I’ve been riding the same set of escalators up and down 12 floors for the past 15 minutes. I’m in a Uniqlo store in Tokyo, searching for a plain boxy, cropped white T-shirt that I spotted at one point during my shopping spree among wall after wall of rainbow-hued offerings. Shelves of sweaters and polos loom overhead as I loop around tables stacked with denim and racks packed tightly with button-up shirts. I feel a little dizzy, but it could just be the jet lag. The store concept, with its mazelike layout, is actually kind of genius: Everything feels like a new discovery.
Since opening its first shop in Hiroshima in 1984, the Tokyo-based mega retailer has grown to 1,700 stores worldwide by convincing people that a basic item of clothing is as much a want as it is a need. The brand has become famous for selling wardrobe staples that have cult-level appeal and for introducing new products, like its fleece pieces, which sold out when they were first introduced in 1998. It’s also known for its high-tech AIRism line, a collection of undergarments (think super-thin tanks and T-shirts) made from extremely light fabric that’s quick-dry and moisture wicking. But Yukihiro Katsuta, Uniqlo’s head of research and design, warns against using the word “basic” too freely. “Basic sounds boring,” he says. While the collections are affordable—cashmere sweaters start at $39.90 and jeans at $49.90—there is always an element of newness, he insists, that informs the uncomplicated design. It’s a trend-informed, not trend-driven, approach that can be seen in this season’s collection, from the ultra-lightweight down jackets and elegantly pleated midiskirts to the slick ribbed turtleneck dresses.
Collaborations also help set Uniqlo’s basics apart. Designers like Jil Sander and Alexander Wang were not brought on for star power, says Katsuta, but as a way to add expertise and a different point of view. Now, Christophe Lemaire, who founded his eponymous label after leaving Hermès in 2014, is the newly appointed artistic director of the brand’s Paris-based research and development centre as well as Uniqlo U, a line of ultra-refined basics that are launching this fall. But unlike other high-low designer collabs, which can sell out in the first few hours, Uniqlo often stocks more product and engages in ongoing partnerships, so you don’t have to line up to snag a piece. This is in keeping with the brand’s slogan, “Made for All,” which emphasizes inclusivity and practicality. “We are never satisfied,” admits Katsuta. “We are always asking ‘How can we make it better?’”
Later, I sit down with founder and CEO Tadashi Yanai, who tells me more about the Uniqlo philosophy—which seems to be working: His clothing empire, which also includes brands like Theory and J. Brand, has made him the wealthiest man in Japan, with a net worth of $24.4 billion. Through a translator, he explains that his vision for the future is uniform based. He looks the part, wearing a tailored navy suit over a simple white shirt. “Rather than having very unique clothing, we will achieve uniqueness from the different combinations made possible by offering such a variety of pieces,” he says. He wants to create a “tool box,” a common dress code, that can be styled according to one’s personal preferences. It’s not about sameness as much as it is about refinement. “We are not chasing the trend,” he insists.
Back in Toronto, I unpack that elusive white tee that I eventually did locate and wonder how I’ve ever lived without it. While it doesn’t boast any futuristic technology, it is precisely what the label has been championing for the past 32 years: a better basic. The reason I don’t wear it every day is because, regretfully, I only bought one. It cost me less than $20 and, as far as basic basics go, has earned me more compliments than a fur-adorned wool coat I splurged on a few years ago. In Tokyo, Yanai told me that “in order to evolve the future, you need to invent something.” If inventing a new uniform—one that relies on innovation, not uniformity—is what it takes to shape the future of fashion, then my white T-shirt and I are 100-percent in.
The first-timer’s guide to shopping at Uniqlo
Where: Toronto is now home to two Uniqlo stores, one in the CF Toronto Eaton Centre and one at Yorkdale Shopping Centre. Size matters with the brand’s first Canadian locations: Each space is approximately 2,500 square metres, over two floors.
Pro tip: Try things on. Some of the most flattering pieces that made it into my shopping bag looked less tailored on the hanger than they are IRL.
If you only buy one thing…You won’t. Trust us. But if you do, make it a cozy cashmere sweater or a plain white tee.
Give the gift of…AIRism. The brand’s star line of “innerwear,” including women’s and men’s undershirts, features quick-dry and cooling technologies that really do feel like a second skin.