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