Uniqlo’s Shin Odake on E-Commerce, Jil Sander, and Nicola Formichetti

Uniqlo U.S. CEO Shin Odake
Photo courtesy of Uniqlo
Uniqlo's U.S. CEO, Shin Odake

As if the massive, $99 cashmere sweater mecca (otherwise known as Uniqlo) in NYC's Soho wasn't enough, the Japanese retailer has outdone itself with a brand-new global flagship on Fifth Avenue at 53rd Street—and shoppers won't know what hit them.

Four levels, 85,000 square feet (yes, 85,000!), glass elevators, triple escalators, and countless—really, countless—stacks of impeccably folded clothing make up the beyond impressive mega-store, which officially opened to the public on October 14.

FashionEtc caught up with Shin Odake, U.S. chief executive officer, for an exclusive tour of the space and to chat about world domination, Lady Gaga, and, more importantly, when Uniqlo will offer e-commerce in the states.

Congratulations on the opening! How long has this store been in the works?

We signed the lease a year and a half ago, so since then.

What other cities in America do you have your eye on?

In the last fiscal year, our sales were $10 billion, globally. We want to expand to $50 billion by 2020. Our focus is global expansion; most of our business is still in Japan, but we feel that there’s tremendous opportunity outside of Japan, whether it’s Asia, Europe, or the United States. Eventually we’d like to open a store in every city in the U.S. We have over 800 stores in Japan, and there’s so much potential in the U.S., so that’s our goal: every major city in the U.S.

World domination?

[Laughs] Not really world domination, but I just think our clothes offer different value. Our brand is positioned very differently than our competitors in that we focus on core items and we try to perfect those core items. A perfect sweater, a perfect coat, a perfect pair of jeans can be worn by anyone—any lifestyle and any age group. We try to improve our merchandise every year, so that’s our approach.

Is the merchandise different from store to store or country to country?

The only thing we change from Japan is fit. In the U.S. and Europe, the fit is a little larger—people are taller, [have] longer legs—but other than that, the merchandising is the same.

Uniqlo new fifth avenue store

Photo courtesy of Uniqlo

Color us happy: Uniqlo's new Fifth Avenue flagship

Because you focus on great basics, how do you keep your inventory exciting for customers?

Even in the basic items, we have to be mindful of the trends. A cashmere sweater that’s relevant today is different from a cashmere sweater three years ago, whether it’s fit, color, improving fabric or hand feel … We have to evolve our basics, and we have to be innovative. One good example is Heattech. We believe that in large part, the quality of merchandise is dictated by fabrics. There’s not so many great fabric mills in the world. We partner with a denim manufacturer in the Okayama Prefecture in Japan and we have a partnership with a leading Japanese chemical fiber manufacturer—they provide Heattech to us. It’s truly an innovative fabric, and premium ultra-light down is another fabric that came out of a partnership. Even with basic items, we need to keep offering the customer newness and innovativeness—or even partnerships with designers like Jil [Sander].

You’ve had some amazing collaborations. Do you have any plans to replace Jil Sander?

The collaboration with Jil Sander was very different from our other collaborations because it wasn’t just for one season, and we didn’t use her name to advertise. The biggest reason we wanted to work with Jil was her talent. She’s a perfectionist, and she designed everything—every stitch, every button—and she’d come to the Soho store every season with me looking at the layout. Really, really hands on. But working with her, we learned a lot: even though we used the same manufacturing spaces as the regular Uniqlo clothes, Jil’s designs made it something that looked really expensive. We truly think that she’s a genius. It was three years, so it’s very different from the other collaborations that are only for a season. Going forward, we would like to team up with someone like Jil, who’s a globally famous, talented designer. We don’t have anyone in the pipeline yet, but we hope it can be somebody like Jil.

Any dream designers?

I don’t want to mention any names. I think +J was a revolutionary collection, so we want to do something as innovative and revolutionary.

What is Nicola Formichetti’s role in the company?

He’s been with us since we opened in Soho. Seven or eight years ago we were only doing business in Japan, so when we started in New York and with our flagship in Paris, we got access to talent like Nicola. And even Jil—if we only had stores in japan, I don’t think she would have collaborated with us. So when we opened in Soho, we were working with a creative director, and Nicola is one of the guys that he knew in his creative network. He did the styling for the Soho store, and we were amazed—what looked like really basic items looked like a crown jewel after being styled by Nicola. So our relationship with him goes back five or six years, and since then he’s become really famous, but he’s always worked with us, doing styling.

Uniqlo new fifth avenue store

Photo courtesy of Uniqlo

Three's a crowd (controller): The triple escalator in Uniqlo's 5th Avenue store—genius!

Hoping to see Lady Gaga in Uniqlo soon?

I was hoping she could come to the party! [Laughs] She’s busy doing concerts or something.

Your new ad campaign stars Susan Sarandon, Darren Criss, John Leguizamo—what was the concept behind having that group of people?

We wanted to convey that our clothes are made for all—it’s actually our marketing tagline, Made for All. It means that our clothes can be for anyone, any lifestyle. You can mix and match with Chanel or whatever. We wanted to show people from different age groups, ethnic groups, lifestyles that everyone can wear Uniqlo. That’s the message. And we chose iconic New Yorkers because it’s such an important city for us. We like to be a good neighbor to the city of New York.

When can we expect e-commerce from Uniqlo?

We get a lot of requests from the customer, but we’re not ready. We have e-commerce in Japan and in a couple of other countries. We think the U.S. has the potential to be even bigger than other countries, so we need a management team. We want to hire a CEO to run the e-commerce team. Once we’re ready, we want to do it as soon as possible.

[In the meantime, shop Uniqlo online from the states via]

And don't miss our exclusive interview with Nicola Formichetti.