For several years now, when Japan's art schools and design schools students are asked what their favourite brands are, many have replied UNIQLO as No.1.
Old-timers in the fashion industry have since been asking continuously:
Is UNIQLO a BRAND???
Last year, I had the pleasure of being in the audience when the Senior VP of R&D at Fast Retailing gave a presentation to a networking group for corporate communications professionals in Tokyo.
The most striking comment he made was,
"Please do not think of UNIQLO as a Fast Fashion Brand. We are NOT a fast fashion business. We are a SLOW fashion business. Our products are developed with long lead times and there are many many fitting sessions done before items go on sale..."
And the pin dropped.
I recall seeing rows and rows of desks occupied by TORAY staff at Fast Retailing's Tokyo office.
How many apparel brands can boast that kind of "sticky" relationship with their supplier of yarns and fabrics?
Heat Tech is but one of the many fibres TORAY has successfully developed for UNIQLO.
And who can live without Heat Tech once they have tried one???
One of the scariest things about UNIQLO, if you are a competitor, is that because of the way UNIQLO sells its wares in bulk, enticing consumers to buy the second or third piece in the same style at a significantly preferential price, a customer may not exactly purchase a totally coordinated look at UNIQLO when he walks out of the store, but one day, the consumer may unwillingly walk out of the house decked out in head to toe UNIQLO.
I remember a senior merchandiser at a US casual clothing brand looking down upon UNIQLO by saying,
"UNIQLO is NOT a brand because a customer cannot create a totally coordinated look on the floor."
But UNIQLO has NO intentions whatsoever of becoming such a "brand."
Founder Yanai's philosophy has always been that UNIQLO provides "vital parts" or "components" of a wardrobe.
Starting out as a retailer, he understands that all the fancy select shops that import designer pieces make up for the risk taken and the lower margins such items offer by selling "basic" items that supplement the customer's wardrobe when they wear those designer IT pieces.
The basic items are: T shirts, shirts, jeans chinos, socks, and underwear.
These items are the bread and butter of the select shops and the cash cows.
What of these items can you NOT find in UNIQLO?
UNIQLO is about the basic jean, the basic T, the basic shirt, the basic chino, socks, and underwear.
Better yet, they encourage consumers to buy two or three at a time while they are at it, by offering a wide colour range for each item.
Some define a "brand" as a company that produces items that can be worn for years.
I know at least one man who wears his UNIQLO down coat for three years.
I confess that the basic fine merino wool V neck sweaters that I buy in men's small have been a staple in my winter wardrobe for the second season, and I cannot see why I would not wear them next year.
Some define a "brand" as a company that produces "hero" products that everyone can associate that brand with.
Some would say that fleece is the hero product for UNIQLO, or Heat Tech underwear, or the ultra lightweight down, or the bra tops...
Some define a "brand" as a company that has a distinct signature or logo...
Some define a "brand" as a company that continues to stay relevant to its core customers despite the changing times...
Some define a "brand" as a company that has an internationally recognized designer/design director at the helm
Well, UNIQLO had Jill Sander, but as Coach has Reed Krakoff, UNIQLO's true visionary and director still continues to be Tadashi Yanai.
There is almost no way one can exclude UNIQLO from being a brand.
The Lehman Shock and the fast fashion boom that democratized designer looks and prices has fundamentally changed the way we look at making purchases at UNIQLO,
"I will make do with a UNIQLO"
"I want a UNIQLO."
Don't get me wrong... creative designers and their wares still inspire me and give me a high when I acquire and then wear them.
Superb engineering still pleasantly surprises and delights me when I am lucky enough to put my arms or legs through such an item.
But UNIQLO and its affordable price tag does not force me to give up on comfort or design -
if the garment is not up to my expectations, I simply make the choice not to buy it. Just like with any other item that may cost 10 or more times what UNIQLO charges.
End of story.