Perhaps you've seen them riding like barnacles atop taxis in New York City, red and white signs featuring the letters U N I Q L O alongside a curious set of hieroglyphics, which turn out to be Japanese characters reading the same. The clothing retailer, an established brand in Japan, has been preparing to open its global flagship store in the heart of Manhattan's Soho district this fall. The company was founded by Tadashi Yanai, a visionary retailer who found early success in the '80s transforming his father's stodgy men's clothing shops into a popular chain selling brand name goods. Soon after, under the parent company Fast Retailing Co., Inc., he branched out to launch Uniqlo, the name a hybrid of "unique" and "clothing." Selling its own original designs, the retailer positions itself as a "unique, distinctly modern Japanese brand" offering style-minded yet wallet-friendly clothes, and is about as ubiquitous in its native country as The Gap is in the States.
Five years ago, Uniqlo embarked on an international expansion tour, opening in Europe and Asia. An aggressive launch in the U.K.--introducing 21 stores within two years--proved to be a serious misstep, resulting in the shuttering of 16 outlets. Lessons learned, Uniqlo has made a slow, cautious entry into the States, last year quietly opening three shops in the New Jersey 'burbs. But it's gearing up to make serious impact with the opening of its Soho store, just steps away from what promise to be its main competitors, Swedish clothier H&M, Spanish retailer Zara and U.S. staple outfitter The Gap. To get the drums rolling, founder Yanai enlisted as the flagship's creative director famed Japanese graphic designer Kashiwa Sato (see Creativity, July 2006) who recruited a dream team of elite talents like interior designer Masamichi Katayama, graphic designer Marcus Kiersztan, and web designer Yugo Nakamura, best known in ad circles for his Cannes 2004 Cyber Grand Prix-winning website, NEC's "Ecotonoha."
At press time, the Soho shop had yet to open its doors, but in September Uniqlo appetizers had been popping up like mushrooms all over Manhattan and other N.Y. boroughs in the form of container stores selling a selection of the shop's wares. The flagship itself Sato has envisioned as a symbol of "modern Japan," and its centerpiece will be a gallery of t-shirt designs created by some of Japan's most notable creative and pop culture players, including photographer Nobuyoshi Araki, artist Yayoi Kusama, and toy company Bandai. "I consider Uniqlo to be not only a fashion brand, but a kind of media," Sato says. "I'm trying to express the true nature and sense of beauty of Uniqlo as entertainment to appeal to people in New York and I want to offer the hottest information of today's Japanese pop culture through Uniqlo's store."