How Uniqlo -- The Japanese Clothing Giant That May Buy J.Crew -- Is Taking Over The World

Japan’s Fast Retailing is in talks to purchase J. Crew for as much as $US5 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Fast Retailing is the parent company of Uniqlo, which has exploded in the past decade, becoming Asia’s biggest clothing retailer. And its leaders have ambitious goals to make the brand the leader in retail worldwide.

Uniqlo, which focuses on mass-producing affordable basics in dozens of colours, got its start in the Japanese suburbs. Less than 20 years later, it’s laid its stake along swanky shopping streets in major global cities.

What’s the story behind the company’s success?

Additional reporting by Megan Durisin.

The first Uniqlo opened its doors in Hiroshima, Japan in 1984.

The company is a division of Japanese retail holding company Fast Retailing, with Tadashi Yanai at the helm. In addition to Uniqlo, Fast Retailing owns brands including J Brand, Theory, and Comptoir Des Cotonniers and National Standard.

The company originally called itself 'Unique Clothing Warehouse.' By joining those words together, Uniqlo was born.

The name is pronounced 'YOU-nee-klo' in English.

In the early 1990s, the Japanese economy hit a major slump. And Uniqlo's cheap clothes got popular fast.

The Japanese economic downturn is often called 'The Great Recession' and lasted for an entire decade. It was bad news for the country as a whole, but Uniqlo reaped major benefits by catering to citizens who were trying to cut back on spending.

By 1994, 10 years after the first store opened, 100 Uniqlos were in operation.

Most of the original growth was centered in the Japanese suburbs with roadside stores.

The company saw a rise in popularity after the launch of a fleece apparel campaign in 1998, according to its website.

But soon after, Uniqlo hit a rut -- with profits and sales dropping. The company reorganized and grew its women's line, seeing recovery afterward. It also began focusing on larger stores.

Although Uniqlo started as a suburban chain, it now has more than 1,360 stores worldwide, many in urban centres around the globe.

Uniqlo has 856 stores in Japan and more than 500 stores overseas in the U.S., France, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, China and Taiwan, among other countries.

Prime locations include major shopping streets in New York, London, and Paris.

Uniqlo has become the biggest apparel chain in Asia. But company executives have said they want Uniqlo to be 'the world's No. 1 casual brand.'

In late 2012, the company was the fourth-largest retailer behind Gap, H&M and Zara-owner Inditex, according to Forbes.

So far, there are only 17 stores in the U.S. But there are plans to open 100 more stores in the U.S. over the next couple years, according to Reuters.

The SoHo store was the first to open in 2006.

Uniqlo's slogan is 'made for all,' and the store is known for its rainbow-coloured casual wear for men, women and kids.

Most of its clothing is mass produced in every colour a shopper might want. Some people have called the chain 'Japan's answer to Gap.'

The clothes are cheap and aim to be affordable for every consumer.

Right now, a woman's long-sleeve silk blouse is $US49.90, a man's long-sleeve button-up is $US34.90 and boy's jeans are $US22.90.

The stores are often hard to miss. The Fifth Avenue store is gigantic, at 89,000 square feet.

Uniqlo opened its largest store in Shanghai last year.

Despite being a Japanese company, about 70% of its clothes are manufactured in China.

That's caused some problems in the past because of China's anti-Japanese protests. But Yanai has no plans to move, and told Forbes he wants to open hundreds more stores in China.

It also keeps prices low by buying products directly from suppliers. And it can buy in mass since it focuses on clothing that doesn't go out of style and pumps each item out in an array of colours.

Facts and Details reports that Uniqlo admits to keeping clothes on the shelves longer than most rivals, and will sometimes make one item in up to 50 colours.

Yanai, Uniqlo's founder, is the second richest man in Japan. His net worth is estimated at $US17.9 billion.

In the latest Forbes rankings, he's listed as Japan's second richest man and No. 45 on the worldwide billionaire list. Yanai is married and has two children.

He is said to have intensely studied Gap and used the American company as a basis for its business model.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Yanai called former Gap CEO Mickey Drexler 'professor' when the pair first met because he held him in such high esteem.

In late 2011, the company was valued at 1.4 trillion yen ($14 billion), according to Bloomberg.

And the company wants to grow receipts to reach 5 trillion yen ($49 billion) by 2020, with a fifth coming from the U.S., according to Chief Financial Officer Takeshi Okazaki.

Some features of Uniqlo's business stand out among other retailers. For example, Yanai has proposed a global pay system in which managers worldwide would receive the same wage.

He believes 'an equal amount of work deserves an equal wage.'

And Yanai told Forbes that Uniqlo sets itself apart by not chasing trends. Instead, they focus on basics, like Oxfords and polos, and make them affordable.

Blouses, slim-fitting bottoms and lightweight outerwear also are Uniqlo staples.

In March of last year, Yanai told Women's Wear Daily that he 'might not be able to retire' because there is no one who yet meets his expectations as a successor.

He's currently 65, according to Forbes. Some employees have said he isn't very good at delegating and can be a micro-manager. But his business mind is a big part of what's led the company to success.

The store was virtually untouched during the recession and saw profits climb 17% between 2009 and 2010.

They may have benefited from the world's drop in spending power, since they capitalise on consumers looking for cheap clothing.

If Uniqlo's rapid growth continues, its ambitious plans to be the leader of retail in the U.S. and worldwide could become a reality.

The company plans to grow overseas Uniqlo sales to greater than domestic revenue by August 2016, according to Bloomberg.

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