Uniqlo was founded in 1984 in Hiroshima, Japan, as the Unique Clothing Warehouse—an ironic name for a manufacturer known for clothing that is in no way unique. A person can dress sock-to-cardigan in the company’s wares without announcing herself as a devotee of the brand. In an industry as label-oriented as fashion, such anonymity would seem to be a detriment to success. Today, however, Uniqlo has more than 2,000 stores in 15 countries. Its owner, Tadashi Yanai, is the richest person in Japan. Its parent company, Fast Retailing, is among the five largest clothing retailers in the world.
Only a small percentage of Uniqlo’s stores are located in the United States. But for a certain segment of American shoppers—young, urban, professional, practical—Uniqlo basics have become a cornerstone of the contemporary wardrobe. In America’s coastal cities, Uniqlo’s stores—on Newbury Street in Boston, in SoHo in New York, in San Francisco’s Union Square—are forever clotted with customers.
Part of the reason is cost: Because of its low prices—jeans retail for $40, a hoodie for $30, one of the brand’s signature down jackets for $70—Uniqlo is often compared to other big brands in the fast-fashion category, such as Zara and H&M. But the term fits those companies more snugly. Zara endeavors to reproduce the latest couture trends for the masses: Balenciaga recently made a platform sneaker that cost $795; a decent approximation of it can be found at Zara for $34.99. H&M is a one-stop shop for hyper-trendy items—velvet pants, a beaded sweater, a sequined halter dress—at prices that make them easily replaceable when they inevitably become passé.