"Simple clothing with a not-so-simple purpose: to make your life better," reads a written introduction about Uniqlo's LifeWear concept. The Japanese retailer, which has over 1,000 stores worldwide, holds a reputation for its minimalistic designs, crisp ads and forward product innovation. But to say Uniqlo is simple would be insufficient - beyond the basics is a much deeper story that they hope will be embraced by Toronto and rest of Canada.
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Seated across from me in a seventh-floor room of the Shangri-La Hotel were two leaders of Uniqlo's parent company, Fast Retailing - Mr. Tadashi Yanai, the founder and CEO, and John C. Jay, the president of global creative. They have a long-standing relationship with each other; having worked on their first collaboration for Uniqlo Fleece products back in 1999. Now, they are in pursuit of a rather lofty goal: to make Uniqlo the #1 apparel company in the world by 2020.
They both agreed that Canada was the perfect place for the company to take its next steps. Mr. Yanai likens the Canadian market to that of Australia's, where Uniqlo is currently experiencing great success. He assumes that since the business is good there, they could do equally well in Canada.
But it's more than just about the favourable market. Jay believes there's a dynamic image of Canada right now that's very intriguing. "There's something that's happening [in Canada] and the whole world is noticing, and we couldn't help but notice that as well. And that comes from the multiculturalism," he says.
In their desire to gain a better grasp of Toronto culture, they immersed themselves in the city. Yasuhiro Hayashi, COO of Uniqlo Canada, was among a team of people that made monthly visits to Toronto to meet with everyday citizens and study their fashion. The first thing he immediately noticed was the sheer diversity of individuals. "We couldn't help but observe in the room when we were talking to people just how diverse everyone was," adds Jay. "The growth of our brand will come from learning from communities such as yours."
Diversity then became the central theme of their Canadian marketing campaign Uncommon Thread, which philosophizes that we are connected by our differences, rather than our similarities. The campaign takes a more personal approach, featuring the stories of real Torontonians from all sorts of races, religions, genders, ages and occupations. Poster spreads of the diverse individuals standing side-by-side wearing variations of the same piece of clothing are also included in their campaign materials. With this concept, Uniqlo hopes to weave its own threads into fabric of Toronto and play a part in what holds the community together.
The new store at the Toronto Eaton Centre, which officially opens today, features a special section that showcases specialty products from collaborations with four local Toronto brands: Monocle, Drake General Store, Souvenir and Blacksmith Cycle. It will also be the first store in North America to get the brand's most recent line, Uniqlo U. These are just a few examples of Uniqlo's commitment to providing Canadians with only the best they have to offer.
Still, being sandwiched between H&M and Nordstrom presents a sizeable pressure for Uniqlo to stand out in an already cutthroat retail landscape. The brand is confident, however, in its distinction from other competitor brands that tend to abuse the process of fast fashion. "We don't go to runways and photograph the [designs] and come back and see how quickly we can reproduce them," says Jay.
Mr. Yanai believes that the quality of their products also gives them an edge. Such advantage can be attributed to Japanese culture and technology. Uniqlo's partnerships with suppliers like Toray, a leading developer of carbon fibers for aircrafts, results in the development of unique textiles that they incorporate into their clothes. "Enormous technology has been accumulated in Japan, so we are eager to leverage that technology to our apparel," Mr. Yanai says through an interpreter.
“[There's] a term we use in Life Wear - ‘simple made better’. Most people think simplicity is the end; once I achieve simplicity I stop. For Japanese, that’s not the end; simplicity is the beginning. There is no end; you continuously make something better and better and better. So, we’re not afraid to improve something called a ‘classic’ - Just because it’s classic, doesn’t mean it can’t improve," says Jay. "That comes from the Japanese DNA."
So then, will these points be enough to get Toronto shoppers out of the Topshops and Zaras, and into Uniqlos instead? Well, only time will tell. But one thing's for sure - they're here now, and they're prepared to fight.
“We’re not here to make disposable clothing. We want you to keep our cashmere forever, we want you to keep our jeans forever. We’re not afraid of that," says Jay.
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