Japanese retail giant Uniqlo makes its India début

If you must put Uniqlo, the Japanese apparel retailer, into a slot, it would ride the tide of all things functional. No longer a concept bleached of attitude and devoid of meaning, products that fall into the functional zone do more. Functional foods, for instance, give you more than just a bunch of vitamins and minerals — they may have probiotic value, too. In a marketplace that’s echoing current mindsets of longevity, responsibility and sustainability, functional fashion is the logical corollary.

Uniqlo, born in 1984 in Hiroshima, enters India at a time when we’re tired of shopping each time a fast fashion brand drops a sale. We’re going back to picking staples that will last, and the brand has come even as we are getting used to other Japanese labels like Muji and Asics.

DIY style

In a Japanese-precision style interview (where they stipulate 10 minutes, apologise about running 10 minutes late, but stick to the allotted time), Yuki Katsuta, head of research and development, says what’s baked into the philosophy is that Uniqlo’s “clothes shouldn’t have too much attitude. The people, the customer, should have attitude. I hope they create their individuality by using us. We feel our products are tools for everybody”.

Uniqlo's LifeWear comes to Somerset House in London

There is no target audience, therefore, but it also makes it tricky for the brand to get into accessories in the future, though Katsuta doesn’t rule that out, saying they’ll have to be simple, high quality and long-lasting in terms of design and wear (five to 10 years) — all core values.

The brand isn’t advocating a head-to-toe Uniqlo look. “If you have a favourite shirt, keep it, but maybe you can use our pants and create an individual style,” says Katsuta. The designs are meant to work a range of styles, which is also why the label has global appeal, he says. With over 2,000 stores in 22 countries, it remains to be seen whether sizing will work in the Indian market.

Tech on fabric

The first store in Delhi — at Ambience Mall, Vasant Kunj — to be opened in October, will be spread across 35,000 sq ft and three floors, and will have everything that the Tokyo and New York stores have. The team jokes that you can save the air fare by just shopping here. In India, the company has chosen to go as a wholly-owned subsidiary, with 100% foreign investment in single-brand retail model. Two more stores, in Saket and Cyber Hub, are planned.

Prices start at ₹990, which puts them in the Zara and H&M league, but Uniqlo asserts that they are not fast fashion. How they’ll communicate this to customers is not clear yet. They will get into e-commerce, they say, though not immediately.

Except for their UT line (tees with popular character tie-ups, like Lion King and Marvel Retro Gaming) they’re not into embellishments, messages, or anything that could be construed as OTT. What they do is tech with R&D on fabric. A red dress, made with a 3D knit technology called Whole Garment, has no seams at all. UV Cut claims to cut out the harmful rays of the sun with reflective materials and UV-blocking components. The three technologies they’re best known for — ultra-light down jackets that are all about warmth and lightness; Heattech for warm innerwear; AIRism for dry comfort — are not fashion-season specific.

Uniqlo U, under the direction of Christophe Lemaire, the artistic director of the Paris R&D division, brings in the fashion side, in terms of colours and silhouettes. Denims, especially water-saving ones, are now researched at their Jeans Innovation Centre in Los Angeles. There are also knits (cashmere, lamb’s wool) and linen.

It’s not all rosy though. At this year’s UTGP: Uniqlo T-shirt Grand Prix, a competition that saw over 18,000 global participants, the winner’s design had to be rejected after being declared, because someone found it had already been used by the artist. Also, some creations, such as the AIRism for men — while being long-lasting — is made from micro-polyester fibre (though the women's version uses cellulose fibre).

This year though, as the world watched Roger Federer — his Uniqlo logo prominent on his tennis outfiits — it seemed like the clean-lined Japanese brand was sitting beside the Nikes and Lacostes. “He’s such a great athlete but also a great gentleman,” says Katsuta, who shares that the brand is planning more collabs with the athlete, not just in terms of sport, but also in humanitarian efforts.

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Printable version | May 6, 2021 2:29:11 PM |

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