‘Evolve, or you disappear’: Inside Uniqlo’s aggressive growth strategy

“This is LifeWear Day in New York!” John C. Jay, the president of global creative for Fast Retailing (which owns Uniqlo), announced Wednesday, from a stage positioned at the center of the Uniqlo fall 2017 global press presentation.

For those in attendance, it felt like it.

The event, which provides a preview of Uniqlo’s seasonal LifeWear range (described as “thoughtfully created clothing that makes everyday life better and more comfortable”), typically takes place in Tokyo, much closer to Uniqlo’s Yamaguchi head office. Marking its NYC debut, it went big by way of an elaborate exhibit at Tribeca’s Spring Studios that paid homage to its new home: The space was modeled after a Manhattan cityscape.

One side of the room was divided into three “blocks,” each of which featured a fall collaboration collection (Ines de la Fressange, Hana Tajima and Magic for All, composed of Mickey-themed merch). Another was dedicated to categories reflecting Uniqlo’s infamous “simple made better” philosophy: knits (including new seamless versions from its recently-launched Innovation Factory), denim (the first styles produced in its Denim Innovation Center in L.A.) and Uniqlo U, a collection of “experimental” everyday styles produced at Uniqlo’s R&D Center in Paris.

A third wall, referred to as “seasonal highlights” (on the event’s map, that is, which was necessary), was broken down into personal style–driven themes (“Downtown,” “City Casual,” “Sports” and “New Classics”). Finally, there was a strip housing oldie-but-goodie collections: Heattech, Airism, Ultra-Light Down. According to Tadashi Yanai, the founder and president of Fast Retailing, who opened the event, 50 million Airism pieces are sold every year, and nearly 1 billion styles of Heattech have been purchased since the line launched.

The presentation was peppered with executives speaking to Uniqlo’s current take on buzzy industry trends, including Zara-speed production cycles (Uniqlo is working toward 13 days, from design to delivery), the democratization of fashion and sustainability. (“We do not make disposable clothing; that’s absolutely the last thing we want to make,” Jay said.)

In addition, they spelled out Uniqlo’s direction for the future, which read like a continuation of past plans: pushing the limits of fabric technology, changing the way people dress. It also reflected its ambitious goal of increasing revenue by 70 percent by 2021. (To note: In the last fiscal year, its revenues fell to 6 percent, from 20 percent the year prior.)

Here are the highlights:

Simple made better
“Evolve, or you disappear,” Jay said, following the live model portion of the presentation, quoting Tupac Shakur as a means of explaining Uniqlo’s current direction — which is nothing new.

“For years, many brands said that simplicity is the endpoint,” he said. “For us, simplicity is the entry point. We’re focused on making simple better all the time — it’s part of the Japanese DNA.”

One avenue is Uniqlo U, a line designed by Christophe Lemaire that Shu Hung, Uniqlo’s global creative director, called “experimental.”

“[He] works with new technologies and creates new silhouettes to create about 70 ‘new basics’ per season,” she said. “From there, we see what’s doing well and what we want to keep it in rotation.”

On the same note, Uniqlo introduced seamless knitwear (styles are called 3D U-Kints) and revealed the first styles produced in its new Denim Innovation Center, which Fast Retailing established in November in L.A.

The center’s director, Masaaki Matsubara, said he’s working with a team of ten that includes denim specialists from J Brand, another Fast Retailing company. Their focus: implementing innovations to elevate styles’ fabric, fit and finish.

Made for all
Uniqlo’s “made for all” slogan was referenced throughout the presentation, making it clear that Uniqlo has no plans to change course — or significantly raise prices. Jay called out the ongoing goal of “bringing the highest level of quality to the greatest number of people on earth,” and Yoshihiro Kunii, vp of production, spoke to offering “the highest quality at the lowest price for the people to live a better life.”

It seems this focus was a draw for Jonathan Anderson (the creative director of J.W. Anderson and Loewe), who was announced as Uniqlo’s next designer collaborator through a video that was played mid-event.

“Working with Uniqlo is probably most incredible template of democracy of fashion,” he said in the clip. “For me, it is really nice that my own product can be accessible to anyone.”

Uniqlo’s push to appeal to more shoppers also includes a continued partnership with Muslim designer Hana Tajima. Tajima takes inspiration from Mulsim culture to create simple, practical clothing that appeals to modest dressers. (According to a recent Pew Research Center report, the Muslim population will grow from 1.6 billion to nearly 3 billion by 2050, faster than any other religious group.)

Faster fashion
Finally, Uniqlo is making progress to shorten its production cycle: “Every time we create a new product, we are shortening the lead time,” said Masahiko Nakasuji, svp of global marketing. “We are using the customers’ habits for trend information, then using that to direct our design, before going into production and distributing. When the cycle runs smoothly, it will significantly shorten the lead time. It will happen very, very soon.”

Kunii, however, said to give it two years. There’s a bit more to it: “In the past, we prepared a large quantity of products in advance. Now, we make less at launch and react by [replenishing] as necessary.” He said it’s about getting the right products in store, as a service to customers — and Uniqlo is still working out the kinks.

“It’s a very tough challenge to change the production speed,” he said. “But we have to do that for customer demand, otherwise other people will.”

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