In signage throughout the spanking-new Uniqlo in King of Prussia, pop-singer man of the hour Pharrell Williams models one of the apparel brand's snug summer T-shirts. "Think other," is written in simple type across his chest.
The T-shirt is a part of Uniqlo's "i am Other" campaign, a collaboration between Williams and Uniqlo (YOU-nee-klo) urging shoppers to embrace their individual sense of style. The irony, however, is that the Japanese brand built its solid fashion following offering a seemingly bottomless supply of everybody's-got-them - or should-have-them - basics.
We're talking walls and walls of men's polo and dress shirts, women's tanks and tunics, and kid's T-shirts organized according to the shades in the rainbow. The perfectly folded pops of color tucked into cubbyholes and lining display cases presents a sleek and modern look in a very Apple- meets-Gap way. Millennials (and their parents) absolutely love it.
Hence the line of excited shoppers stretching Friday morning into the lower level of KOP's Plaza, signaling its long-awaited arrival in the Philadelphia region. At KOP, the 10,000-square-foot store replaced the short-lived shopping haunt for juniors Love Culture.
Uniqlo's SoHo store - where I purchased a pair of periwinkle-blue skinny cotton pants that haven't faded in three years - is its most popular. Thank the fashion gods that at Uniqlo, your pants never get discontinued.
Uniqlo's aggressive expansion plan includes a 30,000-square-foot, three-story (plus mezzanine) Philadelphia-area flagship in Center City and a 10,000-square-foot location in Willow Grove Park mall to open Oct. 3. By year's end, Uniqlo plans to have 39 Stateside stores - with stores in Los Angeles and Boston - up from 20 at the start of the year.
"Our goal right now is to grow in the U.S. by entering as many new markets as possible," Larry Meyer, CEO of Uniqlo USA, said Thursday.
Uniqlo is the fourth-largest specialty-apparel store in the world behind Zara, H&M, and Gap. It is expanding its urban stores, as well as its presence in high-end malls.
"Their approach to entering the U.S. market is very intelligent," said Ross Steinman, associate professor of psychology, with an expertise in retail, at Widener University. "It's kind of like buying the cheapest house on the most expensive block."
Fashionably speaking, the timing for Uniqlo's expansion couldn't be better. For one, '90s minimalism - with all of its clean lines and solid hues - is in style. And people need basics to complement the crazy prints they've been collecting in their closets the last two years.
Also, the success of fast-fashion retailers like Spanish-based Zara and Swedish H&M have opened up budget shoppers to "exotic" specialty stores. In addition, Top Shop and Ted Baker, both British clothiers, opened pricey downtown-girl faves last year in King of Prussia.
"People like the modern feel, the simplicity, the elegance," Steinman said.
Behind Uniqlo's showcase of Museum of Modern Art-inspired graphic T's, the King of Prussia store is split into men's clothing, with featured designer Michael Bastian's polos on the left, and womenswear on the right.
In the center is a smallish children's section and the Uniqlo's unisex staples: fitted ultralight down jackets in springtime jelly-bean hues (yes, Uniqlo is confident it can sell the cool-weather outerwear as summer approaches) and its special selvedge denim (available in boutiques for close to $200 a pair, but just $39.90 at Uniqlo).
There are shelves and shelves (and shelves) of Uniqlo's AIRism, which provide a cool layer under clothing, and its Heattech pieces that add extra warmth.
"In this era where everyone is trying to limit their assortment so the customer doesn't see themselves coming and going, Uniqlo doesn't seem to care," said Joseph Hancock, associate professor of design and merchandising at Drexel University. "Uniqlo is going back to the stack-them-high and let-them-fly concept."
Uniqlo, founded in 1984 by Japanese businessman Tadashi Yanai, is part of Fast Retailing, the parent company of fashion powerhouses Theory, Helmut Lang, and J. Brand. Fast Retailing's global sales are about $11.6 billion a year.
After a few decades, the company found its niche when it opened the SoHo store in 2006. Yanai - who has made it known that he wants to own J.Crew - is well-known in global circles for his desire to dominate the world fashion market.
If Uniqlo is any indication, Yanai may be well on his way.