updated 2 Mar 2011, 09:48
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Sun, Apr 05, 2009
The Straits Times
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Unique Uniqlo
by Tee Hun Ching

Ten minutes into a tour of Uniqlo's flagship store in the swish Ginza shopping district, a frown crossed Fumio Uchida's face.

'These are fine,' said the brand's director of visual merchandising, gesturing to the mannequins on the second floor. 'But upstairs, we have a big problem.'

The mistake was not immediately apparent: The five mannequins on the third floor, which housed women's workwear, were dressed in ensembles of blouses, cardigans, pencil skirts and pants that any style-conscious corporate bee would love.

'Look, none of them is wearing a parka,' he pointed out.

The hooded jacket was the star of an ongoing campaign when Uniqlo hosted Urban on a trip in February.

Going by its practice, such hot items of the moment should get pride of place in all its window dressing and be mixed and matched with existing lines.

While the five-storey Ginza store is Uniqlo's showpiece in central Tokyo, Uchida had no qualms about pointing out its supposed warts.

'I scolded the visual merchandisers when I came in,' he let on.

You can expect the same exacting standards and attention to detail when Japan's top casualwear brand debuts in Singapore next Thursday with an 8,700 sq ft store at the new Tampines 1 mall.

A 10,000 sq ft store in Ion Orchard will follow by September. The plan is to open another four to six stores.

Unlike fast-fashion chains like Topshop and Mango which offer the latest runway looks for less, Uniqlo prides itself on trend-proof basics - in a range of sumptuous candy colours - that are made to last.

It sees Singapore, its first stop in South-east Asia, as a gateway to the region.

'Singapore is small but it is a major city,' said its chief operating officer Naoki Otoma.

'Having a store in Singapore will allow people from, say, Thailand and Indonesia to experience Uniqlo.'


Singapore shoppers are no strangers to hip, purse-friendly labels including Topshop and River Island from Britain and Mango and Zara from Spain.

Gap, of which Uniqlo is dubbed the Japanese equivalent, also set up shop here in 2006.

So is there still room for Uniqlo? Yes, say retail analysts.

Sulian Tan-Wijaya, senior director of retail and lifestyle at Savills Singapore, recalled that buzz about the brand began last year, a sign that it 'already has a strong following' here.

'It's interesting that shoppers are excited about Uniqlo even though there are many other similar brands here,' she said.

Dr Lynda Wee, a retail expert, noted that Uniqlo's roots mean that the cut and sizing will fit Asians better.

Having done its homework, the company has identified a niche for itself.

While brands such as Gap and Zara are pricier, the likes of Giordano and Bossini from Hong Kong could do with more fashion cred, said Uniqlo Singapore's managing director Satoshi Onoguchi.

'We hope to target the segment in between, the vacuum market.'

When Uniqlo opened its flagship in New York's trendy Soho district in November 2006, it pitched its wares as 'Banana Republic quality at Gap or Old Navy prices'.

In Singapore, however, the prices are set to trump those of Gap.

Its skinny jeans for women, one of its top money spinners, are priced at $69.90, compared to $99 and above at Gap. Polo shirts for men cost $29.90, versus $49 and up at the American chain.

Douglas Benjamin, chief executive of FJ Benjamin Singapore which holds the Gap franchise, welcomes the new player, saying it 'adds to the expanding array of international apparel brands' here.

On pricing strategy, he says the Californian label has held seasonal promotions that offer customers value for money in view of the downturn. For instance, there is an ongoing promotion where shoppers get $30 off when they spend at least $150.

Started as a single suburban store in Hiroshima in 1984, Uniqlo (for 'unique clothing') now has more than 765 stores in Japan and about 75 stores in five other countries - Britain, China, France, South Korea and the United States.

There are plans to open in Russia and India as well.

Its formula of high quality clothes at low prices has proved a winner in these lean times.

Forbes reported that its global sales grew about 10 per cent to US$6 billion (S$9.1 billion) last year, up from US$5.5 billion in 2007.

Same-store sales in February were up 4.2 per cent, an increase for the fourth consecutive month.

Hard-to-beat prices alone will not draw shoppers, which is why the brand prides itself on clothes with a talking point, be it the latest hues, fabric innovation or exclusive lines by up-and-coming designers.

This creative approach has paid off.

In a survey of 900 Japanese that the Nikkei Research Institute of Industry and Regional Economy released in February, Uniqlo was ranked the second favourite brand after Burberry and ahead of Louis Vuitton - no mean feat in a nation of staunch label lovers.

The recession, say retail experts, has led luxury shoppers to seek value for money by mixing high-end togs with low-end threads.

So while about 70 per cent of his wardrobe comprises designer labels such as Comme des Garcons and Yohji Yamamoto, Mervyn Chan, 29, loves his Uniqlo basics too.

The copywriter stocks up on shirts, hoodies and jeans - he has six pairs in various colours - when he visits Tokyo twice a year.

On their own, some of the designs may border on bland, but he says they are 'great for mixing and matching with my designer clothes'.

He adds: 'With Uniqlo opening here, I will stretch my dollar by buying more basics such as white shirts from the label and save my money for designer items such as bags.'

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The first Uniqlo store here will open at 02-28 Tampines 1 mall next Thursday. Prices start from $14.90 and above for camisoles; $29.90 for polo tees; $39.90 and above for hoodies; $69.90 for women's skinny jeans; and $99.90 for a line of premium made-in-Japan men's denim called, well, Made In Japan.


UT, a cult T-shirt sub-brand that stands for Uniqlo T-shirts, is known for its covetable tees whose designs are not repeated once they sell out. Respected musicians, photographers, manga and graphic artists are invited to create exclusive designs.

A sleek UT speciality store (Photo 3) - the only one in the world - opened in Harajuku in 2007.

Modelled after a convenience-store concept, it has walls of tees in plastic canisters displayed on open shelves.

All Uniqlo stores stock a selection of UT - prices here start from $24.90.


While about 90 per cent of its products are made in China, a team of 20 to 30 takumi, specialists each with at least 30 years of experience in the textile industry, is on hand to ensure quality is top-notch.

They keep a sharp eye on everything from weaving patterns to colour consistency across the 60 to 70 partner factories in China and other Asian countries that produce about 400 million Uniqlo items a year.

Quality fabrics used include top-grade cotton Supima, which is used to make its tops such as camisoles and polo shirts, and premium denim from renowned Japanese denim mill Kaihara for some jeans.


Heat Tech, a range of fashionable thermal wear that converts the moisture generated by the body into heat, is one of Uniqlo's biggest hits. It allows the wearer to stay warm with fewer layers.

Last year, the range sold out in Japan and more than 28 million units were sold worldwide.

Other fabric innovations include machine-washable knits and Dry Wear clothes, which are sweat-absorbent and quick-drying.

Since 2006, Uniqlo has also partnered fabric maker Toray to produce high-tech materials. The Heat Tech Moist range of innerwear, for instance, keeps skin supple while retaining heat.

There is also a range of white pants for women woven with a high-density ceramic material that prevents their knickers from showing.


Cheap-chic brands hooking up with designers is not new.

But while its rivals tend to rope in established names - think H&M with Rei Kawakubo of Comme des Garcons - Uniqlo's Designer Invitation Project recruits rising talents with street cred.

Alumni include Alice Roi, Tina Lutz and Marcia Patmos of New York-based knitwear label Lutz & Patmos and Alexander Wang before he shot to fame.

The latest roster of names of an indie bent are Steven Alan, Opening Ceremony, Shipley & Halmos and Gilded Age.


Twice a year, the brand collects used Uniqlo clothing from customers in Japan and donates items in good condition mostly to refugee camps in Ethiopia, Tanzania and Uganda.

Launched in September 2006, the All-Product Recycling Initiative delivered more than 1.25 million items to the needy in the last financial year.


Singapore is the first tropical market for Uniqlo, whose top sellers include the Heat Tech range and fleece tops. To keep the tills here ringing, spring/summer collections will be launched earlier than in Japan and stay longer on the shelves. Stores here will also stock only about 30 per cent of the fall/winter collections, including selected Heat Tech and fleece items.


While womenswear pulls in about 70 per cent of the sales in the fashion industry, it makes up only about 45 per cent of Uniqlo's sales.

This may be due in part to Uniqlo's roots and expertise in menswear and the brand says women are also buying men's items such as shirts in the smaller sizes.

To reel women in, the brand has set about cranking up its fashion quotient. In 2007, it scored a hit with skinny jeans and sold more than four million pairs.

In Japan, it has been voted the most popular denim label among women in a poll by a consumer newspaper and is second after Levi's among men.

This story was first published in Urban, The Straits Times.

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