Fashion, like architecture, says a lot. It is, according to Wikipedia, an “aesthetic expression at a particular time, place and in a specific context.” So it’s interesting to consider how fashion might translate, and not translate, around the world. This recent article by The Economist, called “The United Nations of Uniqlo,” offers up one comparison, albeit a generalized one, between Japanese and American clothing preferences. (It’s an article about the Japanese fashion label Uniqlo.)
At first glance there seems nothing obviously Japanese about Uniqlo’s wares. But a strong strain of minimalism pervades Japanese culture. Buddhism remains an important influence on Japanese society even in an increasingly secular age, and among its core tenets are renunciation and detachment – concepts that mean being able to suppress one’s lust for the material elements of daily life. Mario Praz, an Italian critic, contrasts the Japanese style with the suffocating abundance of Victorian interiors in Europe and America which, he says, stemmed from horror vacui (fear of emptiness). More recently, young people in the West have also grown less enamoured with acquiring stuff, hence the widespread popularity of another Japanese export: Marie Kondo, a professional declutterer.
The American market has proved harder to crack. The 56 Uniqlo stores in America fall far short of Yanai’s plan, in 2012, to open 200 there. They still operate at a loss. “When you think about the American market, you don’t always think of subtlety,” said Steve Rowen of Retail Systems Research, a consultancy. “This is a social-climber society. Even if you want to fly under the radar, there still has to be some indication that you’re fashion forward.” Once that urban millennial with a starter job begins to make real money, Rowen postulated, “they move past a brand like Uniqlo pretty quickly.” Americans are perhaps willing to embrace invisibility only until they are rich enough to want to be seen.
You could probably also fashion a similar argument around housing preferences. The Japanese are known for their minimalist houses, as well for completely different views on housing in general. But we shouldn’t forget that good minimalism is expensive. Remember: “Only the rich can afford this much nothing.” Maybe that’s what Uniqlo needs to do in America. The problem is that its nothingness isn’t expensive enough.