Theory At Uniqlo

The American brand, Uniqlo’s sibling, appears with its own little space in the Japanese fast fashion’s new global flagship in Ginza, Japan

Uniqlo in Tokyo is offering the more upmarket label Theory, its sibling brand under parent company Fast Retailing, alongside its LifeWear offerings, at its Yurakucho/Ginza store, which reopened last June after a refurbishment (and expansion), reimagined by the Swiss architectural firm of Herzog & de Meuron. Theory in the bright spanking space in Marronnier Gate 2 building is a surprising addition to a store initially dubbed Uniqlo Tokyo, which, according to a company media release, was “created as the new global flagship store to embody the LifeWear ideal.” It isn’t surprising that Theory, with its clean lines and generally neutral palette, fits the bill and the retail environment. The collection could have been, upon a cursory glance, Uniqlo U, the sub-brand presently steered by Christophe Lemaire in Paris.

Launched last October, Theory at Uniqlo takes up about 60-odd square metres on the first and second floors. Unless you seek it out, there is a good chance you might actually miss the relatively small collection. With the branding built into the industrial-looking fixtures that go well with the exposed beams of the four-level store’s central concourse, the corner is somewhat discreet, and is overwhelmed by Uniqlo’s own larger and more colourful offering. It could be assumed that Uniqlo is hopping to underscore its versatility, that their LifeWear, however basic, could be easily and stylishly teamed with other more ‘elevated’ styles, especially those under their family of brands, which includes the French label Comptoir des Cotonniers, also available here. But one thing does stand out: the price difference. Theory is many rungs up the price hierarchy. One Theory hoodie was going for JPY23,000 (approximately SGD294), while Uniqlo’s could be had for JPY2,900 (approximately SGD37).

It is inaccurate to think that just because one shops in Uniqlo, one only wants to buy cheap merchandise

Fast Retailing’s pulling together two of its brands on the different side of the price scale is, from a retail perspective, a refreshing arrangement. It is inaccurate—even parochial—to think that just because one shops in Uniqlo, one only wants to buy inexpensive merchandise. A discerning eye, as Uniqlo possesses, is not trained on price alone. Perhaps this will work only in Japan. No news from Uniqlo SG yet if Theory will be introduced here. We know, of course, that our shoppers have a tendentious habit of seeking the cheap. Since its arrival on our shores in 2009, its visitors mostly associate the brand with low-priced fashion than fast fashion, often overlooking its design value. In a statement prior to the launch of Theory (and Comptoir des Cotonniers) at Uniqlo Tokyo, Fast Retailing stated that the step towards a multi-label store “allows customers to handle and purchase items with the same high quality and comfort of Uniqlo [and] offer customers the opportunity to freely coordinate items from the three brands”. This obvious plus, we suspect, would have weak acceptance on our island.

Theory was born in New York in 1999 when former Anne Klein CEO Andrew Rosen teamed up with the Israeli designer Elie Tahari to create a line that was widely known then to cater specifically to professional women. The clothes associated with Theory were—at least initially—pants: in particular stretch pants, but cut and styled in a dressier way. That one item become the driving success of the brand. In 2003, both Mr Rosen and Mr Tahari sold Theory to its Japanese licensee Link International (before becoming Link Theory Holdings or LTH) just after compatriot company Fast Retailing acquired an “equity stake” in Link. Two years later, the American arm of LTH bought Helmut Lang from the Prada Group. In 2009, LTH was fully owned by Fast Retailing (after which, they acquired the jeans label J Brand in 2012). Under the new ownership, Theory enjoyed reasonable success. Between 2010 and 2014, it was designed by the “Prince of Goth” Olivier Theyskens. Mr Rosen even allowed the designer his own imprint, Theyskens’ Theory (at first a test capsule Theory by Olivier Theyskens). While the global profile of Theory at this time was raised, it was reported that the sale figures that Mr Rosen had craved for never materialised.

Theory and Uniqlo’s relationship on the selling floor goes back to 2016, when a collaboration between the two yielded a men’s admittedly conservative capsule collection. It was marketed with a catchy phrase: “Japanese Engineering, New York Style”, perhaps reminding shoppers of the brand’s Big Apple origins. This collab came back again last year. It is not clear how successful this co-branding is, but the repeat season and, now, a Theory corner in a Uniqlo flagship are indications that Fast Retailing has big plans—and high hopes—for a name that is, for many, an unshakeable reminder of the 2000s, when, way before the (fortunately ending) tumultuous Trump era, American labels had some appeal, if not cachet.

Photo: Jiro Shiratori for SOTD

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