Shoppers heading to the new Uniqlo store in Soho for inexpensive cashmere are getting more than they bargained for—along with sweaters they’re scoring a peek at the extravagant world of Tokyo retail. Unlike the shops of low-cost American competitors Old Navy and Gap—generic spaces with little flourish beyond the apparel stacked on tables and hanging on racks—Uniqlo Soho was designed by Masamichi Katayama to engage visitors from the moment they approach on Broadway. A band of spinning mannequins fills the second-story window, with 25 more positioned in a glass case directly inside the door. Turning either individually or in unison to highlight a single piece or an entire collection, they’re the mechanical version of a runway show. “The act of making a purchase alone is not satisfying enough,” Katayama says of shopping. “It has to be an experience.”
Although Uniqlo already had eight stores in the United Kingdom and four in New York and New Jersey, the opening of its “first global flagship” last November marked a new push to become truly international. Seeking to distinguish itself from other affordable clothing brands by emphasizing its Japanese origin, Uniqlo hired the country’s hottest retail designer. The 40-year-old head of Tokyo firm Wonderwall has created furniture, lighting, bars, and offices, and has even collaborated on the studio set for a BBC program about design, but it’s fashion boutiques—from an elegant space for Marc Jacobs to a hip series of A Bathing Ape T-shirt and sneaker outlets—that have made him famous. “We wanted to make the Soho store very special,” Uniqlo head of marketing Shinichiro Shuda says of the 36,000-square-foot behemoth, the largest of any single brand in the neighborhood that has become New York’s ultimate shopping destination. It reportedly cost upward of $20 million. “Here in New York we are just starting out, and we have to make sure we reach the fashion innovators to communicate that we make quality products at awesome prices and still have a lot of style.”
Retail consultant Paco Underhill, author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, says that’s a risky strategy here. “I certainly wish Uniqlo well, but they spent so much,” he says. “The kind of volume they are going to have to push out the door to make a profit is astronomical. Building a retail empire in the United States means having three hundred stores in malls across the country. We have a long history where beautiful stores win prizes and don’t make any money.”
Japan is better suited demographically and geographically to producing flashy, expensive stores. “There is much more purchasing power in Japan simply because there are more rich people,” Underhill says. “You rarely see an old, battered car. Plus there is the purchasing power of parasitic singles. You have a whole class of men and women who live at home.” And unlike in the United States, companies don’t need to chase the consumer. “Japan has, like Britain and France, a center in Tokyo that can be easily accessed by people from all over the country thanks to its transit system. Therefore you can focus resources in a way that is very different from the U.S. market. If you are a cool store, you can pay an astronomical rent and spend more for interior design. You’re not worrying about designing for malls across the country.”
That’s the retail climate that produced Katayama. After studying interior design at Osaka Design School, he worked a sequence of unsuccessful short stints in various offices, leading him to Tokyo, where he cofounded H. Design Associates with Tsutomu Kurokawa in 1992. He didn’t split off on his own to establish Wonderwall until 2000, but his career ascent in Japan began with his first commission for A Bathing Ape, in 1998. Founder Nigo gave Katayama remarkable freedom in approaching the space in Tokyo’s Harajuku district, called Busy Work Shop, as an instrument for attracting customers. “He allowed me to completely overthrow the conventional theory of a clothing store,” Katayama says. “Since he gave me free reign, I was able to experiment with radical ideas. It was a thrilling and valuable challenge that later enabled me to build my own style.”
Indeed many of the techniques employed at Busy Work Shop appear in subsequent projects, including Uniqlo Soho. Conceived as an experience to entertain customers, the severely minimal store and its contents aren’t evident from outside. Glass stairs carry visitors on a symbolic journey up to the elevated chrome floor of the futuristic showroom, where the merchandise appears to float. The manipulation of perspective, hovering elements, cool light permeating from indirect sources, and objects taken out of context are tools Katayama often uses to make customers feel like they’ve stepped into another world. “Seeing the first shop completed was a thrill,” Nigo said in a monograph about Wonderwall, published recently by Frame. “It was like a virtual environment made real, a space as clean as an aseptic room. The world of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey lay before me as reality.” The two have gone on to collaborate on a total of 27 A Bathing Ape shops, each more original than the next. “Katayama still knows how to surprise me,” Nigo said.
A whimsical presentation of apparel is often the centerpiece of Katayama’s designs. “He has redefined the term showman by focusing on product concepts and the lifestyle of the brands rather than on any personal design style of his own,” says John C. Jay, who oversees American ad agency Weiden + Kennedy’s Tokyo offices. For a 1999 Bape Exclusive shop, Katayama packaged T-shirts like canned goods in a refrigerator. Foot Soldier, a 2001 A Bathing Ape shoe store, features a giant glass-enclosed stainless-steel conveyor belt carrying sneakers that loops over a colorful checkerboard carpet. At Beams T (2002), T-shirts rotate through the space on the kind of carousel used by dry cleaners. “The first thing I do is narrow my use of design elements,” Katayama says. “Once I’ve cut out every unnecessary detail, I add a touch of playfulness that may seem needless in terms of usability. But ultimately I want interior design to be magical. The key in this process is to make sure that the products effectively intertwine with the space and exist as the shop’s protagonist.”
Uniqlo is a comparatively reserved design. “We asked Mr. Katayama to communicate extreme logic with a sense of beauty, plus add a supplemental element of impact that can’t be found in other stores,” creative director Kashiwa Sato says. The gleaming white space acts as a backdrop to set off the clothes, which—carefully arranged by color—create a vibrant architectural pattern on the perimeter walls. There’s strategy in the forthright presentation of merchandise: showing so much of it at a time emphasizes its volume, and therefore its affordability. Katayama makes the huge three-story interior more intimate by carving out smaller areas with partitions made of familiar glass and steel, and of course the mannequins are a vintage move. “They tell an important story for the Uniqlo brand: that value can be glamorous,” Jay says.
Uniqlo isn’t planning to have Katayama design every store it rolls out across the United States. But the company is betting that his bold designs (and his considerable price tag) are worthwhile in cultural capitals like New York, San Francisco, and Miami. Whether or not Uniqlo’s economic gamble pays off, Katayama believes his essential ap-proach to design translates. “I do think carefully about how I will approach the setting. I regard the environment in which the shop is set as a component to be used in the design process,” he says. “But beautiful things are beautiful and fun things are fun in any country.”