Can Uniqlo Set the Agenda for Affordable Technical Clothing?

Written for HYPEBEAST

As the world watched golf pro Adam Scott button up his newly awarded green jacket to become the first ever Australian to win The Masters in its 77th year, one couldn’t help but notice the subtle Uniqlo embroidery peeking out from behind his notched lapel. Some would attribute this unusual endorsement as well as Uniqlo’s partnership with number 1 ranked tennis player Novak Djokovic as a calculated brand awareness campaign in an alternative market. Especially when one considers the Japanese retailer is in the midst of aggressively expanding its global presence with hopes of bringing in $50 billion in sales revenue by 2020, a fifth of which will come from its North American brick and mortars alone. Instead Uniqlo’s confidence resides in a strategy unlike its fast fashion competitors, where product is built around value and technical innovation, rather than rapidly changing trends – an ideology that has brought much success to both the automotive and tech industries respectively.

The Others

Fast fashion clothiers like H&M and Zara take immense pride in swiftly delivering trendy garbs at entry level price points to consumers around the globe. Where H&M develops seasonal ranges around hopeful predictions to next season’s fixation, Zara follows a slightly different approach – bringing product to its consumers as soon as the demand presents itself. The Spanish retailer’s vertically integrated manufacturing and distribution centers allow it to send product from its design room to its showroom in a matter of just two weeks. Although both strategies have proven to be very lucrative to the two aforementioned brands as well as countless others, the quality within their designs have taken a backseat to cyclical fads – a perfect example of style or form taking precedent over function.

Where its competitors falter however, Uniqlo looks to excel.

What Defines UNIQLO

In its 30 years of existence, UNIQLO has successfully transcended all social groups and personality traits through the production of thoughtfully-crafted garbs that aim to bring value to its loyal patrons. Under the leadership of its CEO Tadashi Yanai – founder of UNIQLO’s parent company Fast Retailing Co., LTD. and one of the richest individuals in Japan – the apparel brand differentiates itself from its trend-chasing counterparts, focusing rather on longevity and technically-infused materials. An example of this ethos is seen in its most recent breakthrough, which comes in the form of a revolutionary line of “innerwear” dubbed AIRism. Featuring the latest in Japanese fiber technology, AIRism offers extremely comfortable base layer garbs that will also contour to one’s body shape, wick away perspiration and minimize any resulting odor. This project is just one of many however, as UNIQLO also offers additional recurring collections built around functionality, i.e. its Ultra Light Down Jackets, Ultra Stretch Jeans and its Heattech fabric line just to name a few.

Believing that its clothing can propel human efficiency and alter the world’s concept of style, UNIQLO employs extensive development cycles and long-lasting partnerships with technical material suppliers to perfect its product offerings. Whereas the vast majority of brands prefer to create around aesthetics alone, the international retailer yearns to pilot the market’s evolving desire for functional clothing that can satisfy several uses within casual living. As a result, UNIQLO is able to achieve something truly unique by way of pairing design’s two most important principles with one another: form and function – something fashion can’t deliver without technology at its side. Many would suggest this approach is akin to that of both the tech and automotive industries, which is why Yanai has been quoted numerous times as saying, “UNIQLO is not a fashion company, it’s a technology company.” Senior Vice President of Global Research and Design, Yuki Katsuna further affirms Yanai’s vision and comparison to industries steered by innovation by stating, “We don’t have seasonal fashion themes like other companies. We are much more product focused. Year by year, we are constantly testing, improving and updating.” The same goes for Apple’s iPhone or Toyota’s Prius line, where both are strategically reappropriated every year to strengthen any previously offered features, discard those that failed to meet their purpose, and add whatever its user’s are demanding at the moment.

Bringing Performance to Fashion

UNIQLO also looks to the realm of athletic wear for ways to incorporate technology into its purposeful apparel lines, which may more accurately explain why it has recently paired with “global brand ambassadors” Scott and Djokovic. Where brands like Nike and Under Armour have merged advanced material innovations with athletic apparel to provide heightened performance levels to its consumers, Japan’s golden child retailer hopes to bring that same approach to affordable casual wear. If or when it’s achieved, the end result could possibly change the way we interact with fashion forever.

Although UNIQLO has garnered some much-deserved attention for its conscientious effort in bringing value to its fashion offerings, there still remains some opportunity for future improvement. For many apparel brands, when its consumers purchase product from one of its retail outlets, that is generally accepted as the end of the brand-customer interaction or relationship. However if UNIQLO can develop a platform that continues its brand experience with supplemental services that are advantageous to its user, that will surely result in repeat business. Take companies like Nike, Jawbone and Google that offer proprietary “wearable devices” for instance, UNIQLO can look into the world of mobile applications to further its customer connection. With currently over 250 million users running mobile operating systems that support wearable technology, the “wearables” industry is expected to grow from $5 billion to upwards of $50 billion within the next three to five years. Although the opportunity is surely there, many luxury and traditional fashion brands have remained nonexistent. However that in itself will require a brand to partner with major tech companies and/or developers like Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook which can prove to be costly. Furthermore, if UNIQLO’s success depends so much on its technical innovations then it must continue to progress alongside technology or risk becoming obsolete as many tech companies frequently do. In the same light, and maybe most obviously, the Japanese retailer must remain current on today’s style trends as well to continue its very own blend of form and function.

Passing It Onto Consumers

Lastly, the costs associated with producing innovative clothing naturally trickles down to the consumer with higher purchasing prices, especially when its use is both unprecedented and unrivaled. Unlike the traditional methods to creating the garbs of yesteryear where its intrinsic value is never improved, tech-infused clothing will surely bring on additional expenses as a result of the need for research and development, advanced machinery, a skilled workforce, and much more. Alternatively however, UNIQLO is capable of bringing its cutting edge product line to the market for a surprising low price, mostly due to its extended product development stages as well as its longstanding partnerships with suppliers, enabling the retailer to perfect its product whilst minimizing cost. Let’s not also forget UNIQLO’s goal has been finding ways of making better, functional clothing since its inception three decades ago. With that said, as more brands – especially the industry mainstays – realize the need for merging modern technology with their existing ranges, offerings will become easier and cheaper to make, thus more accessible to those who demand it.

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