I was greatly saddened to see the decline of Waterstone’s on Oxford Street. Though there was still a mighty flagship a few hundred meters away on Piccadilly, the loss of a bookshop on such a famous avenue of acquisition was unnerving; ‘No more books on Oxford Street’ I mused, wistfully. In actual fact, this maudlin assumption was incorrect. Waterstone’s had simply downsized and moved further west; their smaller Oxford Street berth is now opposite the gargantuan department store that is Selfridges & Co. Though still on the ‘right end’ of Oxford Street, it is drifting towards the unsavoury Primark district; an area lacking in any aesthetic or architectural merit. The premises they vacated are in one of the best locations on the street. Close to Bond Street Tube and Oxford Circus, John Lewis, Zara and Massimo Dutti not to mention flagship stores of River Island, HMV and the House of Fraser. Uniqlo, the new tenants of the space, are fortunate to have landed such a location.
For a Japanese company it is unsurprising that Uniqlo are ‘Big in Japan’; far bigger in fact than anywhere else they trade. However, it is slightly unexpected that their European adventure has so far been confined to fourteen stores in the United Kingdom and two in France. No wonder that come tourist season in London, wide-eyed Germans, Italians, Spaniards and Swedes are rushing around the stores, stocking up on items they cannot get back home. Understanding a little German, I overheard one gentleman recently comment “Für die Qualität, der Preis ist unglaublich!” He was right; for the quality in store, the price is quite incredible.
Uniqlo are a brand that, price wise, places themselves alongside H&M but, style wise, avoids their aesthetic almost entirely. Uniqlo is what some refer to as an ‘essentials store’; basic items, sold very cheaply, in a huge variety of colours. T-shirts, v-necks, underwear, socks, cardigans and chinos are the staple stock and they are incredibly popular. Whereas H&M stores are usually full of teenagers and twenty-somethings bobbing along to the chart-friendly getting-dressed-to-go-out pop music, Uniqlo is often teaming with silver foxes; sexagenarians looking for some t-shirts for their next Mediterranean cruise. It avoids pretension and instead opts for variety of tone and a reasonable quality of fabric and construction. Indeed, for the price, the quality is above expectations. H&M tells you how to dress and what to do, tying scarves around mannequins necks and shoving pocket squares into pockets, adding ‘design’ features to garments and closely following trends. Uniqlo just offers you a simple palette of classics with conventional fits.
This does however have its limitations. If you are one of those who hanker for slim-fitting clothing, in line with the current aesthetic, you are unlikely to be sated by Uniqlo’s offering. Similarly, if you are looking for something that stores like Zara offer – tailored and ‘polished’ items that look designer-lite – you won’t find them in Uniqlo. Purchasing an entire outfit of elegance is not possible in such a store; the jackets are too lacking in structure, the trousers insufficiently tailored but the real value in the place is the selection of simple items that can complement full ensembles. I spent ten minutes at the sock section, choosing my ‘4 for £6.99’ from the rainbow of colours on offer; I grabbed an Extra Small cotton cardigan in sky blue for a mere £9.99 (Uniqlo have finally started stocking clothing that fits me) and was nearly tempted by a knitted tie. My father came into the store with me on a recent trip, and was raving about the £4.99 t-shirts that are offered in such a vast array of colours – “When they’re this cheap, and that quality, you cannot go wrong.”