Fash­ion & Beauty direc­tor Ju­lia Mcewen trav­elled to Tokyo to learn about Ja­pan’s top cloth­ing brand be­fore it lands in Canada this fall.

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Ja­pan’s top cloth­ing re­tailer brings its mod­ern min­i­mal­ist es­thetic to Canada

I’ve never un­der­stood the fash­ion world’s ob­ses­sion with French­women and their un­fussy Parisian style. For me, it has al­ways been about Ja­pan: land of dewy skin, nail art (top man­i­curists have celebrity sta­tus) and min­i­mal­ist de­sign. That’s why when Uniqlo, a lead­ing Ja­panese re­tailer that’s about to land in Canada, in­vited me to Tokyo to ex­pe­ri­ence it all in per­son, I jumped at the chance. And, I’m happy to re­port, it more than lived up to the hype that’s been build­ing since I was 10, when I de­vel­oped a steady diet of ra­men noo­dles and Sailor Moon.

Some of the most iconic min­i­mal­ist fash­ion la­bels hail from Ja­pan (hello, Yo­hji Ya­mamoto and Issey Miyake), so it’s no sur­prise that Uniqlo, pro­nounced “you-nee-klo,” has a sim­i­lar sen­si­bil­ity— though at a much lower price point. One of the only ma­jor fash­ion brands to of­fer sim­ple mod­ern de­signs at af­ford­able prices, the re­tailer caters to women, men and chil­dren and has more than 1,500 stores in 17 coun­tries. This fall, you can bump that num­ber to 18; Canada’s get­ting two flag­ship lo­ca­tions in Toronto, and there are e-com­merce plans be­ing ex­plored for 2017.

Im­me­di­ately af­ter I ar­rived in Tokyo, I was whisked away to a tower that houses Fast Re­tail­ing head­quar­ters, Uniqlo’s par­ent com­pany, where I got to chat with its bil­lion­aire founder, chair­man, pres­i­dent and CEO, Tadashi Yanai.

When his fa­ther re­tired in 1984, Yanai trans­formed the fam­ily’s suit shop into the first Uniqlo store. Since then, the com­pany has be­come one of Ja­pan’s lead­ing re­tail­ers, and he’s striv­ing to make it the largest in the world by stock­ing easy-to-wear ba­sics with high­style po­ten­tial. “From my per­spec­tive, pieces of cloth­ing are items in a tool­box,” says Yanai, through an in­ter­preter, from in­side his spa­cious of­fice. “Rather than sell very unique cloth­ing, I be­lieve unique­ness can be de­rived by the wearer, who picks and styles looks dif­fer­ently.” This is a be­lief at the core of the brand; it’s how you wear clothes, not the clothes them­selves. They call it “lifewear.”

That’s why Uniqlo’s of­fer­ings, though ex­pan­sive, don’t tend to touch on trends. “We have the most dif­fi­cult de­sign chal­lenge in fash­ion be­cause we’re mak­ing sim­ple styles, but we still need to in­sert new­ness, fresh­ness and ex­cite­ment,” says Yuki Kat­suta, the vicepres­i­dent of global re­search and de­sign for Uniqlo and Fast Re­tail­ing. To do that, Kat­suta be­lieves in align­ing Uniqlo with like-minded de­sign­ers to cre­ate sea­sonal col­lec­tions. One of its most suc­cess­ful part­ner­ships to date was +J, a three-year col­lab with min­i­mal­ist mas­ter Jil San­der. In fact, that col­lec­tion is what en­ticed me to en­ter my first Uniqlo in NYC in 2011. I’ve been hooked ever since.

But it’s not just be­cause of the col­lab­o­ra­tions or $30 but­ton­downs. Lifewear is an ap­proach I can ap­pre­ci­ate. In true Ja­panese style, it re­lates back to sim­pli­fy­ing things, some­thing I think Cana­di­ans are hun­gry for. So wel­come, bi­en­v­enue and yōkoso, Uniqlo! I’m ex­cited to have a breath of fresh air, and a lit­tle piece of Ja­pan, right here at home.

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