The group executive vice-president of Uniqlo’s parent company on why London is the centre of its UK ambitions and how its classic lines and innovation will see off its competitors.
Since we sell classic basic items and we are targeting everybody, our competitors are everybody really,” says Nobuo Domae, group executive vice-president of Fast Retailing, parent company of Japanese retailer Uniqlo, when Drapers asks who he sees as Uniqlo’s main competition.
Although Domae believes Uniqlo competes with everyone on the high street, he also thinks it is in a unique position to capitalise on its proposition, not just in the UK market, but worldwide. “We don’t have to compete with a specific brand,” he says. “Yes there are other global retailers that exist in the same locations as us, people such as H&M and Zara, but the customer can buy the trend items from them and the classic items from us, so there is room for us to all live together.”
Drapers meets Domae, who is usually based in Japan, with his colleagues Takao Kuwahara, chief executive of Uniqlo Europe, and Jean-Emmanuel Shein, head of marketing for Uniqlo Europe, at Uniqlo’s UK head office above the flagship store at 311 Oxford Street, London. There is no doubt that all three are incredibly committed to growing the business here.
London was selected as Uniqlo’s first overseas location outside of Japan 10 years ago, and the UK is no less important to the company today. If anything, it has become more important as Uniqlo looks to cement its presence in the capital. The UK market is still the retailer’s biggest outside Asia.
According to Domae, most retailers are chasing the fast-fashion, trend-led sector, but he sees a gap where Uniqlo can stand out. “They [other retailers] are not competitors when it comes to basics, and if we are strong in product range and quality we can win that competition.”
Indeed, the name of Uniqlo’s parent company, Fast Retailing, is not intended to refer to fast fashion but, instead, is about a way of doing business. “Fast Retailing is our company culture,” he says. “We like to move very quickly.”
And one of the decisions Uniqlo has made for the UK is that it needs to open bigger stores here. Focusing on London, rather than other UK cities, for the foreseeable future, Domae wants Uniqlo to have a flagship store of at least 43,500 sq ft.
“Where we are now [Oxford Street],” says Domae, gesturing, “although this store is our flagship shop it is not big enough for us. We can’t make this store larger than it is, so we have to find a real flagship store in London.”
Uniqlo is in the process of searching for a suitable central London location for this new flagship, but Domae is aware that finding the perfect site might take time. “It depends on the landlords and how long the negotiations take, but the process is ongoing,” he says.
In the interim, Uniqlo has is extending its store on Regent Street, which is due to reopen on October 13. Domae explains that the store was opened four or five years ago and no longer fits with the global Uniqlo style.
Shein adds that when the Regent Street store reopens it will be 13,500 sq ft, the same size as Uniqlo’s Paris store. “Not flagship size but the best size for most of our Uniqlo stores from now on.”
Domae explains that at the moment the store downstairs [at 311 Oxford Street] is the only Uniqlo store in the UK that is big enough to showcase the entire collection. Regent Street will be the second, and the Fifth Avenue store in New York, opening on October 14, will be just over 89,000 sq ft. It will be the largest Uniqlo store worldwide and, according to Domae, “the brand’s global flagship”.
“We will take a lot of the elements we are using on Fifth Avenue and use them in Regent Street,” says Domae. “The main thing about our brand that will come across is high-tech simplicity with a focus on quality, with product at the centre. We will use technologies such as digital displays to showcase the product in a modern way.”
This approach will be the focus for Uniqlo as it concentrates on London, New York and Paris as key centres for the brand. “It is important to have a presence in these large cities, cities that are important in the fashion world,” Domae adds.
At the moment, the retailer has no plans to expand to other cities in the UK. “In the future we will consider other cities in the UK, but we can do a lot in London before going to places like Manchester or Birmingham,” he says. “We would look to have between 10 and 20 stores, minimum, in London.”
And what of this focus on product that Domae talks about?
September 23 saw the launch of Uniqlo’s Innovation Project into stores in the UK, a collection of functional clothes across men’s and womenswear with technological features such as heat retention, water repellency and breathable fabrics. “We have been working with a lot of high-tech material companies to introduce high-tech elements to the products,” explains Domae.
Shein, holding up a lightweight sports jacket, adds: “You can get jackets like this at high-end sporty places but not at this price point. It [the innovation project] is about incorporating little special touches. In future, we want to coin these features into more everyday wear. These products are about £5 to £10 more expensive than the mainline and this isn’t a capsule, eventually Uniqlo’s core collection will be moved to this.”
As well as the Innovation Project, Uniqlo will focus on driving its womenswear business, which globally is not as strong as its menswear offer. “We need to make it [our product] more female-oriented and make it a little bit more trend-led,” says Domae. “What I mean by trend is not high fashion, but just to be more consistent on our trends.
“We don’t have to go beyond the trend as that is not what we are known for, but at the moment we are not hitting the trend.”
And given the pace at which things seem to happen at Uniqlo, Drapers doubts it will be long before we see this happening here in the UK.
2011 Launches Innovation Project in the UK. Expands and refits Regent Street store and begins search for a new large-format store in London 2010 Opens a store in Moscow
2007 Uniqlo store in Paris opens
2006 Opens in SoHo, New York, its first US store
2002 First Uniqlo China store opens in Shanghai
2001 Expands overseas for first time by opening in London 2000 Launches transactional website
1999 Fast Retailing, Uniqlo’s parent company, lists its shares on the Tokyo stock exchange
1984 Uniqlo opens its first store in Hiroshima, Japan