Quality isn’t an attribute typically associated with fast fashion, but Uniqlo has also managed to build a reputation for durability. Takeuchi told me the brand that reminds him most of the relative newcomer—Uniqlo opened its first U.S. stores in 2005—is an old American one: L.L.Bean. The association might seem odd, given the venerable Maine retailer’s tradition of outfitting its customers in boxy flannels and duck boots. But in terms of philosophy, if not aesthetic, Takeuchi thinks the comparison is apt. The proposition L.L.Bean has always made to its customers is that they are investing in items that will be with them for a lifetime. Uniqlo can’t promise anything approaching that longevity, but in an era of disposable fashion, a Uniqlo garment, made from hearty materials and cut in a timeless style, can feel like an investment piece. “In a sense, it’s L.L.Bean in modern times,” Takeuchi said.
Like a mountain outfitter, Uniqlo touts the use of a number of signature technologies in its clothing. Puffer coats are insulated with “ultra-light down,” a down fill that purportedly makes jackets less bulky and easier to pack, without sacrificing warmth. HEATTECH, marketed as an innovative insulating system, and AIRism, which is promoted as moisture-wicking, are woven into a variety of Uniqlo staples—socks, underwear, camisoles, leggings, pants—supposedly making them more comfortable and resilient than competitors’ products. Not built for decades of wear on the rocky coast of Maine, perhaps, but more than up to the challenge of a few seasons of service in the cubicle.
In Asia, Uniqlo is everywhere. More than 800 of the brand’s stores are in Japan—where Uniqlo, by its own estimates, accounts for about 6.5 percent of the total apparel market. Much of the brand’s international growth in recent years has come from other countries in the region, including mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea.
To achieve the kind of dominance in the U.S. that the company enjoys closer to home, Uniqlo will need to grow significantly. A few years ago, Yanai aimed to generate $10 billion in sales from 200 stores in the U.S. by 2020; the company currently operates its 50 or so U.S. stores at a loss. “Compared to H&M or Zara, they have been struggling a little bit in the U.S. market,” says Won-Yong Oh, a professor at the University of Nevada who studies retail companies. “They have less brand awareness.” Many Americans have never heard of Uniqlo, or don’t know how to pronounce it. (It’s you-nee-klo.)
That could be an opportunity to make a good first impression. But as Uniqlo learned when it arrived on American shores, first impressions can be hard to manage. The three original U.S. stores were in New Jersey malls, where the company soon encountered several hurdles, including fit. (American customers, on average, are taller and fleshier than Japanese shoppers.) It closed the stores within a year.