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Uniqlo Headed for the U.S.

NEW YORK — Uniqlo, the Japanese specialty chain often compared with Gap Inc., is coming to America.<BR><BR>Two or three pilot stores will open in New Jersey malls this fall, in what company officials suggest is the first step in a potential U.S....

NEW YORK — Uniqlo, the Japanese specialty chain often compared with Gap Inc., is coming to America.

Two or three pilot stores will open in New Jersey malls this fall, in what company officials suggest is the first step in a potential U.S. expansion.

“We start slowly,” said Nobuo Domae, executive vice president of Fast Retailing Co. Ltd., the parent of the Uniqlo chain. “This is not a big launch.”

In addition, the company continues to be open to acquisitions, after purchasing a 44.5 percent stake in Theory, the contemporary brand, in 2003, and buying the Comptoir des Cotonniers specialty chain in France. It is possible the company could buy a retail chain.

Also, Uniqlo is seeking talent to build up its New York design offices, which opened last December.

It is all part of a grand plan to reach $10 billion in sales by 2010, said Gen Tamatsuka, president and chief operating officer of Fast Retailing. But the company has a long way to go, considering it posted $3.5 billion in sales last year.

Uniqlo outside of Japan has had ups and downs, particularly in the U.K., where some stores were closed as the company went through a steep learning curve. However, around 2003, Uniqlo restructured management and revised its fashion and approach to overseas expansion. Uniqlo could seek partners for stores, though the initial New Jersey stores will be owned by the company.

While disclosing broad strategies, the executives did not provide much in the way of specifics on the New Jersey stores, other than saying they would be about 8,000 to 10,000 square feet, include all the categories of merchandise that the company sells — women’s, men’s, children’s and infants’ — and be very service-oriented.

One of the locations is believed to be the Menlo Park Mall, a two-level superregional shopping center in Edison, N.J., owned by Simon Property Group.

The U.S. stores will offer consumers the same range of “versatile basics along with the Japanese shopping experience,” a spokeswoman said. Obviously, sizing and proportions will be different for the U.S. consumers, compared with the Asian customers. Uniqlo operates 670 stores in Japan, as well as seven in Shanghai and six in the U.K. The chain specializes in casual separates and known for its high-quality basics.

This story first appeared in the May 16, 2005 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The company is based on a philosophy expounded by its founder, Tadashi Yanai: “If the clothes shout louder than the person, then the person can not be heard.”

The first shop opened in Hiroshima in 1984. The firm went public in 1994 and had fast expansion through the Nineties, when its fleece jackets became a hit in Japan.