I’m a snob about Japanese fashion. After living and shopping in Tokyo for a couple of years, I could no longer go shopping in the US — I had no patience for it. The styles, silhouettes, creativity, and perfection of fashion in Tokyo just don’t exist anywhere else in the world.
You might be thinking I'm a pretentious snob, right? But I promise I’m actually on decently sound footing here.
Valerie Steele, a fashion historian at the Fashion Institute of Technology and director of the school's museum, is with me. "In Tokyo, you have access to so many really brilliant designers," she says. "I think shopping in Tokyo is the best shopping in the world.”
Apart from the creativity, she says, ”Japanese are very concerned with quality and with attention to detail — much more than Americans who really wouldn’t know a good garment from a bad one for the most part. ... But the Japanese are looking very carefully at every detail, the material, construction, etc. and have very high standards of what qualifies as good, well-made clothing.”
Uniqlo, Japan’s largest apparel retailer, opened a store in New York City in 2006. I was over the moon. Finally, I could get Japanese clothing in the US.
In Japan, Uniqlo isn’t exactly considered "fashion." It sells relatively cheap, well-made basics. But basics cut in a Japanese style, with that attention to detail? Here in the US, that is a kind of fashion. And Uniqlo has become really popular.
”The key example I think of is the little puffer jacket that Uniqlo launched," Steele says. "Now you see everybody wearing it, everyone from kids on the street, housewives, workers, to the trendiest fashion people.”
And with their special "techno-fabrics" and collaborations with well-known designers, Uniqlo has become a mainstay in the retail and fashion worlds. This fall, Uniqlo nearly doubled the number of stores it operates in the US, opening new branches from Los Angeles to Boston.
There’s also been a lot of appreciative gushing over Uniqlo’s Japanese-inspired customer service. Employees are taught to present and take customer credit cards with two hands, in formal Japanese style.
“You greet the customer always smiling, perfect posture, things like that," explains Delese Baker, a store supervisor at Uniqlo’s Soho store. "At meetings, everyone’s supposed to stand feet apart, hands in the front — always have your badges, notepads.”
There are even "Six Standard Phrases" that every Uniqlo employee has to memorize: phrases they chant to each other at store meetings. There are a lot of rules, and expectations are high. "These shirts right here that are button-down, you’re supposed to be able to fold seven in a minute,” Baker explains cheerily.
It all makes for a pleasant shopping experience. But all the nitpicky rules, rigorous standards and emphasis on perfection have also generated some flack.
Japan is known for its rigid work culture, where long hours are the norm. But even by Japanese standards, Uniqlo has a particularly bad reputation.
Fumihito Matsuo, a former Uniqlo store manager in Tokyo, says the working environment at Uniqlo was just bad — strict enough to be the military. “In Japan, Uniqlo is known as a 'black company,'" he says.
"Black" or "evil" companies are ones that exploit their workers, harrassing them and forcing them to work excessive hours and unpaid overtime. Some ex-workers in the US have said it’s worse than the military — it's more like a slave ship.
And it’s not just a few people complaining. In 2011, Japanese journalist Masuo Yokota published a book called the "The Glory and Disgrace of the Uniqlo Empire." The book alleges almost slave-like treatment of Uniqlo’s factory workers in China and store employees in Japan. Uniqlo sued for defamation, but lost both the case and the appeal. They’ve now taken the case to the Japanese Supreme Court.
Matsuo thinks things may have gotten somewhat better since he quit a year ago, but he insists the book tells it like it is.
Larry Meyer, Uniqlo’s US CEO, points out that perfection has trade-offs. “Retail is not for the lazy. We are a team. Our brand is a function of how well our team represents our brand. To that extent, it’s not a free for all," he says. "If you want to be an individual artist, I’m fine with that; you don't have to work for me.”
He says there are mechanisms here and in Japan to ensure that people are treated fairly and are properly compensated.
And even Matsuo points out that working for the company had its upsides. For a 23-year-old only a couple years out of college, he had a lot of responsibility and opportunities to advance. He wouldn’t want to work there again, but he still shops there.
“As a brand, I still like Uniqlo," he says. And, of course, so do I.