After months of anticipation, Uniqlo was expected to announce Wednesday that it will open a pop-up store selling its colorful apparel in Boston this summer and expand to six permanent locations in the area over the next year.
The temporary store will open in the former Kingfish Hall location in the South Market of Faneuil Hall Marketplace in early July. Four suburban locations in the Natick Mall, The Mall at Chestnut Hill, Northshore Mall in Peabody, and Legacy Place in Dedham will open in late summer through the fall. A permanent store in Faneuil Hall’s Quincy Market and another at 341 Newbury St. are set to debut next spring.
“Boston is a great city with a great population,” said Larry Meyer, chief executive of Uniqlo USA and a 1975 graduate of Northeastern University. “We felt that our products would go well with both the weather and style of Boston.”
Meyer said the company selected locations that would allow it to reach most Greater Boston consumers where they work and live. The availability of leases prompted the quick timeline.
Uniqlo, pronounced “YOU-nee-klo,”is commonly described as the Japanese version of Gap. But Mike Tesler, president of the Norwell consulting firm Retail Concepts, said the brand more closely resembles the 1990s-era Gap that accomplished a rare retail trifecta by becoming widely worn by men, women, and children.
Uniqlo is trying to capture broad appeal with quality made T-shirts, pants, jackets, sweaters, and other layers in a vast color palette. The brand’s line of supima cotton tops are available in 50 hues and range in price from $9.90 for a tank top to $39.90 for a cardigan. The ultra-light down jackets, coats, and vests come in every color from orange to dark purple and two different shades of dark green.
Like Gap, the brand offers fewer styles than other retailers and carries a deep inventory of each piece. Uniqlo’s inexpensive prices often mean it is lumped into the “fast fashion” category with brands like Sweden’s H&M, Spain’s Zara, Great Britain’s Topshop, and Los Angeles’s Forever 21.
But the brand doesn’t focus on inexpensive, in-the-moment fashions that are here today and gone tomorrow. Instead, Uniqlo emphasizes fabric over fashion. The company says it created a line of cold weather gear that retains heat and hot weather clothing that absorbs and evaporates sweat and reduces odors.
Uniqlo says it can keep prices low because the same colors and materials are duplicated throughout its clothing lines, which allows the company to buy in greater bulk.
“It isn’t like any other store,” Tesler said. “One of the reasons people like it is because we’re bored to death with stores that clone each other. Uniqlo is unique.”
Uniqlo opened its first store in 1984 in Hiroshima, Japan, and has grown to more than 1,300 stores in 16 countries. Like many other clothing retailers, the company often partners with popular designers and celebrities for unique collections, such as its current T-shirt collaboration with “Happy” singer Pharrell Williams.
Today, the chain operates 20 stores in the United States with locations in California, New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.
Uniqlo’s plans in Boston are part of an aggressive plan to expand in America. Tadashi Yanai, the chief executive of the brand’s parent company, Fast Retailing, has said he intends to develop a network of 100 Uniqlo stores in the United States over the next few years and dramatically increase American sales by 2020. Fast Retailing, which owns six other brands including Theory and J Brand, recorded global sales of $11.6 billion in 2013.
But the brand’s expansion plans around the world have already run into some problems.
A book published in 2011 by journalist Masuo Yokota accused the company of exploiting low-wage garment workers in poor countries. Fast Retailing sued for libel, but the case was later dismissed.
In the United States, consumers often complain that Uniqlo sizes are too small and don’t fit their body types. The company said it adjusted its American measurements and continues to tweak the designs.
“It’s gotten better and we’re still not there, but we’re consistently working on sizing,” Meyer said. “Our goal really is made for all.”
Nonetheless, Tesler said Uniqlo is a welcome addition to the local retail environment.
He said the stores will draw traffic to shopping centers that have lost prestige over the years, such as the Mall at Chestnut Hill, the Northshore Mall, and Faneuil Hall Marketplace. He said the brand is a natural fit in Natick and Dedham, where it will appeal to higher-end shoppers who don’t want to spend a lot of money on basic layering items.
Boston in general is a smart choice for Uniqlo because many consumers here follow the New York fashion scene and are already familiar with the brand, Tesler said.
“Uniqlo is not all over the country and particularly for shoppers traveling here for conventions and graduations, they’ll see a store that isn’t in cities like St. Louis and in Atlanta.” Tesler said. “It gives Boston cachet.”