As I see it

Store reviews: Topshop & Uniqlo's new flagship

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 June, 2013, 10:10pm
UPDATED : Monday, 10 June, 2013, 11:51pm


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Store review: Topshop

After months of speculation and anticipation, Topshop, Britain’s enormously successful “fast fashion” chain, finally made landfall in Hong Kong this week. The opening drew huge press coverage in the UK, from The Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph to The Financial Times. Even flamboyant founder and billionaire Sir Philip Green flew into the city just to cut the ribbon. A long queue now snakes out of the store, making the already jam-packed Queen’s Road Central even more impenetrable. Fashion pilgrims wait patiently in the 33-degree sweltering heat to pay homage to this sartorial mecca. There are locals, expats and Mainland tourists of all ages. Topshop appears to have broad appeal and I didn't understand why.

When I first heard that the brand was coming to Hong Kong, I found myself yawning with indifference. After all, Topshop – and its men-only offshoot Topman – has been in Asia for years. There are stores all over Tokyo, Bangkok, KL, Manila and Singapore. As a North American transplant, I had always considered the British retailer a bit of a wannebe brand, whose appeal in Asia is limited to those who once studied or lived in the UK and now crave a piece of Cool Britannica as a reminder of their years abroad. I wondered how far the nostalgic factor will carry the label in Hong Kong when it is up against astronomical retail rent and fierce competition from Zara, H&M, Forever 21, Gap and Uniqlo. Once the 15 minutes of fame passes, it will then quietly exit the city as GAP did in the 1990s and as Benetton and Jack Wills are about to in the not-so-distant future.

That’s what I thought until I spoke to my friend Louise, an English mother of two who is not only an arbiter of taste but also my go-to person for all things British. The first thing that came out of Louise’s mouth when I mentioned Topshop's new Hong Kong store was: “It'll be like printing money, love.” She was confident that the Central store would be a big hit and a launching pad for the label to enter the Mainland Chinese market. Louise went on to talk about Topshop's iconic Oxford Circus flagship in London, its popular lines by Kate Moss and Christopher Kane, and the fact that it not only completely dominates the clothing market in Britain but also operates 400 stores in nearly 50 countries.

“Why is Topshop so successful?” I asked my fashionista friend.

“It is quintessentially High Street: fashionable and accessible,” she said matter-of-factly. “It’s better quality than H&M and edgier than Zara.”

“How so?” I pressed.

“Zara is safe and they stick to the same muted palette season after season. But Topshop is fun, colorful and bold. It’s runway stuff made affordable.”

But her lecture quickly took a personal turn. “You know it’s hard for women, especially white women, to shop for clothes in Hong Kong,” the frustrated expat lamented. “You go from Gucci and Dior straight down to H&M and Cotton On. There’s really not much in between." Suddenly a smile appeared: "Topshop gives us another option, and more choice is never a bad thing.”

She is right about that.

And so, once again, I got a fashion lesson from Louise and stood happily corrected. To atone for my U.S.-centric ignorance, I paid the new store a respectful visit this Saturday morning, the only time of the week when I can walk in without waiting in line. The store takes up two floors at Asia Standard Tower where the PRC state-owned Chinese Arts & Crafts (中藝) once stood. Because of the limited space, the store carries only women’s clothes, which explains the somewhat apologetic billboard, "Girls love Topshop," on the display window. I asked one of the supervisors whether Topman would soon follow and he replied with a tinge of humility, “We’ll see how the first store goes.”

Just as I thanked the supervisor for talking to me, I caught an H&M manager, still wearing her staff t-shirt and a walkie-talkie earpiece, snuck out of the new store with a purchase. She scurried back to the H&M flagship across the street before anyone else saw her giving business to a competitor. It looks like things will go just fine for Topshop.

Store review: Uniqlo’s new flagship

It was the year 1985. Japanese businessman Tadashi Yanai traveled to Hong Kong and stumbled into Giordano, a home-grown clothing chain created by entrepreneur Jimmy Lai (黎智英). Yanai was impressed by not only the quality of Giordano's locally-designed, Chinese-made clothes, but also its popularity among Hong Kongers and tourists alike. The inspired visitor then scheduled meetings with Lai in Hong Kong, visited factories in Guangdong and returned to Tokyo with a grand plan. He gave his company Unique Clothing Warehouse – later shortened to Uniqlo – a complete makeover based on lessons from Giordano. Ever the voracious learner, Yanai took notes from yet another label, GAP, and integrated the design and manufacturing processes instead of leaving them to wholesalers. The “Lost Decade” of economic stagnation in Japan, combined with the availability of the cheap labor in China, allowed Uniqlo to grow domestically in the 1990s and to expand globally in the new millennium. Today, the label operates more than 1,200 stores and hires over 30,000 employees worldwide.

Uniqlo’s rise to retail stardom has made it a frequent subject for research papers and business school cases. Academics, consultants and retail writers debate over its business model, management philosophy and marketing strategies, while acronyms like SPA (specialty store retailer of private label apparel) and JIT (just-in-time) are tossed around like confetti. Despite all the B-school mumbo-jumbo, Uniqlo’s success comes down to one simple fact: no matter how often you go, you always walk out of the store with a purchase. It is its wearability, affordability, rainbow color choices and pitch perfect quality control that have won our hearts.

The new flagship at Lee Theatre Plaza has become the latest landmark in Causeway Bay, pulling shoppers away from Hysan Place and dealing a further blow to the tired old Times Square. Spanning 37,000 square feet over three floors, the new store has gobbled up spaces once occupied by Esprit and California Fitness. The sprawling space is like a theme park, complete with floating mannequins and a future-ready T-shirt section called "UT." Displayed like prized paintings in an art museum and sold in plastic tubes, UTs feature characters from Disney, Star Wars and Hello Kitty, as well as corporate logos of Coca Cola, Kewpie Mayonnaise and Ladurée. Best of all, they only cost HK$79 a pop.

Uniqlo is conspicuously absent in Central, which is a major inconvenience for Hong Kong Islanders who have to travel to Causeway Bay or, God forbid, Taikoo to shop. When I first heard that H&M is getting kicked out of its Queen’s Road Central location because of an exorbitant rent increase, I kept my fingers crossed that Uniqlo would snatch up the space before someone else did. But someone else DID! The store manager at H&M told me that Zara already signed the lease and is scheduled to move in at the end of summer. That means “Uniqlones” like myself will just have to wait.