The Future's Bright
Long, Carola, The Independent (London, England)
Until recently, Uniqlo was big in Japan but little known anywhere else. Now, the retailer's colourful, logo-free designs are sweeping the globe - and its owner is considering buying Gap. So what makes it recession-proof? Carola Long investigates
On a recent visit to Japan Fashion Week in Tokyo, I set aside several hours to browse the famously hip Harajuku boutiques in search of quirky, non-chain-store clothes that you can't buy in London. I imagined basking in the compliments that they would attract back home, replying with a nonchalant: "Oh this old thing? I picked it up in this fantastic little boutique in Tokyo."
Four hours later, I found myself at the till in Uniqlo, buying a T-shirt dress. I'd set out to make a consumer stand against globalisation, and ended up as a perfect case study of its irresistible reach. My purchase was mass-made, and yet not cliched; inexpensive without looking cheap. Such is the appeal of Uniqlo.
Three years ago, that name - not Japanese, but a blend of the words "unique" and "clothing" - would've meant nothing to anyone but the exceptionally well-travelled. The Japanese chain launched itself into the UK in November 2007 by opening two huge new stores in one day (it was actually a relaunch; it tried first in 2001 but scaled back). Since then, its popularity in Britain has exploded. Suddenly, you can't swing a shopping bag without hitting Uniqlo's rainbow- coloured Merino wool jumpers or 24.99 denim, and in the midst of the worst recession in Britain since the Second World War, UK sales since Christmas have been up 140 per cent on the same period last year Worldwide, the store says it sells 400 million items a year.
How is Uniqlo doing it? And what does its growing reach in a gloomy economy say about the future of our consumer culture?
"Great retailing is often about understanding the Zeitgeist and getting into a consumer's headspace," says retail guru Mary Portas, and with Uniqlo's parent company Fast Retailing posting record sales in 2008, the company is clearly adept at getting under the skin of modern consumers. In an age when many people take their shopping choices as seriously as their political ones, perhaps society doesn't so much get the government it deserves as the stores. If so, Uniqlo represents a distinct improvement on the last big consumer trend, the so-called "value retailers" such as Primark. There, you can find dresses and sandals for under 10, but such cheap prices sometimes have a moral cost. Last year, a BBC Panorama investigation found that the chain had unwittingly used sub-contracted child labour. (Uniqlo, for its part, says it complies with international labour, environmental and human rights laws, "including our partner factories).
"The last time Uniqlo tried to break into the UK it was all about the growth of the 'value retailer'," says Portas, "People were looking at the chain and thinking, 'It's not that cheap.' They didn't really fit in with people's preoccupations at the time." But Portas believes that now, many consumers are looking for something else - clothes "with a bit more longevity, something with legitimate design. There are always going to be people who think it's clever to buy very, very cheap, but there is going to be a seismic shift in our spending habits."
Seismic might be overly optimistic, given that Primark posted a respectable 10 per cent increase in profits in the six months to March this year, but the term "value retailer" seems increasingly misleading for chains whose products often shrink or stretch beyond recognition after one wear. If last year's surge in complaints about women's clothing to the Government's consumer helpline, Consumer Direct, is anything to go by, shoppers are becoming disgruntled with bad quality.
In recessionary Britain the average shopper isn't about to start buying one Chanel jacket every 15 years in …
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Publication information: Article title: The Future's Bright. Contributors: Long, Carola - Author. Newspaper title: The Independent (London, England). Publication date: June 25, 2009. Page number: 2. © 2009 The Independent - London. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
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