Mountain High

Uniqlo X White Mountaineering could be the most exciting collab for both Japanese brands this year

White Mountaineering (WM) has just announced on social media that they will be collaborating with compatriot brand Uniqlo for an autumn/winter 2021 capsule. Fans of Japanese ‘Gorpcore’ would be thrilled (to us, it was in the Land of the Rising Sun that it all began). For us here at SOTD, this would probably be the most exciting Uniqlo collaboration since Undercover in 2012, six years after WM was born. These days, more and more fashion consumers appreciate outdoor styles that can be copped for a trendy and distinctive expression of self. WM’s designer and founder Yosuke Aizawa—a Junya Watanabe alum—will be the first to tell you that his clothes are not entirely suitable for serious mountain climbing. But his love for the outdoors and sports that brings one to higher altitudes is overwhelming, so much so that he saw the possibility of melding the functional and the utilitarian with the fashionable. And he did not see incorrectly. White Mountaineering predated the Gorpcore trend by more than a decade, way before Gucci’s pairing with The North Face.

Nothing very much is revealed (not even a photo) about the collab yet. Nor, date of release. But White Mountaineering did post on Instagram: “Announcing a new collaboration for Fall/Winter 2021. Outerwear created as a common language for everyone—LifeWear simplicity and White Mountaineering style.” To note is the deliberate mention of “outerwear”. Given that the collection is for the fall season and WM is known for their covetable parkas and such, it could be pieces we are unlikely to buy, especially when travel to colder climes this year seems unlikely. If WM’s own autumn/winter collection (or their collaborative output, such as last year’s pairing with Fila) is any indication, expect practical styling with silhouettes that are decidedly contemporary and cool. And yes, utility pockets, unusually placed too. You may not need these clothes this year (or here), but you can always purchase a couple to keep, especially when they would be priced at a fraction of what you’d have to pay for, if considering WM’s main line. Watch this space for more details.

Photo illustration: Just So

Will These KAWS Another Mad Rush?

Uniqlo has announced another KAWS collaboration even when the last was supposed to be the final

The Uniqlo UT X KAWS collaboration was supposed to have ended two years ago, but it’ll soon be bouncing back. Looks like the crashing of Uniqlo store shutters will happen all over again as the young (mostly) rush and trip over themselves to get a piece of the merchandise for either personal consumption or—very likely—to resell online for a ridiculously inflated price. The craze for anything KAWS has not died down since its association with Dior at the start of Kim Jones’s stewardship of the brand’s menswear. KAWS—aka Brian Donnelly— isn’t just known for his own caricatured characters such as the beloved loner Companion, but also cartoon characters such as those from Sesame Street, as seen in another Uniqlo collab. There is no denying the cross-market lure of KAWS, especially in the form of illustrations on fashion items.

We understand that the latest Uniqlo X Kaws pieces will be available only in Japan for the moment. This will be released two weeks from now to commemorate the first major KAWS exhibition in Tokyo (at the capital’s Mori Arts Center Gallery), titled KAWS Tokyo First. The T-shirt (three styles) and tote bag (one) collection, featuring Companion, will be made available as exhibition merchandise at the show venue first, followed by a country-wide Uniqlo store release later. There is no news yet from Uniqlo’s local office if the commemorative merchandise will be available here. Reach out to a kind friend in Tokyo!

Uniqlo X Kaws will be available in Japan from 20 July. Product photos: Uniqlo

Who’s That Goddess?

The Winged Victory of Samothrace has such high-low appeal

Left: Louis Vuitton show that ended with the last model in front of the statue. Screen grab: Louis Vuitton. Right: The image on a Uniqlo T-shirt. Photo: Zhao Xiangji

When the final model of last month’s Louis Vuitton show came to the end of the runway (set in the Louvre Museum), she came face to face with one of the biggest treasures of the musée: the Winged Victory of Samothrace. She paused and looked at the imposing figure as if in silent worship. What stood before her was the Hellenistic sculpture of Nike—the Greek goddess, not the sneaker brand. Nearly 11,000 kilometres to the east of Paris, the image of the same headless and armless deity was seen on the front of a black, S$19.90 Uniqlo crew-neck T-shirt. The illustration, in a patina of pastels, is conceived by the British graphic designer Peter Saville, in conjunction with the Louvre. It also includes the location of the statue and two letters and four numerals that form the inventory number. Back in Paris, you can buy a good 18-cm reproduction of the goddess that’s patinated by hand for €119. An immeasurable distance away, at the online portal Lazada, you, too, can obtain a similar figurine, cast in resin, for S$35.74. The Winged Victory (the shorter name), it seems, is almost everywhere.

Discovered in 1863 on the Greek island of Samothrace, in the northern Aegean sea, this sculptured likeness of Nike (circa 200 B.C.) is considered one of the finest in the world for its realistic depiction of a body in motion as well as its attractive female proportions. Ironically, the sculptor is unknown. By most accounts, Nike is a winged goddess who flies around as the bestower of victory to those who win wars, as well as peaceful competition, such as athletic games. Although not shown in the statue, she is known to carry laurel wreaths to hand out to, naturally, victors, and bestowing on them the rewards that come with winning. Other than her ability to take to flight, she is also reputed to be a fast runner (the connection to that shoe company again!) and a talented charioteer (which makes her standing atop the prow of a boat in the Louvre rather odd), so good, in fact, she commanded Zeus’s cavalry as the chief charioteer.

Despite her abundant talents, Nike did not seem attractive to possible suitors

No goddess of repute wasn’t connected to Zeus, the god of gods, the all-father, whose throne was in Olympus and whose personal logo is the thunder bolt. Nike was born to the Titan Pallas and the nymph Styx. In the ten-year Titanomachy, a war of egos that saw the Olympians battle the Titans, Styx sided with Zeus and was the first to dash to his aid. She presented him with Nike and her siblings to serve as allies. So pleased was Zeus with this unconditional readiness that he allowed them to use Mount Olympus as their permanent residence. Nike was allowed to remain by his side and receive his eternal protection. Despite her abundant talents, Nike did not seem attractive to possible suitors (she remained unmarried). In fact, there is no mention of her looks unlike, say, Aphrodite, who, although a warrior goddess, was celebrated for her beauty, among many other attributes. Stephen Fry in Mythos, described her as “a face far more beautiful than creation has yet seen or will ever see again”. Nike did not enjoy such a tribute to her physical attributes, although the ancients did describe her as “trim-ankled”.

In the Winged Victory, the goddess is often admired for the draped dress on her forward-thrusting body, both captured with remarkable mastery. This version of Nike wears a chiton, a unisex garment of either linen or wool. Given the lightness in the depiction, linen is likely the fabric represented there. The chiton was mostly rectangular, and held in place and gathered at the shoulders by either stitches or pins. Since its length for women was usually longer than the wearer, the chiton was worn with a belt so that when the top part was pulled up to fall over the cinched waist, like a blouse, the length could be shortened. On the Winged Victory, an additional belt is secured under the bust to further secure the dress. The fabric, possibly because of the wind, gathered between the legs to expose unscandalously the left hip and leg. Around the waist, another garment could be discerned: a himation or a cloak, draped around the right hip and swept open, with a swathe of it caught in the wind behind. Unlike mortals of today, the gods of yore clearly didn’t need a stylist to work their fashion.

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

Is Black Better?

Once, Black Friday was invariably described as the sale of the year. In the wake of the pandemic, it now seems to be beckoning from the shadows

How quickly we arrive at a once-a-year Friday inauspiciously called ‘black’. It would be amusing to go into how the Friday after the US Thanksgiving holiday turned into this shade of raven, but it has such a convoluted origins story and multiple retellings that reading them won’t leave you with enough time for this essentially one-day sale. If sales make the world go round, Black Friday purportedly puts you on a dizzy spin. Bargains, we’re told, are to be had in so many stores that missing out won’t only encourage fear, it’d strike terror.

Black Friday predates the colour-neutral 9/9, 10/10, and 11/11. Unlike these Internet-native sale events, Black Friday started largely in a physical space. In the good old days, people in America, after giving thanks, would rush to their favourite store to buy outrageously marked-down goods. Dispensing with manners (Ps and Qs? Forget them!) and, some say, civility, they would be the first to get into the store, elbow their way to the bargains, and, simultaneously, break jaws and noses (okay, that’s an exaggeration, but scuffles did break out). These days, anything likely to break is the Internet.

Standees and window stickers beckon at many stores in case you didn’t already know that Black Friday has arrived

With the pandemic, we assume the response to Black Friday in person would be tamer this year. How wrong we were. The minute we emerged from Orchard MRT station, we knew we would be surging into a swarm. And we did. So packed it was in the narrow passage that’s the conduit between ION Orchard and the underpass to Tangs that both MRT staff and social distancing ambassadors were needed to direct the heedless crowd. No one seemed concerned with the tight traffic. You’d think that 2020 is the year of new social habits, but you’d be mistaken. This was dazzlingly pre-new normal.

Entering malls these days are preceded with the usual SafeEntry scans and temperature checks, but at the ION Orchard entrance outside the MRT station entry/exit, it was a journey to the centre of the earth. You are basically going round the same oblong area four times before you can enter the mall proper. The first thing that caught our eye once we were free from the snaking chain is the line to our right at Sephora (the longest sighted here), which basically stretched the entire shop front of the cosmetic retailer. In ION Orchard, it appeared that the action was subterranean. The bustle was alive below level one. Above that, it was barely a weekend hum. Oddly, it was ghostly quiet outside Louis Vuitton and Dior.

The entrance to the latest expansion of the Uniqlo ION store

The real draw, as it turned out, was the opening of Uniqlo ION, the final of a triumvirate of large stores that make up Uniqlo Town, all situated on Orchard Road. But, while the store entrances were flanked with sprays of balloons, suggesting some kind of celebratory mood, there was no line waiting to get in. Uniqlo ION now includes one floor of the old Topshop, with the rear of the space connected to the right side of the existing store’s women’s department. In total, it doesn’t appear to be as large as their Global Flagship in Orchard Central, but those who miss shopping in Tokyo, would find the latest Uniqlo somewhat familiar (especially the new UT section) and, truth be told, comforting. We asked a sales guy if there was any Black Friday sale. He replied happily, “No, but we have many many opening specials,” and proceeded to show us the good buys, underscoring how attractive the prices were.

Across the street at Tangs, before you could join the staggering queue, you’d be met at the entrance with a huge poster announcing, in bold type, that they “are temporarily closed”. The reason? “Maximum Occupancy Limit Reached”. That did not stop people from joining the lengthening line. A staff at the door explained that inside, “it’s full” even when it was clear from what could be seen through the massive glass doors that it was not. Full, like so many other descriptions in fashion and retail, in the wake of the pandemic, needs re-definition. Yet, few were willing to give the queue a miss. Or, appearing to succumb to the misery of waiting. We have never seen Tangs enjoying such a fervid reception. A young man wondered very loudly to his just-as-puzzled female companion, as they emerge from the underpass in front of the store, “Huh, don’t tell me Tangs oso closing down!”

Tangs had to make an unexpected announcement in the late afternoon

Lines like these are surprising as we thought people would prefer to get online than get in line. It showed us that despite the still-real threat that is COVID-19, bargain hunters are ever willing to brave the undaunted crowd to go to where the low prices supposedly were. Tangs was rather the exception among department stores. The response to Metro’s exhortation-as-temptation—“Why settle for less when you can have the best?”—was just as hyper-enthusiastic, but the line was less crazy. Many were seduced by the “up to 90% off” (“for the best”?) attention grabber. Unlike at Tangs, capacity limits did not seemed to be the concern of Metro’s operations team.

In contrast, it was rather quiet at Isetan Scotts, despite the refurbishment that was revealed not too long ago. Drawing capacity crowd were the two coffee spots on the first floor, now not mostly cosmetics counters. At Takashimaya, it was, at best, borderline busy, and it was comfortable to navigate. The crowd control seemed effective here as there were, in effect, multiple points of entry and exit. Diagonally across the street, the queue returned at Robinsons after a lull, as it was announced that the store would be conducting their last Black Friday sale (Robinsons is, in fact, the first department store to embrace Black Friday in a big way). But with discounts of up to only 70%, their price slash paled next to Metro’s. Inside, it was clear that the store was in the throes of permanent closure. Still, prices were not, as one shopper told us, “temptingly low.”

Foreground: the orderly crowd getting into Takashimaya Department Store

Meanwhile, five kilometres away from Orchard Road, in a quiet, verdant area that was once a military installation, Dover Street Market Singapore was having its own Black Friday event, only it wasn’t so dark. Touted as Fluro Rebellion, it is “a two-part series of limited edition, iconic products created by friends and collaborators of DSM as a colourful counter-action to Black Friday.” The store has an on-going end-of-season sale, and Fluro Rebellion, part one, was clearly—and chromatically—not part of it. In fact nothing in Fluro Rebellion was marked down, yet it was able to draw an impressive turn out, proving that in retail, competing on price alone is not necessarily the only way to generate sales. We have never seen a line at the cashier at DSMS, but there was one this un-Black Friday. By late evening, most of the merchandise, including all the Stussy items, were sold out, as confirmed by one of the sales staff. Despite an affinity to the colour black, DSMS certainly does not need to depend on it to draw shoppers.

These days, going to a store sounds terribly old-fashioned, even unnecessary. Yet, Black Friday was able to lure the crowd. This despite coming late, after the serial online sale of 9/9, 10/10, 11/11, linked to shopping platforms such as Shopee and Lazada, both heavily advertised on old media, the television. It’s surprising, therefore, that sale fatigue has not set in. Can anyone grow weary of sales? You might be okey-dokey in September, but would you be still raring to go in November? We don’t know. As it has always been, the things we really wanted did not go on sale. Nor were they marked down sufficiently to be tempting, or to constitute what the pros at such matters call “good value”. Black Friday, we were told, is better for big-ticket items. Is S$1,000 for a plain but warped Balenciaga shirt not big enough a ticket? As life ebbs away, often rather furtively, we’ll soon forget that Balenciaga shirt. Or, maybe we should wait for Cyber Monday?

Photos: Zhao Xiangji. Illustration: Just So

Will This Be The First?

Crowd control measures are already in place outside the Uniqlo Global Flagship at Orchard Central for the launch of the Uniqlo +J collection tomorrow morning. It looks set to be Uniqlo’s most successful launch after their collaboration with Kaws last year

It seems that the madness is about to begin. At Uniqlo’s three-storey Orchard Central (OC) store early this evening, separate-from-the-usual-queue stanchions were set up to control what’s anticipated to be a large turn out for tomorrow’s launch of the much-hyped +J collection, conceived with Jil Sander, the designer, not the brand. At six this evening, no one was stationed in the designated area, split into two holding zones in the main concourse/walkway of the mall. Yet. Staff members, all in discreet black that Ms Sander would approve, were seen arranging the set up and putting up signs to better guide shoppers. It was still all calm, the usual OC Thursday evening.

This could be unprecedented in the history of Uniqlo collaborations. Despite pairings with heavy-weight designers such as Ms Sander, JW Anderson (ongoing), and Jun Takahashi of Undercover (2012), lines rarely form outside the stores as those seen outside H&M for their collabs with, say, Balmain (2015) or Giambattista Valli (2019). When asked what size crowd they’re expecting tomorrow, one staffer told us, “huge”. We wondered if there would be a line tonight, and she said, “possible”. Does the OC operations managers allow overnight queueing, given present pandemic restrictions? “As of now,” she continued, “yes.” Would those already in line be told to go home if they change their mind? “They can queue outside.”

Two mannequins in +J tease in the front of Uniqlo

The +J launch here, as well as in Malaysia, was postponed by a week due to shipping delays (both Malaysia and Singapore share the same warehouse facility in the Peninsular, hence both are affected) as a result of the pandemic situation in various ports where the merchandise were due to depart. The reaction to the comeback +J line is believed to be overwhelming, considering its success in Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Tokyo last Friday, with one unverified video circulating online, purportedly showing a mad crush in an unidentified Japanese store. One Uniqlo fan we spoke to said she will be kiasu and head out to the store at six in the morning. “I’ll bring breakfast along,” she beamed.

We were curious to know if there would be enough clothes for these fans. The staffer we spoke to earlier quipped, “No, that’s why it’s limited edition!” As it turns out, the pieces are so limited that shoppers are allowed to buy only “five SKUs (stock-keeping unit, representing one style) each.” That effectively means five different styles per person. No more. And that also indicates that the one total covers both men’s and women’s line. A wife, therefore, won’t be able to pick five for herself and five for her husband. She would only have that precious five to allot. The mad rush, it seems, would be inevitable.

Update: (19 November 2020, 22.30) Uniqlo at Orchard Central has closed for thirty minutes. No queue was seen outside the store. Inside, it appears that staff are setting up for the big reveal tomorrow.

Photos: Zhao Xiangji

Return With A Bang

While we wait for the comeback Uniqlo +J collection to hit the brand’s Global Flagship store next Friday, Hongkongers made a manic rush at the launch in the city today

Friday the thirteenth may be deemed an unlucky day in Western superstition, but here in Asia, it is quite auspicious, especially for Uniglo launching their comeback collaboration with the German designer Jil Sander, who no longer designs her eponymous label. At its Causeway Bay outlet in Lee Theatre Plaza on Hong Kong island, dubbed the “1st worldwide flagship store”, long queues were seen leading to the cashier early this evening. One happy shopper told SOTD she would have come in the morning if she could get away from work. She said, in Cantonese, that she was waiting for the launch since hearing about it on social media last month because the clothes “又平又靚 (yao paeng yao laeng, or cheap and attractive” and “好有設計感” (ho yao chit gai gam, or with design sense).

It is not surprising that this would be the reception to the +J collection in Hong Kong. We won’t know how it will fare here until next Friday when it will be revealed. Uniqlo has created what is possibly one of its most popular and successful collaborations, spanning some five seasons, from 2009 to 2011. Then there was the “greatest hits” collection of 2014, which allowed those who missed the earlier releases the fashion equivalent of back issues. Many thought that was the last chance of owning something that Ms Sander actually had a hand in designing, until it was announced, more than two months ago, that the collaboration would be brought back with a brand new collection. Now that WFH is very much a part of our lives, +J’s intelligently conceived, elevated classics are expected to score big. The GQ columnist Justin Myers posted on Twitter, “Looking forward to seeing everyone in their Uniqlo +J turtlenecks on their Zoom call screenshots.”

It is doubtful Zoom users here would make such an effort. Still, good design and good value do appeal. And it is not unreasonable that Uniqlo would be expecting enthusiastic response at Orchard Central next week, although it may not generate the same crowd as buzzy collabs at, say, H&M. Although collaborators and designers such as JW Anderson and Christophe Lemaire, who oversees the Uniqlo U line, have made classic designs with subtly tweaked details the mainstay of their collections for the brand, precision and nuance have not really caught on here. One Singaporean designer said to us, when we asked him what’s the lure of +J, “Honestly, I think not many people would understand the appeal of Jil Sander. Most won’t even know of her, let alone her style. Her designs are so understated that even if she executed an unusual pocket, most consumers can’t see how unusual.”

Which, seems to support the oft-said belief that Hongkongers are more sophisticated than us. The +J sell-through here would, therefore, tell. Back in the still-packed Causeway Bay Uniqlo store, the +J merchandise looked to be running low. One product development specialist who was there to consider a puffer jacket said, “I do like the women’s duffle coat. The outerwear is very now in terms of the details and silhouette. The knits, however, felt, to me, like she was repeating her styles from the past.” Revivals are not necessarily a minus for +J. Ms Sander has, more than other collaborating designers before and after her, created pieces for Uniqlo that can test the passing of time. One content development manager told us, “The first bubble coat I ever bought was from +J. I wanted to know if I would like it. And the price was sharp. That was more than ten years ago. I still use it now when I travel. And happily. It doesn’t date.”

Photos: K S Yeung for SOTD. Illustration: Just So

Manic Mask Day

Uniqlo masks are here, and shoppers are rushing for them, just like those in Japan did

By the rather late opening hour of eleven, extremely long queues had formed outside many Uniqlo stores here. Shoppers had lined up for the brand’s AIRism masks, launched today and met with the same enthusiasm as a KAWS T-shirt drop. Over at the first Uniqlo store to open on our island at Tampines One in 2009, the buzz was that the queue had formed as early as nine, but one of the centre’s security guards said that people came as early as eight (one staffer later confirmed that to be true). Three minutes past eleven, the line outside was more than twice the length of the entire facade of the store. Even bubble tea stall Chi Cha San Chien, three floors down, wasn’t enjoying such a long line.

When we asked a middle-aged woman, laden with grocery, how she came to know about this particular mask, she replied with a frown, “It’s all over the news.” When we wondered if she thought they’d be better than what she has been wearing so far, she rejoined as if she was asked a stupid question: “Must be, lah. If not why so many people queue?” But she decided not to wait when a shopper emerging from the store—happy that she had secured the masks—told us she was in line “for at least 45 minutes”. Was it worth the wait? “Aiya, can lah. Not very long, what.”

A staffer told us that they had, in fact, anticipated that the response would be this good. Yet, it was not certain why there seemed to be some confusion as to what the procedures were apart from the queuing, which became a tad disorderly outside the designated area, where there were no marking to tell people where to stand. Two uniformed, social distancing enforcement officers had to tell many to keep their one-metre distance. A staff member went through every single person to make sure they had scanned the QR code for SafeEntry although they were yet in the store. Another made sure those too preoccupied with themselves were not an obstacle to others coming down an escalator. And another, with a tray in hand (on which samples of the mask were available for viewing, not trying), handed out little, crudely-printed-and-cut “purchase tickets” (she had to handle inquiry too, which meant she missed some waiting in line). Quite a hive to go through just to purchase a mask.

The number of packs a shopper is permitted to buy is restricted. It was clearly advantageous that a decision be made prior to visiting the store. The masks can be had in packs of three for S$14.90. They are available in black or white (no mix!), and in three sizes: S, M, and L. You are allowed to pick only one colour in one size (if you have selected a black in small, you can have a white in small, not two of the same colour for one size), which means a customer may buy up to six packs of masks per visit. Once sold, the masks cannot be exchanged or returned. Interestingly, no member of the staff was seen in the AIRism mask.

The queue moved fairly quickly as the line was dedicated for mask-buying only. Other customers not purchasing the mask may use a separate entryway. Despite this, most customers told us that they were in line for close to an hour. We were informed by one of the crew members that all the points of sales were opened and all were processing mask purchases with only one point catering to regular customers. But one shopper later told us that when she got to the counter, the reverse was true: only one out of four cashiers was serving mask buyers, while the rest attended to other shoppers. How many packs did she buy? “Only one,” she whispered. “If good, tomorrow I buy some more.”

As it turned out, the masks were sort of limited. According to a staffer, they would be available for three days only. Each store is supplied with a fixed quantity per day. About a thousands packs are limited to each store, with the larger outlets allotted more. “We won’t be restocking for today once what we have for now are sold,” she informed us. Upon hearing this, a woman immediately called someone and told the person on the other end of the line in Mandarin, “Eh, once finish, no more, leh. You want, better come now.”

At first encounter, the mask, as noted by first-time users in Japan, looks rather like underclothing (pouch of men’s thong?!). But they are not as thick as originally described. According to Japanese media reports last week, Uniqlo had “redesigned” the AIRism mask “following customer complains”. At its first launch, many Japanese had thought the masks too thick for warm-weather use, and that they were not as breathable. The new version, still three plies of the AIRism Cupro fabric (here, essentially 90% nylon and 10% spandex) for the front and rear, is now made of a mesh-weave, rendering the full mask lighter and definitely more breathable. It appears that they have made some adjustment to the fit, too. The mask is not as snug as it was previously reportedly to be. In fact, some women tried on the mask after the purchase, and thought the M size too large for them. And as there is no wire sewn into the bridge, the area around the nose tends to gape. The mask seems to cover a large area of the face too, with the base stretching along the entire jawline, possibly a con rather than a pro for those concerned about “maskne”.

Although many people consider the Uniqlo AIRism mask a ‘fashion’ mask, the actual product is far more basic and utilitarian, totally apart from ‘designer’ masks now appearing like mushrooms after the rain. There is no branding, no fancy stitching or interesting seaming, and definitely no attractive, contrast-coloured, adjustable ear cords. They don’t even look as attractive as those sold by home sewers who use cottons for quilting for their masks. Yet, from the enthusiastic response, it is clear that Uniqlo’s have captured the interest of mask wearers, even if many others are beginning to be lulled into a false sense of security and have become slack in the wearing of masks, thinking that the low community transmission numbers today are a good reason for masks to become chin support.

We managed to get our hands on a pack of the mask, so we thought we’d put one to test. The mask feels really comfortable in the hand, and the tactile superiority on the face is unmistakable. It definitely isn’t snug, and is comfortable to breathe in. And, more importantly, it did not heat up even outdoors. We took it for a ten-minute walk under the noon-day sun (the outer layer comes with SPF 50 protection) and, to our surprise, it was not a heat trap for the mouth area. One SOTD reader even told us that her glasses did not fog up. Next, we spent two hours in a room with the air-conditioning deliberately turned off (only an electric fan was on), typing this post, and we did not feel a desperate need to yank it off.

Earlier, outside Uniqlo when it opened its doors, a man had asked one of the social distancing enforcement officers what the queue was about. When he was told that the people were in line to buy masks, he wanted to know if the masks are better than those “they sell outside”. “These masks are cooler,” the helpful young chap said. The man persisted: “But are they better?” The target of the questioning coolly replied “Yah! Uniqlo, mah.”

Update (24 Aug 2020, 15:30): The queue outside the Uniqlo Tampines One store is no more. A member of the staff informed us that the masks are still available. Inside, there is a queue for regular purchases, but none for masks.

Update (24 August 2020, 20:30): A poster announcing the availability of the AIRism mask is now plastered with a “Sold Out Today” label. A few people ask the person regulating entry into the store if there would be more masks available and are told to “come back tomorrow.” They are not informed that the masks are available for three days only.

Some observers are surprised that the Uniqlo AIRism masks did not sell out a lot sooner. There is suggestion that many consumers have had their fill of masks and many are hoping that face coverings would no longer be required. As such, they do not see the need to buy more. In addition, many do no require any more black or white masks since the free ones issued to citizens and PRs prior were in black and, later, white. Uniqlo AIRism masks would be available in grey in Japan next month. The store’s staff is unable to tell us if that colour would arrive here in the future. In fact, no one knows if the masks would be available again after the 26th of August.

Update (26 August 2020, 18.15): At Uniqlo’s Orchard Central Global Flagship Store, the AIRism masks are still available at racks placed in the second and third floors. It does not look like they will sell out by this evening. A cashier told us they will continue to sell the masks tomorrow, until stocks run out.

Note: Uniqlo is careful to state on the packaging that their “masks do not completely prevent infection (infiltration)”. Use judiciously

Uniqlo AIRism masks, SGD14.90 per pack of three, are available at all Uniqlo stores from today until 26 Aug (Wed). Photos: Chin Boh Kay

Out In Ten Days

Uniqlo’s wildly successful mask will be launched here on 24 August. At last

 

AIRism masks B&W Aug 2020

The word is out. Uniqlo’s Airism mask will be available here in less than two weeks. This is good news for the many who have waited eagerly for the release of the mask after reports of its unprecedented success in Japan when it was launched in June went viral. The snaking queues at Uniqlo stores there are, similarly, expected here.

This is not quite a fashion mask as some thought it might be. Made of Uniqlo’s signature AIRism fabric, essentially Cupro fibres (regenerated cellulose fabric made from cotton waste, such as the linter, that is chemically processed to yield the softness and fineness it is known for), the mask is rather simple and nondescript. It is touted to be breathable and, reportedly, “free of the stiffness or thickness” felt in other masks.

Despite this pliable quality, many wearers in Japan have reported that the triple-layered mask is too thick. It is also rather warm when worn in summer, or the equivalent of our all-year weather. But this might not be a deal breaker for some, as the availability of two colours—black and white—and three sizes—S,M, and L—would be enough lure for those seeking something less crude and more comfortable than the black ones earlier issued free to most of us.

Note: According to Uniqlo, the masks are “not proven to reduce the transmission of disease. AIRism Masks do not completely prevent infection (infiltration).”

Uniqlo AIRism Mask, SGD14.90, is available in packs of three at Uniqlo stores. Product photos: Uniqlo

Tokyo Is Back!

Apart from the return to business, new stores are opening. Can we look to the Japanese capital for inspiration?

 

Uniqlo HarajukuThe new Uniqlo store in Harajuku, Tokyo

After Tokyo announced the state of emergency imposed on the city to be lifted on 25 May, six days before it was due to expire, news began to emerge that a raft of new stores would be opening in June. The revelation was not met with shock, not a whimper of surprise. Japanese retail is an evolving, ever-changing behemoth. While COVID-19 has impacted both business viability and the appetites of consumers for shopping, as seen everywhere else in the world, it has not dampen the spirit in Tokyo for keeping retail going, and with verve.

Here, we’re mostly exposed to gloom and doom. It is widely reported that the global economy is expected to shrink by 3% on average this year. Our economy, as reported by CNA last month, is expected to contract by 4% to 7%. According to Singstat, retail sales fell 13.3% year-on-year in March, which was the sharpest fall in two decades. The Business Times wrote that apparel and footwear saw the steepest drop of 41.6% in the same month, compared to last year. These figures are those before the Circuit Breaker measures were introduced. They are, therefore, expected to be bleaker.

Official Japanese numbers are not especially encouraging either. Retail sales, as reported by the Japan Times recently, have fallen 12.3% in May from a year earlier, with apparel retail hit especially hard. Japan Department Stores Association figures showed apparel sales in department stores to be ¥97,548 million for April, compared to ¥243,870 million in the same month last year. That’s a decline of more than half. Yet, in Tokyo, retailers, do not appear to succumb to such dismal prediction. They are actively participating in the on-going rejuvenation of shopping belts, such as Harajuku and Shibuya.

To be sure, many of the stores that opened in the past month were planned much earlier to coincide with the now-postponed Tokyo Olympic Games, which was projected to yield nation-wide retail sales of ¥4 trillion, now probably not to be realised. Undeterred by the double whammy of the rescheduled Games and the COVID-19 pandemic, some retailers are forging ahead with not just opening new stores, but also creating novel shopping experiences for a market that is already far more compelling and innovative than most. Harajuku, a district in the Shibuya ward, with a youth fashion history younger than Shinjuku’s, appears to be leading the recovery as some of big boys of retail open new, crowd-drawing stores.

Uniqlo Harajuku Style HintUniqlo’s first physical Style Hint corner in its new Harajuku store. Photo: Uniqlo Japan

Uniqlo leads the pack with not one, but two new stores opened, just eight kilometres apart (also new in neighbouring Yokohama is so mega a store that it is called Uniqlo Park). There is Uniqlo Harajuku situated in the new mall With Harajuku that faces Yoyogi Park, across from the equally new Harajuku Station. Then Uniqlo Ginza, a refurbished and larger “Global Flagship” in the swanky shopping belt of the same name. Despite skeptics saying that Uniqlo is over-stretching itself during an unending pandemic that has subdued consumer spending, Tadashi Yanai, the founder and president of Fast Retailing, parent company of Uniqlo, told the media during the opening of Uniqlo Harajuku that “the coronavirus has accelerated change, but this store is to be a part of the recovery.”

Such positive and upbeat sentiments are reflected in the 2,000-square-metre Harajuku store itself: a hub of happy vibes. While habitués of Uniqlo would recognise the typically neat interior and layout, they will spot one new stand-out concept. Housed in a separate boutique-like space in the basement of the two-level store is Style Hint. One visitor last weekend described it as “a bit experimental”. Perception aside, Style Hint is tech-centric to better serve its digital-savvy customers. Inside, the highlight is a wood cabin-like wall of 240 touch screens that feature influencers and customers all fashionably togged in Uniqlo pieces. The pictures are reminiscent of those in the now-no-more local magazine Fruits. If any of the photos catches your fancy, you may touch any part of the outfit, and corresponding information will pop up to guide viewers to where the clothes are available, in-store or online. Also new to Uniqlo Harajuku (and any Uniqlo, for that matter) is a flower shop(!) that offers bunches of blooms (ten varieties, according to a staffer) for sale.

The new Global Flagship store in Ginza is not the biggest as the accolade still belongs to its older, similarly titled sister—the world largest, in fact—on Ginza’s main drag. This must-stop for tourists is oddly sandwiched between the swanky Ginza 6 mall in front and the edgy Dover Street Market Ginza in the rear. The new store, located in Marronnier Gate Ginza 2 (of three buildings) in the Yurakucho area, just 500 metres away (or 10 minutes by foot) from the sibling, sits amid less pricey names such as Loft, Tokyu Hands and Muji, whose first hotel is practically round the corner. Spread across 4,500 square metres of space across four flours of the building designed by the Swiss architecture firm Herzog & de Meuron, this Uniqlo features the first LifeWear Square, a sleek space with exposed skeleton of the interior that brings to our mind Nike Town.

20-06-27-17-34-07-781_decoNext to Uniqlo is Ikea’s first compact store

Not to be outdone, Ikea—increasingly inching into the fashion sphere—has also opened its first “city-centre store” two weeks ago, in Harajuku. As a matter of fact, they have Uniqlo for an immediate neighbour. In the past, Tokyoites who wanted to get their Ikea fix would head to Tachikawa in the west of the city, about an hour’s train ride from Tokyo Station. Out here, the Swedish company’s first store opened as recently as 2014 (it arrived on our shores in 1978). That Ikea has opened in “cool” Harajuku (ironically losing its DNA as more mass-market brands have set up shop here, including Daiso) has many living in the heart of the city quite thrilled, even if the store offers mostly small Yamanote-Line-friendly home ware—more Färgrik mug than Klippan sofa.

While Ikea’s retail director Jaap Doornbos told The Straits Times last month that Ikea at Jem (slated to open next year), similarly a “smaller concept—within a shopping centre—will be the first of its kind in the region”, Japan beat us to it. In fact, it is possible that Ikea Harujuku is a foretaste of what the upcoming Ikea Jem would look like. The 2,500-square-metre “compact” store, as the Japanese media called it, is, like Uniqlo, unmistakable in its image. Just imagine its Market Hall shrunken and given a steroidal boost, and a visible shop front. Once inside, the merchandise arranged to greet shoppers is reminiscent of Ikea’s closest competitor, Nitori, with a nine-storey store less than a kilometre away, in the Shinjuku neighbourthood.

People come to Ikea to be inspired by their “room” set-ups, and here they mirror the average Japanese homes—small. But unlike those of Muji’s home department, the merchandise here do not seem to be specifically designed for Japanese living spaces and quirks. However, Swedish lagom seems to work fine with Nippon wabi-sabi, such as the yet-to-launch-here Symfonisk speaker-lamp and desk lamp. People come to Ikea for the food too. Unfortunately, their famous meatballs are not available at the Swedish Café. Instead the main comprises tunnbröd, Swedish flatbread sandwiches with assorted fillings. There is, unsurprisingly, a Swedish Food Market—with familiar combini-style fittings— that is called, what else, Swedish Combini. Even cup noodles with the Ikea branding is available (they are labelled as “plant ramen”). A shopper, out with his wife for the first time since the state of emergency was lifted, smilingly told us that, Ikea Harajuku “is a good date place.”

20-06-27-23-58-10-755_decoBustling, as always, at the Harajuku intersection of Meiji Dori and Omotesando

Harajuku—kawaii central—seems to be where the action is taking shape (nearby Shibuya too, but that’s for another post). Apart from Uniqlo and Ikea, beauty giant Shiseido has opened a new “digital store” called Beauty Square (also at With Harajuku) that is reminiscent of their retail concept from the ’90s known as the Cosmetic Garden (situated at a basement unit of a donjukai apartment at the adjacent Omotesando that is now replaced by the shopping centre Omotesando Hills), where customers can visit to discover things, but now with a digital, also app-driven component. Another Japanese brand that has opened a new store in Harajuku is Snow Peak, which is, to us, a more advanced—design wise—The North Face (except the only-in-Japan The North Face Standard). For hipsters who camp! The new store, dubbed Land Station, has a more urban vibe—industrial rather than outdoor.

It cannot be certain that much of the buzz is to meet pent-up demand, but Tokyo, with 14 million inhabitants, has always been the hotbed of hype-prone retail activity. Not only are the Japanese brands getting into the scramble, foreign names are, too. Kith, the New York-based sneaker retailer, now with their own clothing line—including a Vogue collab, has announced that they will open their first overseas store in Shibuya next week, in the recently unveiled Miyashita Park, a 67-year-old public area with a playground that was once a conduit of sorts between Harajuku and Shibuya, now turned into a shopping complex. It is hard to say how Kith’s entry into Tokyo will pan out, given the presence of local sneaker retailers such as Atmos and Mita Sneakers, but Kith will no doubt add excitement to the mix.

Last Saturday, the crowd on Meiji Dori, a thoroughfare that cuts through Harajuku and the swanky Omotesando, is as large as it typically was before COVID-19. From new malls to the indie shops of Aoyama further south, people succumbed to retail therapy with palpable joy and corresponding reward. If retail performance can be gauged, even superficially, by the number of people with shopping bags, then this particular weekend, a month after the state of emergency was lifted, could be indication that, for Tokyo, retail isn’t doomed. Two weeks after our own Circuit Breakers measures were eased into Phase 2 and retail businesses resumed, things are not looking as jaunty.

It is often said that comparing us to Tokyo is pointless. The common conclusion is that we are not even near Hong Kong. Nationally, the Japanese enjoy shopping and are not fashion-averse. And they have made many retail businesses buoyant through their collective interest and curiosity, and consumption. Isetan Department Store in Shinjuku alone reportedly sees retail sales amount to about ¥720 million per day. While, in general, Japanese fashion retail volume has registered deficits since 2011, it has not put a damper on the spirit of creating good, usable, attractive products and selling them in spaces that can rightfully claim to be experiential. Japanese retailers are often thought to be more intrepid and innovative than their counterparts elsewhere in the world. Perhaps, here on our island, retailers can abandon predictable, and try plucky and leading-edge too.

Photos: Jiro Shiratori

The Hottest Mask

Uniqlo’s first face mask was launched in Japan last Friday. It was, as predicted, completely sold out

 

Uniqlo mask JPNUniqlo’s sold-out AIRism face mask. Screen grab: ANN News/YouTube

Given the state of fashion retail, it would be difficult for any brand to enjoy a 100% sell-through. Yet, Uniqlo was able to beat the odds when their debut face mask sold out (at some stores by noon) on the day of launch last Friday, in Japan. That the mask would be completely snapped up was predicted earlier in the week, but no one saw that online sales would crash Uniqlo’s website as it did. The company announced that “there is currently a problem with the connection to our online store due to a large number of accesses from customers.” The humble mask, made from what was initially created for use in undergarments, is this covetable.

According to AccuWeather, it rained when Uniqlo opened their doors that morning. But those in need of face masks were not deterred. Local news report showed long queues at popular branches, such as those in Shinjuku and Ginza. Our Tokyo source told us that he received text messages from friends urging him not to go as the queues were too long, and, at some stores, the masks were already sold out. The speed of sale could be borne out by the post of one Twitter user, カニちゃん (Crab). In the 45-second video clip, shoppers were seen running ahead of him to join a queue in the Uniqlo store in Mark IS, Yokohama. By the time he arrived at the line, easily a hundred shoppers were already in the queue.

Uniqlo mask JPN P2The single-colour AIRism mask. Photo: Men’s Non-No

The Uniqlo mask is priced at ¥990 (or about S$13). Each pack contains three masks. They are available in three sizes: S, M, and L, and all only in white. Although touted as “cool and dry, smooth and breathable” and branded AIRism (a fabric associated with underclothes, and later performance wear, as well as fashion tops under the Uniqlo U sub-brand), many users noted (complained?) that the mask is rather “thick”. Japanese Netizens now consider it a “winter mask”. Uniqlo’s online literature states that what they offer is a three-ply mask, including a middle-layer filter that is supposed to be a barrier to bacteria and pollen. The mask also blocks UV rays. How popular the mask will truly be may only be known after the first wave of use. Uniqlo Japan has not said when stocks would be replenished.

Nor when they would be carrying the mask here. The Singapore office has not released an official statement. Uniqlo SG stores are presently still closed. If the Airism mask’s initial frantic demand in Japan is any indication, it will, similarly, see frenzied reception here and do exceedingly well. Expect shoppers running for them too.

Some Stores Shall Stay Shut

Tomorrow may be break-free day for many people on our island as Phase 2 of the Circuit Breaker begins, but those planning to go shopping will find some stores still closed

 

Uniqlo annoucement

Many people, ready for tomorrow’s resumption of some semblance of social life, are surprised that Uniqlo announced around six this evening on their Instagram page, “We are not open yet.” It continued to say, “Uniqlo is not rushing to open on 19 June 2020, Friday.” No official word was released by the company at the time of this post. Majority of the comments appeared to approve or support Uniqlo’s decision, agreeing that there is no need to scramble to commence its offline business. The brand added, “We will announce our store opening dates in the upcoming few days through our social media channels, website and app.” Some fans, however, are disappointed that this confirmed Uniqlo would not launch their Airism face mask here, as it will in Japan nationwide tomorrow.

While Uniqlo resists opening their physical retail stores, compatriot brand Muji is laying the welcome mat, although one outlet will be shuttered permanently. The brand announced yesterday that they have closed down their Marina Square store. Through IG, it said, “We regret to inform that Muji Marina Square has ceased its operation.” Muji has not officially commented on the closure of the branch, but some observers feel that Marina Square is “not looking good” despite the last centre-wide refurbishment. Still, IG commentators were disappointed that the store is no more. One ‘amsingapore’ wrote, “That was a favorite branch for many of us. Muji shouldn’t have given up that location”.

Store closures were expected even before the easing of the Circuit Breaker measures. Back in April, Esprit announced permanently shutting all their retail operations here. Robinsons ended their presence in the west by choosing not to remain at Jem. But Muji closing down any store is unexpected as it is believed to be one of the most popular Japanese brands here. One representative director of the parent company in Japan told The Business Times last year that sales in Singapore have been rising steadily each year. He added, “We believe in the growth in the Singapore market.”

Muji announcement

Many stores have announced they’re opening tomorrow. Club 21, in the middle of an online end-of-season sale, will welcome shoppers on the first day of Phase 2, according to an IG Story statement. So is the related emporium Dover Street Market Singapore. Surrender, the streetwear headquarters to many, confirmed on IG that they will open tomorrow. Louis Vuitton announced rather discreetly that they, too, will open, but shoppers are told to “schedule an appointment”. It is not unreasonable to assume that if Louis Vuitton will be opening, other brands under LVMH will be too.

All malls, it appears, will resume full operations as well. Paragon made no mention on its website about what will happen tomorrow, but did say one can “Shop & Dine With A Peace of Mind”. ION Orchard announced, “We Are Ready To Welcome You Back”. So did Wisma Atria: “Welcoming You Back Safely”. Takashimaya Shopping Centre communicated no happy news on their website or Facebook page (its last post was on 6 April), but it will likely open since Louis Vuitton did not say that its Taka store won’t. Over at the Shoppes at Marina Bay Sands, “nearly 200 stores, including F&B tenanted outlets, will be re-opened at the start”. Mostly happy news, it would appear, for those who have been deprived of retail therapy for this long. It remains to be seen if the revenge spending that seized Shanghai and Seoul after those cities opened will play out here too.

Screen grabs: respective IG page