Thu, Nov 16, 2006 - Page 13 News List

Japanese cheap chic invades SoHo

With the aim of selling Banana Republic quality for Gap prices, Japan's Uniqlo is taking big risks in the US market

By Eric Wilson and Michael Barbaro  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

The entrance and interior of Uniqlo's store in SoHo, New York.


Fast fashion may be moving too fast for customers to keep up.

What started with inexpensive Isaac Mizrahi trench coats and Cynthia Rowley bedspreads at Target stores, and drew crowds to H&M with cheap versions of Karl Lagerfeld and Stella McCartney fashions, has evolved into a frenzy for budget clothes by designers of even questionable celebrity: Sophia Kokosalaki has a deal with Nine West, and Roland Mouret with Gap. Not to mention the Viktor & Rolf clothes introduced recently at H&M.

Those are not exactly household names. But they are veritable fashion stars next to the designers hired to prolong the buzz around the opening of a mammoth New York flagship in SoHo for the Japanese retailer Uniqlo, whose arrival could further reshape the American clothing industry with its promise of high-quality cashmere sweaters for US$99 or less.

Uniqlo will be the largest single-brand fashion store in the retail-saturated Manhattan neighborhood, putting its competitors on notice that the company has aggressive plans for the US.

Uniqlo, which has blanketed Japan with inexpensive sportswear sold in 720 stores, is making an expensive bet that American consumers have not already overdosed on the "cheap chic" designs intended to bring a sense of style to retailers from Kohl's to Wal-Mart.

The store's democratically priced basics will include designs by a rotating assortment of global talents, some rising stars of New York fashion, like Alice Roi, Alexander Plokhov and Phillip Lim, and others who are little known outside of Japan, like Halb, Kino and G.V.G.V.

You've heard of those, right?

But the fast-fashion strategy already shows signs of wear and tear, most notably at Wal-Mart, which was disappointed by reaction to its introduction of more fashionable women's clothes this year, including its version of a fast-fashion line by the designer Mark Eisen.

Speaking through a translator, Tadashi Yanai, who founded Uniqlo with a single store in Hiroshima in 1984, said the splashy entrance into the US — subway ads, taxi tops and temporary stores have become ubiquitous in Manhattan in the last year — was conceived to make people take seriously a retailer that has most often been described as the Gap of Japan.

"If I opened a very small store, no one would ever pay attention," Yanai said. "We want to sell basics to everyone, so to make people notice us we have to open in a big way, to make people recognize who we are."

If anything, Uniqlo is arriving late to the party, and treading on ground that will seem familiar on this particular stretch of Broadway in SoHo, where there is already a Zara, an H&M and a Banana Republic.

With its soaring architecture and raw, warehouselike space, the new 3,344.5m2 Uniqlo store looks much like the Bloomingdale's that opened at 504 Broadway in April 2004. In place of main-floor cosmetics counters, the entrance is dominated by an interior glass display filled with revolving mannequins and clean, linear displays of cashmere sweaters, some 7,680 of them, folded in repeating floor-to-ceiling grids.

Yanai predicted the chain's sales in the US would reach US$30 million by next year — a figure that includes revenue from the SoHo store and temporary outlets built around the region over the last two years.

He expects Uniqlo to become profitable in the US in its second year, but that could prove challenging, given the expensive lease the company signed and its high-priced marketing blitz across the city. It took Zara and H&M three to five years to turn a profit.

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