By  on September 29, 2011

LONDON — Uniqlo is hoping innovation will give it the edge in the fast-fashion world.

The Japanese brand, which is set to open three major stores in the U.S. and U.K. next month, is aiming to carve a niche not only with basic, classic collections but also zippers that go pop, supersized pockets on parkas and ultrastretchy, 3-D-cut trousers.

Its latest weapon is Uniqlo Innovation Project, or IPJ, a collection of high-performance clothing created by the brand’s fashion director, Nicola Formichetti, who is also Lady Gaga’s stylist and designer at Mugler; design director Naoki Takizawa, and creative director Kashiwa Sato.

“Everybody’s focusing on style and trend today,” said Nobuo Domae, group executive vice president at Fast Retailing Co. Ltd., Uniqlo’s corporate parent. “Our focus is on quality, functionality. We respect each person’s style and provide him or her with the tools to make their own style. We are a consumer-centric brand.”

The line, which landed in stores late last week, offers parkas with big zipper pockets to accommodate cumbersome winter gloves; zip-front jackets that can be torn open — or unzipped, and antibacterial, UV-blocking, heat-retaining T-shirts.

Domae was in London last week in anticipation of the reopening of Uniqlo’s Regent Street store, which has doubled in size to 13,500 square feet. The store will open on Oct. 13, a day before Uniqlo’s Fifth Avenue flagship — its largest store worldwide at 89,000 square feet — will bow. A week later, on Oct. 21, the company’s second-largest store, a 64,000-square-foot unit, will be unveiled on West 34th Street in Manhattan.

The Fifth Avenue flagship was designed in partnership with the architecture firm Wonderwall, with an emphasis on sleek, modern design and technology. More than 300 LED screens are used to give the store a futuristic feel.

More openings are in the pipeline worldwide: Domae said Uniqlo’s strategy going forward is to open a clutch of large-scale stores — including one flagship — in major cities in a bid to “communicate” the brand, and later fan out to smaller neighborhoods or suburban locations. Fitting with this strategy, the brand is already scouting for space in London’s Covent Garden to add to its two existing units on Oxford Street and one Regent Street store. In the U.S., Uniqlo plans to open a string of 22,000-square-foot stores in Manhattan and in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Domae said Uniqlo is looking for space in Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco. But it won’t be buying another company — such as Esprit’s North American operations — in order to expand. “There is no need to buy a company to secure a good location. We want the best spaces, we’re willing to wait and we take everything on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

In Europe, the strategy is also to move into smaller cities on the Continent — such as Milan, Berlin and Barcelona — after openings in London and Paris.

The biggest retail challenge remains Asia, and China in particular. “Our focus is on Asia and China, and we cannot be late. Zara and H&M are expanding very quickly, and because we’re Japanese, we feel like we should have an advantage over Western companies,” said Domae.

“We’ve said we’re planning to open 200 to 300 stores in the entire region, but we have not committed to the timing,” he added. “What we’re seeing in China now is what we saw in Japan 40 to 50 years ago. The cities and the middle classes are growing, and the people who were considered low-cost labor now have enough salary to consume.”

As it expands, Uniqlo has been finding ways to deal with rising raw material and labor costs. “We have tried not to raise our prices, and we’re trying to control markdowns and promotions. We’re also controlling the production schedule better. We’ll shut down a line if it’s not selling well, and we’ll reorder early if it is. We’ve been doing that in Japan for a long time, and we’ll be using a similar methodology in China,” he said.

While the retailer’s latest mantra may be functionality and innovation, the company plans to continue with its designer collaborations, even after its most heralded one — with Jil Sander for the +J collection —ended abruptly in June.

Two years into the collaboration, there were reports of culture clashes between the luxury-minded designer and the fast-fashion retailer, and challenges inherent in marketing Sander’s elegant, minimal aesthetic to the masses — many of whom have never heard of her.

Asked about the end of the Jil Sander collaboration — +J’s final fall collection is in stores now — Domae said it was natural.

“We didn’t feel it finished quickly — we felt we achieved a lot of things. She’s the best talent in the world, and the best teacher,” he said. “We learned a lot from her professionalism, and the fabrics and shapes that she chose. We learned from her consistency and hard work. And we still have a good relationship with her.”

He continued: “She doesn’t compromise — at any step in the process. Even in the store. About two or three weeks ago, she came to our Paris Opera store and wanted to change things around. She tries to make everything perfect.”

As reported, Orla Kiely is readying a capsule collection for Uniqlo that will bow in March. She said she’s working with lots of print variations for jersey and woven pieces. Domae, however, declined to comment on that collaboration.

This spring, Uniqlo will join forces with another designer, Jun Takahashi of Undercover, for a collection whose launch will coincide with the opening of a flagship store in Tokyo’s Ginza district.

“Going forward, it’s worthwhile for us to consider working with the best designers in the world to provide what the customer needs,” Domae said. “We had a very positive experience with Jil, and we may consider working with designers like her.”

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