Visited: Uniqlo ION Orchard

The third large-format store in Orchard Road, Uniqlo Ion Orchard sees it offering

By Truss Tan

With the opening of its third large-format store in ION Orchard on Black Friday, last month, Uniqlo has shown that it’s probably the only clothing brand here to be expanding so enthusiastically during these times of painful uncertainty, and not only to secure one store along Orchard Road, but three. Sure, there has always been three Unqlo stores on Singapore’s most famous shopping street, but they are now stronger, image-wise, and larger, collectively. The trio of multi-level stores is collectively called Uniqlotown (that nomenclature, to me, brings to mind a certain Nike Town!), which the brand describes as “one shopping destination, three different retail experiences”. Separated between them an average distance of just 900 metres, the three stores are within walking distance, enough to warrant a group naming that hints at a congenial—to me, on the contrary, homogeneous—urban area: a lively expanse in a commercial hub for its LifeWear.

All three stores stay in the same malls they are originally sited, but the Plaza Singapura outlet is relocated from the new wing to the older block, into two units formerly occupied by Marks and Spencer. The Global Flagship Store in Orchard Central remains unchanged. At ION Orchard, Uniqlo is expanded on the upper floor of its two-level space into the area vacated by Topshop in July. The original two-storey ION Orchard store it would seem wasn’t large enough to house more of largely-the-same-as-other-stores merchandise. Amazingly, apart from the area that was once Topshop, there’s a sort of passageway—previously unknown—in the rear that now links the existing womenswear zone to this new space, dedicated to its T-shirt collection, UT.

The UT space looks to me rather small. Nothing like its brethrens in Hong Kong (Lee Theatre Plaza) or Tokyo (Ginza). This isn’t the first here dedicated to the T-shirt line (full name: Uniqlo T-Shirt Project), but while it is similar to those in the regions to our north, the space is rather too small and too packed to be really the same as the other UTs overseas. I remember visiting the first standalone UT store in the world, on Tokyo’s Meiji-dori Avenue (明治道り), in the other half nearer to Shibuya, back in early 2000. The UT interior design has not changed much, but back then, what Uniqlo did at that two-storey store was to give the humble T-shirt not only its own showcase, but also its pioneering place in the history of the casualisation of fashion. One thing I’ll not forget: the plastic tube-cases (now so environmentally unfriendly) that housed those tees deemed special or of limited quantities. I don’t remember any fast fashion label paying such attention to the packaging of a mere T-shirt.

On the day Uniqlo ION Orchard (re)opened, there were long queues at the entrances to the men’s and women’s floors, but not over at this new entrance. A Japanese staff was manning the spot; he happily introduced me to the new areas of the store, and even gave me directions to navigate the space, and told me how to get to the other areas. The identifiable UT zone is a welcome addition to this Uniqlo, but, even after subsequent visits, is hard to make out how different this section is, or could be. As it is packed with shelves and racks of merchandise in the centre, it is does not stand out, or put the spotlight on its T-shirts, even with the rows of windows flanking the space, each housing a cotton jersey top, like framed art. While, during a time when travel is not an option, this really brought me back to my yearly visits to Japan, it did not induce me to pick something up to stress my wallet.

Although Uniqlo tries to give each store a unique identity, regular visitors would be hard pressed to find the dissimilar here. Sure, there is a whole new extended area of the women’s zone, which includes the kids collection, to explore, but very quickly you’d wish it didn’t look this familiar. The ION Orchard store is dubbed “The New Stage for Expression” (Plaza Singapura is “The New Family Hangout” and Orchard Central is “Where You Wear Life”), I sensed that perhaps it is an expanse for underscoring one’s individuality. But, while the mannequins are admittedly well styled (and brimming with ideas for, regrettably, winter), there is a sense that I was ensnared to buy even more of those oversized Uniqlo U tees that practically everyone I know now owns. As the total space is still considerably smaller that the Orchard Central store, and the aisles are blocked by shoppers totally disregarding the neat arrangements of merchandise or the efficient visual merchandising, it takes considerable effort to suss out what might encourage expression.

In Tokyo, Uniqlo’s recently-opened stores come with elements or areas not previously seen in their other outlets in the capital. In Harajuku (where the old Harajuku station stood), the store comes with an interactive wall, while in Ginza (Marronnier Gate Ginza 2), there is a LifeWear Square. It may be too soon for them to introduce these novel retail ideas here, but Uniqlo has been on our shores for 11 years. Their first store opened in Tampines One in 2009, a humble affair that could pass off as one from some quiet neighbourhood in Fukuoka. There are now 26 stores island-wide, and another in Tampines to open (Tampines Mall, where the two-level H&M used to be, to replace the relatively small space of the debut, which, according to staff, is “old”, and will close at the end of this month). But more than a decade later, would Uniqlo be better off with something more compelling? Or is the sameness a reflection of how unadventurous local shoppers are?

The two floors of Uniqlo ION Orchard is, as before, linked by a staircase. It is here that I saw what could possibly be something different: a massive mural by Singaporean artist Michael Ng, aka Mindflyer. Described as “a whimsical visionary depiction of a couple discovering the future garden city of Orchard Road”, this piece takes up the entire wall of the stairway. Mr Ng’s work, to me, has the wonderment of a child, the charm of Crayola colours, the exuberance of Ricardo Cavolo’s characters, and the sense of the cute of the Japanese. The artwork, which invites examination (it’s composed of four parts, representing the past to the future), contrasts with the seriousness of the store and all-the-garments-they-can-sell product overload. And it serves to remind us of the fun we can have with clothes, even if Uniqlo touts wearing for life with considerable seriousness.

I decided to buy an Airism T-shirt as it was on sale. I picked one up from about a dozen hung on the rack. I went to the cashier’s, but was immediately confronted with one truly new thing: self checkout. I experienced this in Tokyo last year, and was delighted with the convenience, ease, and speed of their system, and was happy that they’ve introduced it here. As I was going to pay by using NETS, I was told to go to the regular cashier instead, now reduced to just one till. As I was waiting my turn, one other Japanese staffer came up to me and said, offering to take my still-with-the-hanger-on tee, “So sorry, let me get you another one.” I told him that the piece I had was fine. “This one,” he said, pointing to the crew neck, “is stained.” True enough, there was a faint, blurred mark, like a smear someone with foundation trying the top earlier had left behind. And I, usually watchful for these spots, didn’t notice. I thanked him and he disappeared, and returned as soon as he left, with a new, packaged tee. I thanked him again. He said—with palpable sincerity—“my pleasure.” For a quick moment, I thought I was in Japan.

Photos: Chin Boh Kay

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