How Uniqlo Made Its Advancement In America

Big in Asia, but since its entry into the US in 2005, is UNIQLO big over there too? What is the price that a company has to pay to make it in the Land of the Free?

BY Wayne Cheong | Sep 21, 2017 | Fashion

Photographs by Uniqlo

Ever since the White House took on a darker shade of orange, the missives coming hard and fast from US President Donald Trump have been… interesting. One of them is to fulfil his election campaign promise of “bringing jobs back to America”, and that has caused Tadashi Yanai, Founder and President of Fast Retailing (which owns UNIQLO), to respond.

In an interview with The Asahi Shimbun, Yanai said: “If [manufacturing products in the United States] is not a good decision for consumers, it is meaningless to do business in the United States.”

Making quality products in the US that are also affordable isn’t impossible, but there are a lot of factors at play here. China, Latin America and some developing countries in Asia saw the emergence of large textile mills and factories in the mid-’70s. With cheap labour and lax trade policies, the US and other developed countries outsourced their manufacturing. That, in turn, led to more affordable pricing for consumers. UNIQLO’s penetration of the US market in 2005 was a rocky ascent. After an unfavourable increase in 2015, the company promised to return to more competitive pricing.

Thus, if President Trump’s “Buy Made-in-America” policy is to go into effect, from a business standpoint, UNIQLO might have to pull out of the country altogether. Despite the signs, Yanai is still continuing with his expansion: there are around 50-odd UNIQLO stores in the US, with several more slated to open by the end of the year. After all, in order to fulfil the company’s ideology of LifeWear, their outfits need to be something that everyday people can wear, and afford to wear.

Assuming that the US President, who ironically has his own products made outside the country, does not go through with trade tariffs and his insistence that all products are US-made, UNIQLO could have a firm foothold in the US.

It is a long-term approach. For one, the company wants it to be the one-stop shop for all your basic wardrobe necessities. UNIQLO has a tagline that rivals “Make America Great Again”: “Made for All”. They have your T-shirts in all sorts of hues, as well as your workwear and athleisure; there’s everything that will suit you, regardless of who you are. This was emphasised in their New York FW17 fashion show with models of ethnicities and religious beliefs (one of them wore a hijab).

Second, after the closure of failing stores in suburban malls, UNIQLO is now focused on big cities like New York and Los Angeles; start big and, hopefully, it’ll disseminate to the smaller towns. Third, they need to create brand awareness by localising its product. One of the ways is to integrate “Americana” into its commodities. You have collaborations with Pharrell Williams for the Other line and New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) for the SPRZ NYC line; UNIQLO even sponsors free entry into MoMA every Friday between 4pm and 8pm.

Fourth is UNIQLO and its product innovations. Shu Hung, Global Creative Director, Brand Experience and Special Projects, explains how innovation and fashion come together in one of their R&D departments in Paris. “This [R&D that Lemaire is leading] is where we plan for all kinds of innovations; everything from the knit to the shape to material to technology. What [the Paris R&D team] is good at is taking something that’s part of UNIQLO like the Blocktech fabric or AIRism and applying them to a new design. They are great at taking innovation and seeing how that might fit with, perhaps, a new shape or colour so it’s quite experimental.”

In the showroom, where the fashion show was held, UNIQLO representatives demonstrated the selling point of their propriety tech.

Fifth, the brand is conscious of how their clothes are made. According to Hung, there’s a dedicated group within the company that’s focused on sustainability. “We are in opposition to ‘fast fashion’,” she says. “What we’re producing is not a ‘throw-away’ product, but a ‘wear-away’ one. We want you to wear everything, we want you to enjoy.”

And lastly comes UNIQLO’s collaboration with other designers. With a finger on the fashion pulse, the company continues to work with other creatives like Inès de La Fressange whose FW’17 collection will cater to men for the first time, and JW Anderson for a collection that will be released on September 22.

If the US decides to further ostracise the rest of the world with its “Made in America” policy, it might be a step back for UNIQLO’s stratagem. But with the company’s presence in the Asian market, UNIQLO will still be sticking around, where everyday people can continue to wear their everyday stuff.

This article was first published in the print edition of Esquire Singapore, September 2017.