Why Uniqlo May Soon Become The Ikea Of Clothes

Why doesn’t this already exist here? You hear this a lot when talking to people who are introduced to Uniqlo for the first time. It’s a valid question: In the land of plenty (of stores), why isn’t there one dedicated to stocking affordable, no-fail basics? A decade ago, that retailer was most likely American Apparel; 20 years ago, it was Gap. But in a fashion landscape where clean minimalism is proving to stand up against the more-is-more, what’s-the-next-trend culture that’s long driven fast-fashion’s success, it seems insane we don’t have a go-to retailer for replacing basics.

Uniqlo is gunning to fill that void, and with the opening of its flagship Chicago store on October 23, it’s planting its flag further into American soil. It’ll be the Japanese brand’s first location in the Midwest, and the 45th store in the United States. But outside of California and the East Coast, Uniqlo is still a total unknown, and even for those who have one in their backyards, the shopping experience can feel like nothing else that’s in the mall. For a brand that doesn’t really stock “trends,” that seeks designer collaborations with relative unknowns like Christophe Lemaire and Inès de la Fressange, and whose cashiers hand you your credit card and receipt with two hands — there’s some explaining to do.

I asked Tadashi Yanai, Uniqlo’s chairman, president, and CEO (not to mention the richest person in Japan), who he thought was a fair competitor. “No one,” he responded via a translator. But when I suggested that there were plenty of similarities between his company and another retailer that has arguably dominated its sector and has achieved worldwide name recognition, he nodded in approval. “That’s interesting,” he said. “I can see that.”

To understand Uniqlo’s quirks, how to shop it, and why you should, it might help to compare it to Ikea. Here are five parallels between the two:

Photo: Courtesy of Uniqlo.
1. They each make a standard roster of products every year.
No matter what time of year, what year it is, or which city you’re shopping in, you can pretty much count on the fact that you will be able to get a Billy bookshelf, a Malm dresser, or a Lack side table on your Ikea trip. Uniqlo operates the same way, and that's because it sells clothes — not fashion, which seems contradictory for a fashion company. “We’re not chasing trends,” Uniqlo’s president and global creative of Fast Retailing Co. John Jay tells me. And while a Uniqlo store might seem very much in style with its array of simply cut minimal pieces in a subdued palette of navy, black, gray, and cream, it’s a basics store that — for the most part — stocks the same styles, patterns, and cuts year after year.

Uniqlo calls this category “Lifewear,” and it includes such wardrobe staples as the oxford shirt, the easy ankle pant, slim-fit jeans, and the full-zip hoodie. That black cardigan you bought last year that you want again, but in another color, will most likely be in the store when you go back. It might not have the exact same print, or maybe its buttons have been updated, but the majority of Uniqlo's products are lifers — and that’s something that sets it apart from nearly every single American retailer these days, save for American Apparel.

I asked Jay about the fact that Uniqlo’s American expansion seems to be perfectly timed with certain fashion trends, but he's not biting: “We as a company don’t chase fashion. It’s partially a Japanese thing — everything has a purpose and an intellectuality. It’s not, ‘Let’s get the hot photographer to shoot the hot girl in the hot location wearing hot clothes.’ I’m sorry, but there’s more to life than that. I know that normcore is a trend. But it’ll pass at some point. But we’ll still be here.”
Photo: Courtesy of Uniqlo.
2. They’re both obsessed with perfection.
If you’ve managed to hold onto an Ikea bookshelf for a few years, you’ll notice that the ones in the store right now are different. The Billy has been an Ikea mainstay for over 30 years, and in that time, it’s undergone a few tweaks to improve durability and aesthetics. Uniqlo takes that commitment to improvements to the next level.

Let me tell you a story about my personal obsession with Uniqlo’s black ankle socks. I bought a three-pack two years ago, and fell in love immediately. They were perfect in every way: the right opacity, the right rise, the right amount of stretch, and the right thickness. But when I went back to stock up on more, they were different. Somehow, they were even more perfect. I bought five packs, and my feet don't touch any other brand.

I asked Yuki Katsura, Uniqlo's head of research and design, who pointed out that just because Uniqlo doesn't constantly replace its current stock with new trends, doesn’t mean that the designs aren't constantly being fiddled with. “It usually takes one year to make changes to a product. If we develop a new fabric or a new functionality, it might take at least one year. For us, once we notice that something is selling, we’ll never stop selling it — we’ll just keep upgrading, upgrading, upgrading it.” Says Jay, “Every season, whether you notice it or not, those black socks have improved. We’re striving for perfection.”

During a Tokyo conference in which Uniqlo showcased the newest versions of its Lifewear to international press, there was a display that showed the evolution of one of Uniqlo’s most popular products: Heattech. Since it was introduced in 2003, there have been several iterations that, individually, felt like small steps, but the difference between the 2003 version and the 2015 version of the same Heattech turtleneck was like the difference between cheesecloth and cashmere.
Photo: Courtesy of Uniqlo.
3. They both help you solve your most annoying problems (especially the ones you didn’t even realize could be fixed).
Ikea has built its business on addressing many of the very real issues in modern domestic life: too-small apartments, a lack of built-in storage space, tech clutter, a limited budget. Oftentimes, you don’t even realize that you’ve been living with an annoying issue until you come across a genius solution while navigating the aisles at Ikea. This is no accident. In fact, it's spelled out in the mission statement: “To create a better everyday life for many people."

At Uniqlo, products also typically come with two functions: To clothe you, sure, but more interestingly, to fix an annoying problem. If you’re sweating constantly and can’t deal with thick fabrics, Uniqlo’s got Airism. Freezing during the winter but don’t want sausage arms? There's the aforementioned Heattech and an Ultra Light Down product line. Need a workout tank with some support? Uniqlo made a bra-top for just that problem. “We want to cater to the needs of all generations, all segments, and all walks of life," mentions Naoki Takizawa, design director at Uniqlo. "We want to cover everyone’s needs and try to offer everyone a very comfortable lifestyle.”
Photo: Courtesy of Uniqlo.
4. They’re both affordable, but they’re not “downmarket.”
Nearly every single person in the United States within driving distance of an Ikea owns something from the mega-retailer. It’s very likely that the first piece of furniture you ever bought was from there — and you won't stop shopping from the brand even as your budget starts to expand. The anonymous nature of Ikea products means they match with anything else, whether it’s Corbusier or Kmart, and the fact that they’re affordable doesn’t make them any less desirable. Good design is good design, regardless of price.

While this kind of affordable basics superstore exists for nearly every single kind of store, it doesn’t seem to exist really for fashion. American Apparel delivered for nearly a decade, and Gap owned the market before then, but there isn’t one retailer that comes to mind immediately when you need a solidly made black sweater, and don’t want to make a dent in your bank account.

In the 30 years that Uniqlo has existed in Japan, its become an integral part of a Japanese person’s closet. From Uniqlo’s own estimates, 80% of Japanese people own Heattech, and an even higher percentage own a Uniqlo item. For a clothing item to rise above the luxury versus fast-fashion divide here will be a feat — but if any brand can become the Coca-Cola or Apple of fashion, Uniqlo has a fighting chance.
Photo: Courtesy of Uniqlo.
5. Uniqlo is as Japanese as Ikea is Swedish.
When you walk into Ikea, you know that it’s not an American company. Those meatballs, for one; the blue-and-yellow logo, minimalist-gone-folk designs, the importance it places on nature, and those infinitely punnable product names. It's a Swedish brand proud of its roots, and expects its global consumers to adapt to its way of doing things. Don’t like fish in a tube? Too bad — Ikea hopes you’ll try it one day and change your mind.

At Uniqlo, its Japanese heritage goes beyond retail staff wearing yukata and providing Japanese-style gift wrapping over the holidays. The business is run on the idea of “omotenashi” — a very Japanese-specific brand of hospitality and customer service. If you’ve ever traveled to Japan, you’ll immediately know what it means. It’s gestures as simple as being handed your credit card with two hands, and courtesy as pronounced as anticipating your needs before they occur to you. “There are days-long seminars just on that concept alone,” says Jay. Even though Uniqlo is planning for its overseas stores to outnumber its Japanese ones within the next year (currently there are around 840 shops in Tokyo alone and 650 abroad), there’s an expectation that all employees display omotenashi, which is taught to every single worker in a weeks-long training program.

Jay also believes that the idea of efficiency is a very Japanese concept. “In Japan, they value longevity and simplicity. You get there by innovating at every level within the company. Things get better and better, but also cheaper and cheaper.” Uniqlo boasts that it’s able to do that by keeping operations at a low cost (for example, the company leases all of its retail spaces to stay flexible and has no qualms about shutting down underperforming stores), it places large-lot orders to keep prices down on luxury natural fibers (hence $80 cashmere), and it has a streamlined design-to-manufacturing-to-retail process that minimizes waste. Rumor has it that Uniqlo is so good at predicting exactly how many units it’ll sell that it never has to resort to major discounts to get rid of overstock. Sales usually top off at 30%.

Japanese culture is also largely non-symbolic, meaning that there’s a tendency to remove the romance, nuance, and associated culture from items (which has made Japanese dressers some of the most prolific offenders of cultural appropriation, but also some of the most creative). Jay recalls an exercise he did at Uniqlo in 1998, when he placed a pair of khakis on the table and asked his Japanese team what they saw. “I said, I saw in these khakis Bobby and John Kennedy playing a high-end sport on the beach with cocker spaniels running in the water. I saw khakis worn with a white T-shirt. My team just saw a pair of khakis. Oftentimes, Japanese have no tradition of Western clothing and culture, so they totally objectify things.”

More from Stores