Thursday, July 16, 2009

Uniqlo: Japan meets the Gap

In Japan there's this store that everyone goes to, but most people don't readily admit or talk about. Well, at least that's how most Japanese people see it to the best of my knowledge, but there are plenty of foreigners that are just nuts about the place and can't rave about it enough... I myself wouldn't go quite that far. This store has a name, and its name is Uniqlo.

Uniqlo is sort of like the Japanese version of the Gap - or maybe what the Gap should be. Their prices are cheap and they'd like to think they have style, but most people just go there for plain items they wear layered under stuff that can blend in with whatever they're wearing. Uniqlo's strengths are its affordable prices and comfort, which in trying economic times such as these are a great business platform. While Toyota is posting its first annual numbers in the red ever, the owner of Uniqlo has just this year become the richest man in Japan at a net worth of $6.1B USD, surpassing the former top Hiroshi Yamauchi of Nintendo fame. In fact, Tadashi Yanai hasn't ruled out trying a buyout of the Gap to catapult his company's ambitions for going global and hitting the US market fullscale. In actuality, the economic downturn is probably helping Uniqlo's numbers since these are about the only times that no-name and cheaper business models can take off in Japan - as an example, the used book store Book-Off made used books popular around the time of the bubble collapse.

Anyway, I recently stopped by Uniqlo as I was running embarrassingly low on underwear that didn't have holes in them, and while wearing Japanese pants for me is normally akin to a Chris Farley "fat guy in a little coat" session due to 15+ years of soccer and capoeira, Uniqlo is rather well known for comfortable undies and fitting us furriners. So I decide to give them a shot.

So I went out to the newly opened Shinjuku store (pictured above) and got my shop on. While I was there I stopped in the UT section, which is Uniqlo's attempt at fashion in "designer t-shirts", if such a diametrically opposed juxtaposition of terms is allowed (Armani Exchange would like to think so). They had some interesting candidates, but none were interesting enough for me to walk away with. Top candidate is pictured at right, courtesy of the UT homepage.

I must say though, they have put a little effort into things, including buying up rights to put out some random stuff that appeals to foreigners. One great example is Warner Brothers products, which does include Looney Tunes, but also includes the Goonies (!!) and Batman... most Japanese people don't even know about the Goonies!

Japan is absolutely littered with Uniqlo stores, but if you're not in Japan and want to see one, you only chances will be if you live close to New York or LA... or you could just wait for Tada-chan to buy out Gap or some other sucker.

Oh and to anyone wondering, the boxers were still just a tad snug, but I'm sure they'd be fine for most... you might still need to go up a size from what you're used to.

[Edited for embarrasing grammatical errors... my brethren in the "I judge you when you use bad grammar" Facebook group would be ashamed. :'(]


Japan Society/Shannon said...

Great commentary!

Jon Allen said...

I have always wondered how you are supposed to pronounce the name

UNI-Glow ?

David said...

The Japanese side of my family doesn't not talk about Uniqlo, nor do gab about it. I wouldn't say people won't admit to shopping there though. Thanks to Uniqlo a lot of us gaijin can get clothes (although the shoulder area is always a bit tight on me).

Been to Shimamura yet? (Do they have Shimamura in Kanto?) I've been going there for years and my wife even longer than that. It's gotten super popular recently.

darg said...

Shannon: thanks!

Jon: the Japanese is ユニクロ, so just think of the 'q' as a 'c'- uni-clow ('ow' pronounced as in slow).

David: Nope, haven't seen a Shimamura, and from what I've seen Uniqlo does seem to have a fairly good reputation, especially amongst foreigners.

More than it being looked down on particularly, I think there's a traditional tendency of Japanese to like brand items as opposed to generic, and Uniqlo is still working on establishing itself as a respected name. Two things are helping this: Uniqlo is gaining in popularity and people are starting to care less about brands (thank God).