The Off-White in 8 Rockwell is an example of Manila's booming retail scene.

MANILA, Philippines — Last month, Uniqlo unveiled its newest store in the Philippines at the Glorietta 5 mall in Manila’s central business district of Makati City.

The founder and president of parent company Fast Retailing Co. Ltd., Tadashi Yanai, flew into Manila for the by-invitation-only preopening party. The event included a sake barrel-breaking ceremony and the introduction of Uniqlo’s local brand ambassadors — among them former Miss Universe Pia Wurtzbach — who appear in the campaign “Future Heroes” with the tag line “Our Future Is Here” and billed as “a celebration of Manila’s flourishing and forward-thinking culture.”

The store is not only Uniqlo’s 53rd in the country but, at 44,132 square feet spread over two levels, it is also the largest. Yanai hailed it as the brand’s 15th global flagship, as well as the second Southeast Asian flagship. He acknowledged that “Uniqlo Philippines is one of the most successful and fastest-growing markets for Uniqlo globally.”

In citing Manila as the logical choice for the Southeast Asian flagship, Masayoshi Nakamura, chief operating officer of Uniqlo Philippines, explained that Manila has become “an emerging cultural hub. The opening of the flagship store draws a parallel between Uniqlo products, its brand values and the character of Manila. Manila represents infinite possibilities the same way that Uniqlo enables customers to show off their individuality through simple and essential yet universal clothing.”

Moreover, the opening of Uniqlo Manila, as the store is referred to, “highlights the Philippines’ prominence in Uniqlo’s expansion plans for the region. [As] the second flagship store in the Southeast Asian region, it underlines the importance of the region to Uniqlo’s global growth,” Nakamura said.

At the store’s actual opening the next day — no merchandise was for sale during the previous night’s private party — eager customers had been lining up since 8 a.m. and by the close of business, Uniqlo Manila had welcomed more than 4,000 shoppers through its doors.

Falling in line to snap up merchandise from in-demand fast-fashion brands such as Uniqlo and H&M occurs fairly often in the Philippines. But lines for edgier high-end labels rarely occur. This wasn’t the case, though, when Mark Gonzalez, the retailer behind the Homme et Femme empire, whose portfolio includes Comme des Garçons, Balenciaga, Lanvin, Alexander Wang and Margiela, to name a few, opened an Off-White boutique alongside his other Makati City stores in the 8 Rockwell development.

On opening day in August, the 1,067-square-foot space saw wall-to-wall shoppers snap up what they could of Virgil Abloh’s capsule collection made available for the occasion. Gonzalez confessed that the reaction of customers “took us by surprise. As did our principals. It is a first of many. Off-White is a disruptor in fashion and defines its retail values on its own. The market and we ourselves find this situation very new, and there is much to learn.”

He was confident, nevertheless, that the brand would resonate in the country, “largely due to the current acceptance of the brand’s DNA, which is uniquely positioned as a luxury street-based brand.” He added that “it helps that Abloh appeals to the interests of its target market. Being a polymath, he’s become a beacon for this generation.”

Often thought of as being under-the-radar retailwise, the Philippines in fact has long been an attractive proposition for many international brands, be they fast-fashion or high-end. Andrew Naval, operations manager for Noble House, a distributor and retailer of such labels as Paul & Shark, Aigle, and soon, Versace, said “it’s quite evident that they [Filipino consumers] are very much attracted to a diversified selection with the whole range of labels and designers. I could say that there is a crossover in various segments. Luxury and fast fashion can be seen worn by one person, for instance, Uniqlo/Zara pieces to match with luxury accessories; a top from a luxury house can be matched with a pair of trousers from a fast-fashion brand, which is now the usual style behavior from the younger market.”

Adding Versace to the Noble House portfolio — a stand-alone store opens soon in the Solaire casino and entertainment complex — will cater to another fast-growing market for luxury retailers in the Philippines. “We need to consider the local Chinese market coming and moving to the Philippines. Versace has a strong design signature. As a brand, it has successfully remained faithful to its heritage while adapting to current trends which makes it appealing to different age groups,” he explained.

The availability of premium retail infrastructure is also a factor in luring international brands to the country. Steven Tan, chief operating officer of SM Supermalls, builders of some of the Philippines’ — and Asia’s — largest and most frequented malls, feels that the strong, young shopping culture is “the magnet that draws global brands in. Filipinos are young [the median age is 23], very open and experimental, online-savvy, which means they know a lot of brands, and generally have an open, accepting mind-set for the new and the trendy.”

Tan disclosed that “yes, definitely there has been a shift in the way we conceptualize and redevelop our malls. The recent global brand retail entrants are mostly big-format fast-fashion. These require big spaces and deeper cuts ranging from 10,000 to 32,000 square feet. These considerations form part of our mall design philosophy.

“Positioning and adjacency are also equally important, as these brands want to be zoned accordingly,” he added.

In order to cater to more premium brands, SM Supermalls has upscaled some of its malls, among them SM Aura, The Podium and Conrad S Maison, located in key areas and neighborhoods within the Manila metropolis.

“In the same vein we have created zones within our existing big-format premier malls to host global market entry brands. Mega Fashion Hall in SM Megamall is one such example. This newest wing of SM Megamall ushered in global market firsts in retail, like H&M, Crate & Barrel, Pull and Bear, as well as in dining, with Tim Ho Wan, Din Tai Fung, Ippudo, Kam’s Roast, DC Café, among others.”

The outlook for the Philippines, as well as the rest of the region, appears to be uniformly optimistic at either end of the market. According to Nakamura, Uniqlo is targeting 30 percent annual growth for Southeast Asia over each year until 2022.

“We will accelerate new store openings, focusing new-store development in promising Southeast Asia markets with large populations; Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia. We believe Southeast Asia is the perfect next destination for our roadside stores. The model will become a key driver of growth for Uniqlo in the region, including the Philippines.”

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