Drop by a UNIQLO store in Manila, Singapore, or Kuala Lumpur, and you are almost assured that at any given time, there is a queue at the counter. Since the Japanese-borne casual clothing company ventured into global expansion in 2002, it has been a global favourite among shoppers across all demographics — Southeast Asia not exempt. In the region alone, UNIQLO already has over a hundred branches. This number is already near the number of McDonald's branches in Singapore (which is at 136), where the first outlet in Southeast Asia opened in 1979 (the region's biggest UNIQLO store though, is in Manila, where it holds the title of 15th global flagship store).
How did Southeast Asians find a shared love for this brand? While UNIQLO has always separated itself from fast fashion by adopting a "LifeWear" philosophy and purveying a "basic" aesthetic, Southeast Asians are in fact attracted to UNIQLO as a lifestyle, according to University of the Philippines professor, Palanca award-winning author, and pop culture commentator Jose Wendell Capili.
The unique Southeast Asian market
"It appears that UNIQLO is an ordinary brand in Japan. But in Southeast Asia, for many millennials, UNIQLO is a lifestyle, partly because Japan or 'Made in Japan' is synonymous to quality, high technology, strong aesthetic sense and attention to details," he says.
Having had spent a chunk of his life in Japan while obtaining a diploma at the University of Tokyo, he says that while UNIQLO is both a global and Japanese brand ("Japanese, because the clothes are understated"), part of its appeal is its accessibility. "As a University of Tokyo student during the early to mid-1990s, UNIQLO was largely perceived as one of many popular brands that made itself accessible to university students like myself then. I think many of my Japanese friends are shocked but happily surprised by UNIQLO's tremendous success in Southeast Asia and in many places around the world." he said.
While quality options may be abundant in Japan, outside the country, these can be quite expensive. UNIQLO, he says, addresses this need by positioning itself with affordable prices. "UNIQLO has captured a quality and loyal market without many viable options," he says. "Especially in Southeast Asia."
The price point makes this brand accessible to millennials, which thus makes it a perfect fit in Southeast Asia which is teeming with this demographic.
Aside from the age factor, another consideration in Southeast Asia is the values of the market. While Southeast Asia's emerging markets are becoming centres of growth in the world, the population remains considerably conservative. This has an obvious impact on fashion choices.
"UNIQLO sustains the expectations of its Southeast Asian market, and continues to do so by way of attending to possibilities in terms of movements. In other words, UNIQLO is ahead of its market by being attuned to current and future expectations," Capili says. "By priding its products as LifeWear, UNIQLO does not attempt to go avant-garde or earth-shaking. It is not high fashion. But it is a no-nonsense, practical, comfortable line. It goes along the classic lines. Most of the time, it does not go out of style."
Influencer and Star Clozetter Bella Angeles is living proof of Capili's proposition. “Aside from offering a great variety of everyday clothing, from casual wear to sportswear and beyond, UNIQLO simply ticks all the right boxes when it comes to fashion. There is quality and affordability, as well as style and functionality, which I believe is what made them a huge success in Southeast Asia,” she shares.
The same was also echoed by a few people from the region that Clozette approached for this story. Many remarked that they were awed by the quality and price of UNIQLO, and that the brand has officially entered their closets already full of designer labels.
The UNIQLO label
It is also worth noting that aside from redefining basics as we know it, UNIQLO’s appeal also affected an even bigger ideal covering the entire fashion industry: label-conscious shopping.
A Nielsen survey of more than 29,000 internet respondents in 58 countries revealed that Asia Pacific consumers are the most label-conscious in the world, with as much as three in five Asia Pacific consumers willing to pay more for designer products — higher than any other region globally. The report enumerates the world's top three in this arena: 74 per cent of Chinese consumers would spend more on designer goods, higher than the 59 per cent India, and the 56 per cent in Vietnam.
“The economic boom in a number of Asian countries coupled with growing middle class populations has seen the emergence of a new breed of consumers with higher disposable incomes,” added David Webb, managing director of advertising solutions at Nielsen. “Cashed up and ready to spend, these consumers are seeking out designer and well-known brands to project their new-found social status. The rapid expansion of the internet and other media channels has given rise to more exposure, awareness and desire for brands and products than ever before.”
And FOMO does play its part here. A Vietnamese university student, who sought for anonymity, expressed that his curiosity about the UNIQLO brand was sparked by an exchange student. This exchange student's fashion sense caught the eye of his crush. Hence, he began to investigate.
He was impressed to learn that almost all of the guy’s clothes during the trip was from UNIQLO. Back then, the brand had yet to expand in the country (expansion in Vietnam happened late 2019). “I honestly thought it was from Gap or something,” he recounted, recalling his disappointment about how the brand still hadn’t set up shop in Vietnam yet.
So when the brand finally opened its first branch in Ho Chi Minh City, he dove straight into shopping. He shared that aside from copying that guy’s style — not something he would admit out loud — learning about how inexpensive the products are versus the lustre of the brand convinced him to try, and eventually stick, to UNIQLO.
This Vietnamese student is just one of the thousands of shoppers in the region who are lining up for the Japanese brand for its quality but also for the lifestyle attached to it. Southeast Asia is teeming with young people who are now more globalised than ever. UNIQLO is proof that Southeast Asians are truly catching up with the rest of the world.
Consumers in the region are slowly shifting their perceptions and expectations from fashion brands. Higher zeroes no longer correspond to the level of quality, number of selection and variety, and even versatility, durability, and functionality. UNIQLO then, both as a product and a brand, has, at least in Southeast Asia, become a new standard in fashion.—By Pola del Monte and Amanda Arambulo