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Seemingly out of nowhere, their cheap, skinny rainbow-colored basics became a kind of New York uniform. Just how did the Japanese discount brand become the hottest retailer in the city?


Karmand Ahmed starts folding at eight o’clock in the morning. He works on the mezzanine of the three-floor Uniqlo flagship store in Soho, just north of Spring Street on Broadway. If the Uniqlo store were a ship of the line—and, at 37,000 square feet, it kind of is—the mezzanine would be the poop deck, the most important part of the vessel, from which all can be surveyed. With its 22-foot-tall LED banners and a wall of merchandise equally high, it’s the showpiece of a store built to overwhelm with a sense of ordered abundance.

Ahmed is not the captain. He is a division adviser, one of the roughly 180 workers who man the decks during the day, folding and selling. He mostly folds, and he does so for eight hours a day, but that’s not enough to keep up with the customers, who often grab not just a pair of jeans but stacks of them. If he could somehow finish folding, he would be surrounded by three complete walls of denim, in 33 styles and dozens of colors, including ten shades of blue. But the customers keep buying, and there are always holes to fill.

“It’s a lot of work, every day,” says Ahmed as he begins his shift. “The customers, they start waiting outside at 9:30 in the morning. A lot of people from the other stores shop here before they go to work.”

At five o’clock on this Friday morning, a tractor-trailer dropped off 500 boxes of new clothes. The denim is folded one way for shipping, and Ahmed must take each item out and fold it another way for presentation. The inseam is folded over and tucked in, and the legs are folded up twice lengthwise so that the denim has enough bulk to easily display the label on the leg. And then the jeans must be shifted and tweaked until they form perfect stacks all the way to the ceiling. Ahmed is nowhere near done, and in less than two hours the customers will start to flood through the glass doors in front, often at a rate of about one every two seconds.

An Italian tourist popped into Uniqlo the other week and bought so many $89.50 cashmere sweaters, in so many colors, he could hardly carry them. Even the floor manager was surprised, though by now she should be used to the appetites of the Uniqlo shopper. There is a local banker type who buys his socks, underwear, and T-shirts there by the case, and comes back for more every month. He has obviously found that buying Uniqlo is more convenient than doing laundry.

There are 950 Uniqlo stores worldwide, and all but 136 are located in Japan, where Uniqlo has had a retail presence since the eighties. But over the last five years, the company has been opening new stores in cities like London, Paris, and Moscow every few months. (Shanghai’s Uniqlo opens this week.) Since the recession, most global apparel companies have posted stagnant sales figures (or worse), but Uniqlo’s low-cost basics have allowed its parent company, Fast Retailing, to announce astounding numbers. In 2009, during one of the worst periods in the history of retailing, Uniqlo reported over $7 billion in sales of more than 400 million items. Existing-store sales were up by more than 30 percent.

Uniqlo’s Soho store opened in November 2006 as the company’s largest. About 24,000 customers visit on a typical Saturday. One day, it sold more than 2,000 of a single style of fleece jackets. The Soho store is often the highest-grossing Uniqlo store worldwide and the company’s only American presence, but that will change soon. Last month, in addition to reporting a net-income rise of another 55.7 percent, Uniqlo confirmed that it had signed a $300 million, fifteen-year lease to build a second American store at 666 Fifth Avenue. It is the largest retail lease ever signed in New York.

The Fifth Avenue store will take the place of Brooks Brothers, which occupied space on the ground floor until last year, and then expand upward, converting two stories of former office space into sales floors. It’s an unusual arrangement, but necessary to give Uniqlo the 90,000 square feet of space it was looking for. (It will be almost the size of the nearby Abercrombie & Fitch, H&M, and NBA stores combined.) Faith Hope Consolo, a broker and retail specialist at Prudential Douglas Elliman, expects Uniqlo sales to triple those of the Soho location. “The average in the area is $5,000 to $6,000 in sales per square foot,” she says. That would add up to about $450 million in annual sales, from one store, selling $19.50 dress shirts.

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