By  on June 6, 2007

Uniqlo is taking steps to transform itself into a fashion brand for edgy consumers in the U.S., after discovering the supermarket-style approach it takes in Japan has not worked here.

The effort, hinted at with the opening of a Uniqlo flagship in New York's SoHo last November, will continue to play out in ads to appear in the September issues of offbeat magazines; a rising fashion quotient in its apparel, and the expansion of its online presence into e-commerce sometime in the next two years.

Prior to providing shoppers with a way to buy its goods online, however, Uniqlo USA is aiming to open what chief marketing officer Shin Shuda termed "a couple more stores" in Manhattan. The search for locations has been focusing on 23rd Street, 34th Street, 59th Street and the Upper West Side, but, Shuda said, "lease negotiations are very tough."

"In Japan, we make most of our money in the suburbs," Shuda related, pointing out those stores seek to satisfy most apparel needs with a broad offer of goods. "When we opened here in New Jersey in Menlo Park, Freehold and Rockaway, we learned it didn't work. People didn't know who we were." (Uniqlo, which opened its first store in Hiroshima, Japan, in 1984, has roughly 760 stores worldwide.)

Opening in SoHo was a bid to attract "edgy, creative people," a group Shuda believes will seed Uniqlo's growth in this country. It's a setting with sweeping sight lines that features rotating mannequins and kaleidoscopic images of the Uniqlo logo spinning on three arrays of multiple video screens, as well as massive floor-to-ceiling stacks of staples like jeans and T-shirts.

One thing that won't be changing is the mission of the $4 billion brand to market good-quality products at the right price. "The right price, not the lowest price," Shuda emphasized. "We sell a cashmere sweater for $70. We source where we can get the right things at the best price — cashmere in Mongolia, merino in Australia and Italy, denim in Japan."

Uniqlo's fall collection, featuring the work of guest designers, will include cashmere sweaters and cardigans in prints such as argyle by Tina Lutz and Marcia Patmos; kimono-style sweaters and V-neck cardigans in neutral colors by Keita Maruyama, and cashmere dresses by Adam Jones. Prices will range from $89 to $159."Previously we were more of a commodity brand," Shuda said, noting Uniqlo will not be using the supermarket-style flyers employed by chains such as Old Navy to advertise in the U.S. "We had been missing the fashion side before we opened a design studio in New York three years ago," which has made a slow-building contribution since then, he added. (Uniqlo also has design studios in Milan, Paris and Tokyo.)

"But we do value commodities — it's where most of our business comes from," Shuda said with a grin. "We're going to keep selling polos and T-shirts."

And while Uniqlo's logo was redesigned by Kashiwa Sato to give it an edge — with a brighter shade of red and the creation of its own, sharp font to replace a round one — Shuda said the brand would retain its democratic sense of style. "We're never going to be H&M, interpreting high fashion," he said.

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