Despite its low price tags, however, Uniqlo doesn’t fall neatly into the category of deep discounter. Like the mass-fashion brands, it delivers a low-cost product that shares qualities of high-end retail. “Uniqlo is a bit of a different animal,” says Luca Solca, who covers retail for Bernstein Research. “And what’s different about Uniqlo is that they have chosen fabric, rather than fashion, as the area where they want to excel.”
Uniqlo has sixteen takumi, or textile “masters,” on staff, none with less than twenty years’ experience. They specialize in areas like dyeing or sewing, and work with more than 70 factories, mostly in China. A typical order will be around a million units of denim, fleece, or cashmere—often all the material the supplier makes. The company further increases its buying power by offering a smaller selection of fabrics, across a more limited selection of clothes styles, than most other retailers.
Uniqlo disguises the limited variety of products it makes by offering them in almost every color imaginable. There are, for instance, 80 colors of polo shirts currently available on the floor. Most of those colors don’t move very quickly—of the dozens of colors of cashmere sweaters available in the New York store last winter, the top sellers were black and white—but the wide spectrum serves as a helpful deception. (The same is true with T-shirts: Uniqlo currently has over a hundred different T-shirt designs for sale in Soho.)
“We have much fewer styles,” says Odake, “especially when you compare us with companies like H&M or Topshop or Zara. That’s the secret of why we can get better quality. We try to consolidate the fabric buys as much as possible. H&M sales are bigger, but we have bigger orders. We take huge quantities, and we have negotiation power.”
Uniqlo’s premium jean, for example, is made in Japan of selvedge denim, a weave that uses a continuous thread and leaves a red end on the swatch. (It’s mostly a geek thing, but connoisseurs like to show off selvedge denim by turning up their cuffs.) Uniqlo sources its selvedge from Kaihara, a 100-year-old mill in Hiroshima that makes denim for over a dozen retailers, including Levi’s, Gap, and J.Crew, as well as specialty brands like Citizens of Humanity and 7 for All Mankind. There is currently a pair of selvedge Levi’s made for J.Crew selling for $150. Gap’s selvedge jean is $88. Uniqlo’s is $59.50.
Perhaps Uniqlo’s biggest seller last winter was their Heattech line of long underwear, which they developed in partnership with Toray Industries, a chemicals company in Japan. The tops and bottoms start at $10.50, and they have sold more than 40 million of them. Uniqlo approached Heattech as an industrial undertaking, says Odake. The company contracted Toray to design a new fabric, using milk proteins for softness and building in air pockets with star-shaped fabric strands to retain warmth. Uniqlo reserved a Toray factory for a year and sold so many units that Toray built another factory.
Last March, Uniqlo lured the German fashion designer Jil Sander, famous for a minimalist look and a maximalist price point, out of retirement. At first, this appeared to represent a move in the direction of mass fashion, where special collections by celebrity designers are now a mainstay of the business. But Sander’s style has always been about anti-style: Her clothes are studies in high-quality reductionism, and they wear for years. Her first collection for Uniqlo, labeled with the understated moniker +J, included $50 flat-front khakis, a $150 trench coat, and $40 oxford shirts with Sander’s signature small collar. The items were maybe just a bit more styled than mainline Uniqlo, with a custom catch on the pants and slightly better material in the coat, but the most striking aspect of the collaboration was its similarity to the Uniqlo brand. The clothes were plain, well constructed, and cheap.
Uniqlo built a store-within-a-store for the +J collection and installed velvet ropes as a crowd-control measure. Anyone familiar with the circus that surrounded Karl Lagerfeld’s or Stella McCartney’s designs for H&M could have predicted what came next: a line stretching up Broadway to Prince Street, customers waiting 90 minutes to get in. It was an odd—and decidedly, if accidentally, very New York—juxtaposition: a marketing strategy built around anticipation and scarcity executed by a brand known for its limitless supply. After a few weeks, however, it became clear that +J was not meant to be an exercise in exclusivity. Some items sold out, but most were still available 90 days later, when the second collection arrived.
Instead, the +J collection appears to have been a trial run for something larger. “In designing the +J line, I am developing something like the blueprint for the future of Uniqlo’s style,” says Sander. “It is my vision to create uniforms for the future: pure, sophisticated clothes that work like a common language for the global community.” Last month, Uniqlo announced that Sander would be designing for the company indefinitely.