Last Friday, the line outside the massive new Fifth Avenue Uniqlo store stretched all the way down West 53rd Street. Closely monitored by black-clad staffers, it went past MoMA, past the halal carts, past the women selling jewelry on sidewalk tables, to Sixth Avenue.
Inside the store, which is roughly the size of two football fields, frenzied clerks were restocking the $9.90 jeans, but not as quickly as customers could grab them off the tables. People were trying on outerwear in the aisles. When The Observer left 45 minutes later, it was raining gently, and the line was down to Broadway, its inhabitants undaunted. Their hopeful eyes directed toward the 89,000-square-foot apparel Valhalla, now the largest nondepartment store on the avenue.
The night before, hundreds of guests gathered for Uniqlo’s opening party. Company founder Tadashi Yanai, U.S. COO Kenny Kyogoku, and U.S. CEO Shin Odake, along with the actress Susan Sarandon, donned red-and-white Uniqlo-branded Japanese-style coats and smiled as they hammered open barrels of sake. There were hors d’oeuvres and vodka martinis, and the whole, vast space to explore.
After sake was served, the soul singer Sharon Jones took to a makeshift stage to perform an energetic set with the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. Afterward, Ms. Jones confessed she hadn’t heard of Uniqlo before she was approached to do the party. “But it’s great,” she said, gesturing at a wall of $49.90 cashmere sweaters grouped by color. “I’m hoping to pick out something that’ll fit me.”
Stage left, Robert Tagliapietra, the more talkative half of the fashion house Costello Tagliapietra, was standing next to his husband, Jeffrey Costello. For the past two years, they have produced a few summer dresses for Uniqlo’s series of limited-duration designer collaborations. (The last batch retailed for $29.99.)
“They’re an incredible company to work with,” said Mr. Tagliapietra. “They’re so meticulous. It’s pretty incredible that they’re able to do what they do at their price point.”
As he was talking about meticulousness, a large nail fell out of an exposed ceiling duct and onto Mr. Costello’s shoulder. Mr. Costello picked it up and inspected it. Mr. Tagliapietra glanced at the nail, and decided to continue. “They really respect design.”
Talking about the host’s finances even as one is enjoying his hospitality being the cheerful blood sport of New York City parties, near the bar we spoke to an employee of Citigroup, which in 2008 declined to renew one floor of its lease at 666 Fifth (which is owned by Kushner Companies, a principal of whom is Jared Kushner, the owner of The Observer).
“Firstly, I’m so impressed by how big is the store,” said the young designer Carlos Campos. “And as a designer, I’m thinking, how did they arrive with the perfect price points?”
“Well, they definitely overpaid for the space,” said a real estate analyst. He was lingering near a rack of blazers while onstage Santigold launched into her 2008 hit “L.E.S. Artistes.” In addition to its $300 million 15-year lease, Women’s Wear Daily put the flagship’s construction costs at $20-$25 million. (The company will not confirm that number, however.) “They’ll have to sell a lot of $40 sweaters,” continued the analyst. “You know, most of the stores on Fifth Avenue are loss-makers, so they could have looked at it that way, too.”
The Fifth Avenue store has 100 fitting rooms. “I don’t want my customers to wait in line,” smiled Mr. Odake. These and various other concessions to usability— he 50 cash registers, the 300 mannequins, the concierge desk for shoppers in need of directions, the three-story atrium that Mr. Kyogoku says lends the store a “Cathedral-like experience”—together shrink the flagship’s selling space to 64,000 square feet. That’s still nearly twice the size of the Soho store that was until this week Uniqlo’s only U.S. location (36,000 square feet), not to mention the largest of its 800-plus Japanese stores (42,300 square feet).
Uniqlo’s two new Manhattan stores (a 64,000-square-foot West 34th Street store opens Friday) are not just the world’s largest and second-largest showcases for the chain’s reasonably priced fashion. These are oak-floored, plate-glassed and L.C.D.-screen-bedecked visions of what might just be Manhattan’s retail future. Uniqlo has a CEO who wants to run the biggest apparel company in the world. It has capital. And it wants to have 20 stores in the New York City area within the next three years.