Japan fashion retailer Uniqlo gets inspiration from Apple

It’s Apple design imagination meets Japanese technology innovation meets the quick-and-cheap mass production of the clothing  industry.

This is the trifecta that has made Tokyo-based clothing retailer Uniqlo soar in popularity and positioned the company for a massive U.S. expansion. The signature Uniqlo article may be its down vest that weighs less than 3 ounces and can be folded into a bag not much bigger than a soda can, but still keeps you warm on a windy San Francisco night.

Uniqlo, which says it sells casual but stylish clothes that “everyone in the world can wear” and at “everyday low prices,” officially opened its fourth Bay Area store Friday at the Westfield Valley Fair mall.  Another store is slated to open Nov. 1 at Bay Street in Emeryville, the final of four openings this month.

When asked why Uniqlo didn’t spread out the grand opening celebration a little more more, Chief Operating Officer Lawrence Meyer said “This is how we do things.” Meyer was interviewed at a grand opening party at Valley Fair Thursday evening.

The high-tech culture makes the Bay Area a good fit for Uniqlo, which sees itself as much of a tech company as a fashion line. Meyer said Uniqlo works with Japanese designers and engineers to develop fabrics that insulate without making clothes heavy or bulky. Clothes are made with Uniqlo-created high-density nylon fabric that uses human hair and yarn, specific mixes of down, or antibacterial fabric that controls odor and static.

Apple’s influence on Uniqlo is obvious in the new Valley Fair store — clean lines, simple designs, lots of space to walk around and merchandise carefully categorized by color.

“It’s neat and tidy,” Meyer says.

The rainbow of colors of men’s trousers, folded and stacked with the utmost precision, is reminiscent of Apple’s iPhone 5c displays, a spectrum of candy-colored smartphones. And flat screen panels line the wall behind the registers and fill a column at the store’s entrance, streaming Uniqlo advertisements.

A bit of Apple genius has helped guide the retailer. Uniqlo has selected ex-Apple execs to join the company and steer design and innovation. James Higa, a former Apple vice president credited with negotiating rights with the music labels for the launch of the iTunes Store and setting up the company’s Japan operations, is an Uniqlo adviser.

“Apple was the intersection of liberal arts and tech and culture,” said Higa, who was at the Valley Fair store Thursday. “Uniqlo is the intersection of fashion and tech. ….  I think it’s squarely there.”

Uniqlo, which is part of Japan-based Fast Retailing Group, the world’s fourth-largest apparel retail company, is on track to have 17 stores in the U.S. by the end of the year. As of Sept. 1, it had just seven. Meyer said the company will open about another 20 stores next year, and will keep that pace up through 2020. It’s first Bay Area store opened on Powell Street in San Francisco in 2012.

The company has become popular not just because it sells 3-ounce down vests, but because those vests cost less than $50. Uniqlo jeans are less than $20; the store doesn’t do clearance racks, but it does have shelf where everything is marked $7.90. Because of its ability to turn high fashion trends into lower-priced, mass-market goods, many in the industry have compared Uniqlo to global fashion powerhouse H&M.

Meyer doesn’t appreciate that comparison. The H&M brand is about trendy, he said; Uniqlo is about function. Uniqlo is about staying warm in the winter and dry in the summer, Meyer said, getting back to the tech innovation that is at the core of the company’s strategy. No ruffles, no sequins, no frills.

“It’s techy but minimalist,” he said. “It’s simplicity that’s wonderful.”

 Image UNIQLO Tokyo store

Heather Somerville Heather Somerville (248 Posts)

Heather Somerville is a business reporter covering venture capital and startups for the Bay Area News Group.