San Franciscans have always loved playing dress-up. These days, we borrow all our hot items from a city 5,000 miles to the west. Our Target stores sell Harajuku dresses; our Twitter employees walk around with yoga mats slung over their shoulders. Our latest housing trend — the micro-apartment — is a spinoff of Tokyo architecture.
So it almost goes without saying that no business better embodies San Francisco culture than a four-story Japanese department store in Union Square, whose ad campaigns feature tech CEOs preening alongside jazz musicians, and whose puffy jackets dominated the landscape for a few disorienting months. The store's name — Uniqlo — is a portmanteau of the word "unique" and a Spanish pronoun, so borderline unpronounceable that you'd think an umlaut fell off the billboard. But it's also a fully formed brand identity — a word that screams "pedestrian" and "aspirational" at the same time. Say it fast and it sounds like you're saying the word "unicorn."
Maybe it's no accident that the Union Square store rose from the ashes of Designer Shoe Warehouse, which has since migrated up the hill. What used to be the realm of cut-rate Stacy Adams shoes and high-energy, hoarding Italian tourists is now an endless warren of pastel sweaters, cotton broadcloths, Breton stripes, ultra-stretch jeans, and mannequins encased in glass. Watered-down house music wafts from the stereo speakers. The clerk wears a jacket inspired by a kimono.
In other words, it's a store for the discerning San Francisco shopper — a place where 49ers tight end Vernon Davis could reconcile his appreciation for fashionable scarves with his desire to still be a dude.
A store with a more banal name couldn't get away with selling a whole line of Minnie Mouse sweatshirts and describing them as "casual chic." Or turning Tumblr founder David Karp into a centerfold. Or using "slim" as an adjective to characterize most of its men's apparel. If Uniqlo had the exact same pedigree and a name like "H&M," it probably wouldn't take the liberty of disrupting the underwear industry.
And yet it did so, boldly. When Uniqlo opened a second retail store in Stonestown Galleria Mall, San Franciscans queued up behind a velvet rope well before the 10 a.m. bell toll. "Hell officially froze over and Armageddon has arrived, for clearly why else would I tolerate waiting in line to get into this store?" a disgruntled Yelp reviewer demanded, admitting, later, that he couldn't resist the promise of Uniqlo HEATTECH thermal underwear (which uses special "heat-retaining" technology to make insulation out of body moisture, and currently goes for $19.90 a pair.) Sadly, the store didn't carry his size.
But Stonestown's Uniqlo doesn't have quite the cachet of its Union Square counterpart, even if it re-purposes the same floor plan, the same geometric Oxford shirts, and the same emoji-inspired color wheel. Maybe Uniqlo is just better experienced in the downtown corridor, within spitting distance of the city's historical cable cars. It's a place where "old San Francisco" can finally meet "new Tokyo" — and where $19.90 seems like a perfectly reasonable price for underwear.
Rachel Swan is a Staff Writer for SF Weekly.