Back in 2001, an up-and-coming retailer from Hiroshima opened a branch of its reasonably priced wares in the swank Ginza district. Even then people considered this a bold move by Uniqlo, whose casual, utilitarian fashions were considered unworthy of high street. Now fast forward to the present: Uniqlo’s Ginza Flagship just had a makeover, the company recently posted a 31% sales jump and branches are popping up all over, including flagship stores in New York and Paris. The founder and new “Maestro of Cool,” Tadashi Yanai, is the richest man in Japan.

What have they done so right?

Well you could start with the price-to-quality factor. Japan’s economic doldrums have been hard on many, and luxury goods like Versace are suffering here. Anyone who can make clothing that’s relatively cheap and lasts longer than a season will get the attention of the frugally-minded. The present jeans price war may be the best example of this phenomenon.

They’ve also marketed themselves extremely well, concentrating on clever (and viral) internet ideas such as the Uniqlock and their interactive online runway instead of sinking their advertising budget solely into conventional television and magazine coverage. The web cred they’ve earned this way has  spread their message further than any broadcast spectrum or print circulation ever could.

Another component in their present success is bringing in designer Jill Sander, whose understated style adds a new sense of sophistication and credibility to the Uniqlo brand. What’s next? Well, as Yanai told Monocle earlier this year, Uniqlo’s immediate plans are to conquer Asia, targeting China, Korea and Singapore first.

Yanai also said that he openly admires Walmart, and in this statement is the essence of what makes him and his brand different: The Walmarts of the world never seriously think of going upscale. No, the only way was for high-street names to trickle into the mainstream. Think Ralph Lauren or Calvin Klein – still respected brands, but they started on Rodeo Drive and eventually ended up selling 2-for-1 at big-box stores like Costco as well. Elite brands sometimes filter out to the masses, but rarely the other way around. Looks like Uniqlo is about to change that.

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