When you think of Japanese fashion, the image that comes to mind is probably more Rainbow Bright or deconstructed future-wear than an off-white cashmere v-neck or a pair of straight-leg navy corduroys. But the country’s biggest retailer, Uniqlo, has opened a holiday shop in Soho (after a trial-run at the Vice store and three successful openings in New Jersey) and all the hype turns out to have been about the most basic basics imaginable.
The store is most often compared to The Gap, but it seems that that chain—for better or worse—chases trends much more than Uniqlo, which is more like a cross between American Apparel (natural fibers, enduring style) and Old Navy (wide appeal, low prices). In fact, the practical but uninspired approach reminds me of the Gap of my youth, where, every September, one would spend a few torturous hours with one’s mom, picking out T-shirts in eight different colors to be worn throughout the next school year. Similarly, at Uniqlo, like American Apparel, there are few designs, but each cardigan is replicated in a wide range of colors (and almost no patterns) to fill an entire wall. As is often the case, the men’s items get richer, more sophisticated hues, like chocolate brown, than the women’s, which are flatter and preppier (think “melon”).
Boring as the shopping experience may be, the company’s mission—or one of them—is a commendable one: To bring cashmere to the masses. As their catalogue says, “Those who wear cashmere should not be the only ones who wear cashmere”. Indeed. The 100 percent cashmere sweaters at Uniqlo are about $89, while at upscale boutiques, similar tops can easily cost twice as much. The masses may not deserve the softest version of this luxurious knit, but they can console themselves by remembering what a great deal they got.
For a hopeless boyfriend, a no-frills dad, or a conservative dresser of any age, Uniqlo is an easy stop for holiday shopping. The prices alone will be a relief if you have made the mistake of battling the crowds in Soho. But make sure to buy a size smaller than your loved one would normally wear—it seems the Japanese think we’re fat.