 2014 alone. “It’s a very interesting approach for me,” said Takizawa, who prior to joining Uniqlo was creative director at Issey Miyake. “Fashion is a segment. But Uniqlo is design for 100 million pieces, 100 million people.”

In observance of the fact that 100 million global customers won’t follow the same trends, Uniqlo is reorganizing itself to put function at the forefront. The U.S. may go in for a different look than Japan or elsewhere, but an American customer, like a Japanese one, wants to be cool in the summer and warm in the winter. She’ll appreciate the new breathable AIRism fabric (developed, according to the package, with “Toray Industries Inc.”) for the former, and Uniqlo’s successful Heattech, the product of eight years of development, for the latter. The company sees itself less as a design studio than a laboratory: developing new fibers and fabrics, competing not with other fashion companies so much as with its own past performance. “Uniqlo doesn’t need to change a lot every season,” Takizawa said. He likened its product development more to the incremental upgrades of the iPhone: first the 4, then the 5.

So for the present, Uniqlo will focus on nine categories, both established success stories (stretch denim, affordable cashmere, fleece) and new areas of interest and innovation (silk being key among them). You can expect to see and feel that change in Uniqlo stores come August. But all of this is not to say fashion is being discounted. Nicola Formichetti, who will continue in his role as the company’s creative fashion director even now that he’s been named Diesel’s creative director, styled the presentation of Fall looks to the editorial hilt. (Strong support was provided by Katsuya Kamo, the Japanese hairstylist and milliner who created the headpieces for the presentation; label brass made sure to note that he’s previously worked with Comme des Garçons and Chanel.) And Yuki Katsuta—the head of research and design, who arrived at Uniqlo via Bergdorf Goodman, Barneys, and Ralph Lauren—continues to search for designers with whom to collaborate, and new ways in which to do so. He’s just coming off a partnership with his old Bergdorf’s colleague Michael Bastian for a new kind of capsule collection: one limited entirely to one category, the polo shirt. It’s been going gangbusters in Japan, and arrives at U.S. Uniqlo stores later this month.

Photo: Leandro Justen/BFANYC.com