Uniqlo Opens Massive Manhattan Flagship, Plots Global Domination

Japanese giant on a quest to clothe the world

Uniqlo is a study in the branding of having no visible brand—which, done well, can be the most effective label of all (just ask Martin Margiela). Though a Japanese company, Uniqlo has consciously shed any geographic markers that could be seen as limiting; its clothing has a studied generic quality. Uniqlo would never presume to tell its customers how to dress, like some overstyled mannequin at Zara or H&M. Uniqlo proudly sells basics—basics in smart cuts. It doesn’t insult its customers’ intelligence by charging them $100 for a shirt, or mock them by making them vectors of its marketing. (As Mr. Kyogoku put it on a walk-through two days before the opening, “Your clothing shouldn’t be the brand. You should be the brand. You shouldn’t have to look like someone else’s billboard.”)

And, oh, the thoughtfulness of these clothes: slim-fitting long-sleeved T-shirts have underarm gussets for ease of movement, and the pocket bags in the down jackets have a length of grosgrain ribbon sewn alongside the zipper, to prevent the teeth from rending the nylon shell. Uniqlo is like what Gap could be (if Gap had a design team that could tell a thimble from a tailor’s ham) and what American Apparel would be (if American Apparel had an accountant, and a CEO who wore pants).

Uniqlo doesn’t believe it needs to alter its business to find traction in the U.S. “You know, our best-sellers in Paris, London, New York and Tokyo are the same,” said Mr. Kyogoku. “We find these days there’s less and less national taste, and more global taste.” Although perhaps that fact speaks more to the tastes of that class for which travel between Paris, London, New York and Tokyo is a commonplace than to the realities of retail in Albuquerque or Minneapolis, the chain has built its business on simultaneously getting the same collection, in the same palette, to virtually every store in its network. It’s partly how it’s able to keep its prices so low: Uniqlo doesn’t offer 15 cuts of jeans in 10 different washes. It makes some more reasonable number of jeans, like five, each in enormous production runs.

The other way that Uniqlo profits is, like all fast-fashion companies, by manufacturing in lower-wage economies—in its case, primarily China. “We want to go wherever the labor cost is lower,” shrugged Mr. Yanai. “Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia or Bangladesh.” (Earlier this year, the company sued a Japanese magazine over a story that alleged some of its Chinese workers were forced to toil for long hours for little pay. The defamation suit is pending.)

In the 53rd Street subway station, every available square inch of advertising space is claimed by Uniqlo and its two red squares. The billboards on the E/M platforms are Uniqlo billboards. The prongs of every turnstile are sheathed in Uniqlo logos. Coming up the long stairway tunnel, faces of prominent New Yorkers from Uniqlo’s current ad campaign—the jazz singer Esperanza Spalding, John Leguizamo and Ms. Sarandon, and hey, isn’t that David Karp?—appear one by one, shot against neutral backgrounds. The world as Uniqlo sees it is, like its clothing, strangely affectless, multiethnic but flat. An emblem and a symptom of global taste.

Uniqlo Opens Massive Manhattan Flagship, Plots Global Domination