image: Uniqlo

image: Uniqlo

Uniqlo, the Japanese fast fashion subset of Fast Retailing Co., has been trying to up its fashion cred as of late, shifting its focus – at least in theory – towards higher quality garments. And save for a recent slide in full-year operating profit – the first time in five years for the company – its new approach seems to be working to an extent. Fast Retailing Co. announced on Thursday that it expects to post a record operating profit in the year to August 2017, as growth in its Asian business offsets sluggish retail demand at home.

The company further stated that it plans to increase the number of overseas Uniqlo stores to 1,104 store by the end of August, focusing on Greater China and other Asian countries, from 958 in the year just ended, while keeping the number of its Japan stores unchanged.

The retailer, which is the brainchild of CEO Tadashi Yanai, the richest man in Japan, is far less known in the U.S. than its native Japan. It is, however, growing in popularity, thanks, in part, to its high-end designer collaborations, which began in 2007. They have included the hugely successful Jil Sander collab, +J, followed by its partnership with one of menswear’s fastest-rising stars (and former HERMÈS creative director), Christophe Lemaire, and still more, its collaboration with stylist and former Vogue Paris editor in chief, Carine Roitfeld. And most recently, Uniqlo announced that it has appointed Lemaire as artistic director.

Opposed to being labelled as a fast fashion retailer, Uniqlo, whose parent company has plans to grow from the fourth largest apparel retailer to number one by 2020 (with the help of its plan to open open 100 new stores annually in Greater China, 30 annually in the U.S. and 10 annually in Europe), insists it is situated differently from the market’s largest fast fashion companies: H&M, Zara, and Topshop, etc. And for a few years now, it has been taking steps to distance itself from trend-focused fast fashion wares, focusing instead on high fashion collaborations and a number of proprietary collections, which are distinctly anti-fast fashion.

 a look from Carine Roitfeld's collection for Uniqlo

a look from Carine Roitfeld’s collection for Uniqlo

Consider LifeWear, a collection that Uniqlo launched in 2013, with the aim of providing garments that are “not disposable, but perfect components made with quality.” With this development, Uniqlo really started to drive home its point that it is not your average fast fashion company. According to the company’s CEO, Yanai, “Usually, the most important thing in the fashion business is to chase the latest trends faster than anyone else. At Uniqlo, however, we are striving for something completely different: an entirely new, unique category of clothing. This is founded on our LifeWear concept, which denotes high-quality, fashionable, affordable and comfortable everyday clothing.”

How exactly is Uniqlo differentiating itself from the H&M’s of the world with the LifeWear collection? Well, it is investing in higher-quality materials, season-less offerings (as opposed to blatant runway copies), and an array of research and design efforts (more about the latter in a minute). Per Yanai, “Designing simple, basic clothing is actually harder than offering straight ‘fashion’ – it requires high levels of expertise, experience and unique inspiration,” (as distinct from the popular line-for-line runway copying tactic of most similarly situated retailers) and he is not necessarily wrong.

Unlike most low cost, high turnover brands, Uniqlo has dedicated time and resources to the development of new materials. Consider its partnership with the major synthetic fiber manufacturer Toray Industries, which has resulted in the brand’s insulated Heattech line that consistently proves to be best-selling. Yuki Katsuta, senior vice president of global research and design at Fast Retailing, which works closely on materials innovation with Toray Group, a global textile maker and long-term strategic partner, says Uniqlo is continuously improving Heattech, its lightweight, heat-retaining fabric launched in 2003 and expanding its application across new product categories.

Lemaire’s appointment, which made headlines last week, seems to be yet another step towards Uniqlo distancing itself from the fast fashion cycle in favor of quality. Following a tenure at Hermès, the Paris-based design house known for its $8,000+ handbags, Lemaire opted to focus entirely on his eponymous label, a measured, thoughtful meditation on luxury fashion. His new role at Uniqlo? The artistic director of a new Uniqlo Paris R&D Centre, and the designer of a new Uniqlo line, entitled Uniqlo U.

This move certainly serves to bolster the brand’s ongoing mission “to improve product development by employing world-class designers and skillful pattern makers at our research and design (R&D) centers in the global fashion cities of Tokyo, New York, Shanghai, Los Angeles and Paris.”

IS IT ALL FOR SHOW?

Given the ugly byproducts of fast fashion, it is clearly in fast fashion brands’ best interest to distance themselves – at least on paper – from such ugly truths (think: sweatshop labor, human rights abuses, environmental harms, etc.). So, how are Uniqlo’s efforts any different than H&M’s widespread greenwashing practices, for instance?

Well, there may actually be some truth to Uniqlo’s anti-fast fashion stance. According to an overview published by BoF some time ago, “While Zara has built the world’s largest apparel business based on rapidly responding to fast-changing fashion trends, getting items from factory to store in approximately two weeks, Uniqlo takes the exact opposite approach, planning production of its wardrobe essentials up to a year in advance.” Berndt Hauptkorn, chief executive of Uniqlo Europe, told the website that the Uniqlo brand is NOT about fast fashion, but instead, “all about quality, innovation and the improvement of life.”

However, this may not be entirely true. There is, after all, an array of reports to the contrary. Early last year, Students and Scholars Against Corporate Misbehavior (SACOM), a Hong Kong-based nongovernmental organization, reported that an undercover investigation found illegally long hours of labor at a fabric plant and a sewing factory in the Guangdong province, both in connection with Uniqlo. Alexandra Chan, a SACOM project officer, said there have been reports of workers fainting or collapsing because of the extreme heat in the factories. Chan added that some workers have described their working conditions as “like hell.” The sweatshop practices and labor rights violations were directly in conflict with Uniqlo’s corporate social responsibility promises.

On the heels of the release of SACOM’s report, Uniqlo came under fire for allegedly turning a blind eye to the malpractice at the supplier following strikes in February 2015 and allowing owners to shut down the factory in question, the Artigas factory in China, secretly removing equipment and machines and denying severance payments and social insurance owed to workers.

You may also recall journalist Masuo Yokota’s book, The Glory and Disgrace of UNIQLO, which accuses the company of generating profits through the exploitation of low-wage garment workers in poor countries. The book describes “extremely harsh, slave-like labor conditions” at some plants. It is worth noting, though, that such negative reports come with significantly less frequency than those associated with Primark, H&M, Topshop, and other similarly situated retailers. 

As for whether Uniqlo’s recent high fashion leanings, at least in terms of big names, will help to alleviate some of the bad press it has faced over the years in connection with its labor practices is up for debate. We do know that its collabs seem to sell quite well and the brand has its sights on reaching $10 billion in U.S. annual revenue by 2020. So, stay tuned.