Invasion of the $10 wardrobe

Photo courtesy GQ
Jessica Pressler, GQ

It seemed at first like a strange Japanese version of Gap. Towers of denim bathed in LED light, sweaters saturated in every color, and armies of sales pixies flitting about like bees in flight. But then the clothes sold. And sold. And continued to sell (even through the recession, when sales actually increased).

Uniqlo opens

It takes a lot of people to make an 89,000-square-foot space feel cramped, but the October opening of Uniqlo’s largest store in the world, a three-story extravaganza located on a prime strip of Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, was wall-to-wall.

“It feels like all of New York is here,” a man in a leopard fez and false eyelashes said to his companion, as they attempted to shove their way through a mass of people without spilling their saketinis. It was true: Among the throngs getting lost in the maze of sweaters were the kind of New Yorkers who lent the event that feeling of place-to-be-ness.

On the mezzanine, legendary Times photographer Bill Cunningham poked at a rainbow of cashmere scarves; just up the stairs, James Murphy, late of LCD Soundsystem, navigated a forest of mannequin legs in skinny jeans, while Mickey Drexler, the CEO of J.Crew, held court beside some thermal underwear. But the biggest boldfaced name, the reason everyone had come, was making his way to the stage. “Was that…” one bystander murmured, after the sea of people parted to allow Tadashi Yanai, the billionaire founder of Uniqlo and one of the richest men in Japan, to pass by.

A generous five feet five, with a slight underbite, upturned nose, and teacup ears, Yanai looks a little like Yoda in a suit.

His company, Fast Retailing, has 845 Uniqlo stores in Japan and more than 190 worldwide, and over the next two years it plans to open some 200 more. In a gesture indicative of the grandness of its plans, it has introduced a blunt new tagline, made for all, about which Yanai is dead serious. He wants all of us to dress in Uniqlo, just as everyone everywhere drinks Coke or eats McDonald’s. Yanai’s goal, which he repeats often and with great conviction, is to make Uniqlo “the number one retailer in the world.” While it has a long way before it beats, say, Walmart, Fast Retailing, which raked in $11 billion in sales last year, is creeping up on its rivals (both Zara’s parent company, Inditex, and H&M earned $17 billion), and it’s already number one in Japan, where Tadashi Yanai is practically a household name.

Read more of the Uniqlo story at GQ …