Fashion versus Clothes (and Apple, of course)

Image: Flickr user JBlaze B

It’s always interesting to look at the choices a successful business makes, particularly, choices that are conscious limitations. So-and-so inc expanding into a new area or launching a new copycat product is fairly dull. Looking for new markets, consumers and money is a given in a modern economy. In contrast, a company opting to depart from received wisdom by not doing certain things, skipping certain processes, provided it’s not doing it for cost-cutting measures, is fascinating.

I’ve found myself reading a couple of articles about clothes retailers in the last 24 hours. One is about a place where I buy 90% of the stuff I wear, the other is a shop I can’t stand. Respectively, these shops are Uniqlo and Abercrombie & Fitch. Both are the centre of articles that have much to say about branding, management and choices.

A cursory sweep through the two pieces reveals both Unqilo and A&F have a founder/CEO who exerts strong control over the company:

“Tadashi Yanai, the founder and owner of Uniqlo, is the richest man in Japan, worth over $9 billion… [he is] clearly obsessed with control, [but] is also a deeply pragmatic manager, and fascinated by failure. In 2005, he announced a reversal of strategy for international expansion… Uniqlo works quickly, and the transformation was surprisingly fast. Uniqlo designed and built the Soho store in about eight months, with 150 workers working twelve-hour shifts, seven days a week.”

“Mike Jeffries, the 61-year-old CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch, says “dude” a lot… I got a firsthand look at his perfectionism in action when he invited me along for the final walk-through for the Christmas setup of his stores… Jeffries paused in front of two mannequins and shook his head… He stared at the jeans on the female mannequin. “The jeans are too high. I think she has to be lower.” A guy named Josh got down on his knees and started fidgeting with the jeans, trying to pull them down so they hung to the ground.”

However, differences in their approaches are soon apparent. A&F is a typical fashion retailer; it sells a very specific look, and builds up the emotional pull of that look via heavy, distinctive branding that appropriates a series of familiar ideas, images and style cues from the past. Uniqlo is quite unusual; unlike other fast fashion stores, customers expect to wear the clothes until they’re worn out and instead of building stores that are like sets for the movie of the brand, they focus on the way the clothes should be folded and the customer’s credit card is handed back to them. While both A&F and Uniqlo strictly enforce a personality, A&F seeks to sell a certain, specific fashion and style, whereas Uniqlo sells… well, it seems glib to say ‘clothes’, but that doesn’t seem far off:

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