Friday, November 28, 2014

Uniqlo: The New Gap?

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Years ago when New Yorkers heard a little known Japanese store called Uniqlo was coming to Broadway in SoHo, we heard it described as “the Gap of Japan.” Fast forward five years and Fast Retailing, Uniqlo’s parent company, is gearing up for the much anticipated launch of two huge new U.S. stores, both located in New York. To date, the SoHo store is the only U.S. Uniqlo location but the addition of the 34th Street and Fifth Avenue stores will bring the stateside count to three, not including the pop-up stores around Manhattan.

Uniqlo's 64,000 sq. ft. 34th Street location opens Friday October 21, 2011

What is so special about Uniqlo? At first glance, nothing. But affordable cashmere and skinny jeans that give you the illusion of the ass you’ve always wanted are actually a monumental delivery from a retail company. Now that The Gap no longer has Patrick Robinson as its design guru, one might guess that it is vulnerable to a foreign invasion of the “basics” market.

Now skinny jeans are a touchy subject among women but I think I’ve sold at least five women I know on the ones from Uniqlo. Granted it was a sad day when I learned that the $40 miracle jeans went from a cotton-synthetic blend to all cotton, which means less give, which means more reality about the way one’s rear actually looks. But, Uniqlo still holds a place in my heart. Given that I’m in Boston and I missed all of New York Fashion Week, I thought it apt to show a business perspective on a growing international retailer, Japan’s Uniqlo. Uniqlo Americas COO Yasunobu Kyogoku told Bloomberg in a video interview that we can expect more designer collaborations from Uniqlo. For now, we’ll focus on the facts: two new stores, a visible corporate social responsibility policy, sponsorship of a new roller skating rink in a hip Manhattan ‘hood, and an initiative with the United Nations Commissioner for Refugees.

Uniqlo's Fifth Avenue store, their largest store in the world, opens Friday October 14, 2011

There’s a reason I’m dying to know if this stock is available for purchase stateside. They are as ambitious as Forever 21, which has a gigantic store in Times Square that’s open past midnight, just in case you need a new outfit around 1 a.m. But these two companies have entirely different strategies. Forever 21 pursues the buyers in search of cheap trendy goods they can afford to trash after a season. Uniqlo goes after those seeking staples like nice denim, lounge wear and cashmere sweaters. Both are making big bets and one can only imagine the rent Fast Retailing is paying for the 89,000 square feet that will be home to its new Fifth Avenue locale. But I say, never underestimate the power of a pair of skinny jeans and the Uniqlo jeans have gone viral. So have their non-bubble puffy jackets. How many places in the Northeast can a lady find a warm down jacket that doesn’t make her feel like a cow, and that comes with an adorable faux-fur trimmed hood, for about $200? Right now my answer is one: Uniqlo. And, these used to sell for only $95! Sex may sell but vanity draws sales.

The two new stores in Gotham are opening a week apart and according to a 2010 report from Bloomberg, represent the beginning of Uniqlo’s U.S. expansion, which originally faltered when they made an attempt at a New Jersey store. This time around, they are hitting NYC hard, likely with the plan to push for press, supported not just because of the quality of product, and the size and design of the two new stores, but also because they are sponsoring a roller skating rink under the High Line in Meatpacking, one of NYC’s most hip areas. The rink is open until Sept. 26 and is on the northern end of the High Line, at 30th Street and Tenth Avenue. There is an onsite bar and food trucks are in rotation. All in all, this is a great publicity ploy that will last for two years.

Uniqlo also brought its recycling initiative to the West, with a Sept. 1 start for stores in the U.S., U.K., and France. The program is a partnership the company has with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Originally the company planned to have customers bring in old Uniqlo threads to be recycled for “industrial use” but they then decided to have the clothing go to refugee camps. According to a recent press release, the company has, over the last five years, “provided 4.23 million items as aid to refugees and survivors of disasters.” That definitely trumps H&M‘s dealings with clothing recycling, or lack thereof.

On January 6, 2010 no one wanted to be a publicist for H&M. The day prior a New York Times article had revealed that clothing the company determines they are unable to sell is not always donated or recycled for industrial use. The then discovery of seemingly unused clothes in the trash outside an H&M store caused a big stir, for H&M and Wal-Mart, as a student found bags of seemingly unused products on the street meant for sale at Wal-mart, too.  Within a day, the New York H&M rep said it wouldn’t happen again and that it wasn’t standard practice. But one can see how a little thing is not without impact.

Uniqlo’s recycling program only allows for the collection of Uniqlo garments, which must be washed before donated. donations from the U.S. stores will go to refugee and IDP camps thanks to the collaboration with UNHCR, while the collections from stores in the U.K. and France will be distributed among the homeless via local nonprofits.

That said, Uniqlo is not without critics. Greenpeace included the retailer in a recent report and alleged that some items from foreign Uniqlo stores had chemicals on them, though the report allegedly says the amount of chemicals on the clothing was not believed to pose any health risk to those wearing it. The truth is, if we wear cotton clothes and they are not made from organic cotton, we are likely wearing clothes made with cotton coated in pesticides, just as the non-organic food we eat is likely coated in pesticides. The truth is out there, we just have to decide what we want to do with it. Right now, clean food seems like a more important fight than chemical-free clothing.

Click here to learn more about Uniqlo

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