But where other global fashion brands like Zara and H&M zig, Uniqlo zags. Where the other guys focus on winning at the old game of fashion, churning an array of styles through their stores ever more rapidly, Yanai is acting more like a tech executive, nurturing long development cycles in which clothes and advanced materials are carefully iterated. Uniqlo partners with high-tech suppliers like carbon-fiber-maker Toray and cuts 10-year deals with Chinese manufacturers. The model draws as much on Intel and Toyota as Gap.
This approach has made Uniqlo one of the world’s most successful retailers, gaining fast on rivals like Gap and H&M. It has also won the company admiration among apparel executives, who are as impressed by the company’s approach to business as style mavens are by Uniqlo’s collaboration with designers like Jil Sanders. If Uniqlo fulfills its big ambitions, it will have moved technology closer to the center of fashion and helped spread Silicon Valley’s management ethos into the global apparel trade.