Uniqlo seeks global brand status

17 July 2012

TOKYO: Fast Retailing is seeking to make Uniqlo, its fast fashion chain, into a "global brand" by targeting both Asian and western markets.

"At first, Uniqlo was a casual chain on the back streets of Hiroshima. Then ... we became a national brand in Japan. So, the next step is to become a global brand," Tadashi Yanai, the president of Fast Retailing, told the Financial Times.

Having begun its international expansion by opening a Uniqlo store in London in 2001, Fast Retailing shut down the vast majority of its UK branches in 2003, having "failed completely", Yanai said.

A similar pattern was followed in China, where the two Uniqlo branches opened in 2005 were closed less than a year later. However, the organisation has since started expanding again, opening major stores in London, New York and Paris.

One main aspect of the current strategy for Uniqlo is to leverage the brand's Japanese origins, as typified by innovative products such as heat-retaining underwear.

"Since we don't know the culture of western clothes, we can make new combinations, new discoveries. I think that is something that only Japanese people can do," said Yanai.

"By using Japanese technology, making things in Asia and taking them to the world – if we do that, I think even Japanese companies can compete successfully with western companies."

Asia is also a major area of focus, with plans to open 1,000 stores in Greater China, where Uniqlo currently has 136 branches, and 1,000 elsewhere in the region, up from 181 at present.

"I call it the gold rush," said Yanai. "Japan has only 100m people. Asia has 4bn. At least one-third, maybe nearly half, will become middle class and this is a big opportunity for Japanese businessmen."

Such a process has two advantages for the company, the first of which will be to lessen its reliance on Japan, which has an ageing population and has experienced long-term economic struggles.

"Japan is shrinking. It will become like Greece, or Portugal, or the English disease or the Japanese disease," said Yanai. "People who believed that they were middle class will realise that they are poor, that they are lower class. It's been 20 years since Japan has been in a slump. So, that day will come soon."

Equally, Japanese consumers expect a level of quality which is the "highest int he world", posing challenges for fast-fashion chains. Opening stores in major international centres could thus also help Uniqlo change domestic perceptions.

"We have really changed a lot, but there is still the old image of Uniqlo," said Yanai. "We thought that we would have to open in New York, Paris and London and from there come back to Japan as a global brand."

Data sourced from Financial Times; additional content by Warc staff