UNIQLO first gained the attention of Americans by adorning the sinewy frame of tennis superstar Novak Djokovic. (Djokovic has earned his money, too–since signing the 2012 deal he’s been in some long five-set matches, giving the UNIQLO logo optimal camera time.) These days the Japanese retailer is playing its game about as well as its “global brand ambassador” Djokovic. The colorful subsidiary of Japan’s Fast Retailing giant, UNIQLO plans to open 20 stores a year in the US for the foreseeable future. (The brand currently does the majority of its business in Japan.) The company specializes in providing a huge number of choices in each category, and keeping the category offering manageable. For example, you can get the same few styles of shorts in LOTS of different colors. (A page out of Toyota’s book?) The look of the stores is sharp, fun, clean and extraordinarily inviting. The Keith Haring-like store environments can make even youth-oriented competitor H&M look a little staid.
The Haring comparison is not far-fetched. Despite the Djokovic relationship, UNIQLO isn’t focused on sporting goods. Instead, the brand is aligning itself with people and institutions who treasure individualism. And after tennis stars the natural fit is artists–and their fans, who are artists too, of course, in their own UNIQLO way. UNIQLO sponsors Free Fridays at NYC’s Museum of Modern Art and has a line called SPRZ NY (produced in collaboration with the museum), featuring t-shirts by artists Matthew Brannon, the controversial provocateur Daniel Joseph Martinez, Sarah Morris and other contemporary art stars–along with the requisite Pollock-splattered pret-a-porter. And Haring, of course–you can buy a bandana based on one of his works for less than six bucks. Perhaps it’s a strange world where you can express your individuality by wearing a shirt that’s an exact replica of 50,000 other shirts, which themselves are replicas of a painting that is also widely available as a poster, a postcard and a tote bag–but it’s our world. And UNIQLO looks uniquely poised to make a very colorful splash in it.