The net worth of Japan’s wealthiest person, Tadashi Yanai, the billionaire behind everyday fashion brand Uniqlo, touched a peak of $41.6 billion this week, spurred by a shopping frenzy for Uniqlo’s pandemic-friendly clothes from masks to tracksuits.
Yanai’s fortune was buoyed by a 114% rise in shares of flagship Fast Retailing since March, when they fell amid a pandemic-induced global sell-off. Yanai, who has a 47% stake in the world’s third-largest clothing retailer, has more than doubled his fortune since Forbes’ World’s Billionaires list where he was ranked No. 41 with a net worth of $19.7 billion.
Fast Retailing owns the Uniqlo brand in addition to brands like Theory, Helmut Lang, J Brand and GU. Analysts attribute the stock jump to the company’s new digital strategies and its focus on practical, everyday clothing, preferred by those working from home.
“Sales are good due to its product lines fitting the stay-at-home demand,” says Dairo Murata, senior analyst at JP Morgan in Tokyo. “Fast Retailing has always been promoting the ‘LifeWear’ concept, and selling clothes which fit the work-from-home style well.”
The Japanese retailer–which has more than 3,600 stores across 26 markets spanning Asia, North America and Europe–offers the LifeWear range which it promotes as “simple” and “high quality everyday clothing.” It also incorporates proprietary technologies like “Heattech,” which converts moisture to warmth and is currently used in everything from loungewear to T-shirts and socks. Another notable feature is its “AIRism” technology, which keeps the fabric breathable and is currently used in its range of cloth masks. The triple-layer AIRism masks with bacterial filters, which were rolled out in June in Japan were quickly snapped up by hordes of online and offline customers.
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However, Fast Retailing’s annual revenues and profits took a hit due to the closure of stores during the pandemic. It reported a 12% drop in annual revenues to 2 trillion yen, or $19 billion, for the year ended August 31, 2020 and a 44% drop in its net profit to $853 million. Uniqlo shut nearly half of its 748 stores in China in January–reopening them in late April. In Japan, 311 of its 817 stores were shuttered in late March and reopened in early May.
Despite these store closures, the Japan Uniqlo business was a bright spot in an otherwise down year. It recorded a 2% increase in profits even as revenue rose 20% year on year in the June to August quarter. Japan Uniqlo sales were boosted by e-commerce sales which rose 29.3% for the fiscal year ended August.
“The spread of Covid-19 has spurred a change in values and encouraged us to scrutinize the way that we live,” Yanai noted in a November message featured on the company’s website.
“The meaning of clothes is also changing as we witness a strong shift away from clothes worn to beautify or emphasize the wearer’s social status to clothes designed to last and enhance comfortable everyday living.”
While storied retailers such as J.C. Penney and J Crew filed for bankruptcy after sales plummeted in the U.S. and Europe, Asia has been holding up thanks to the return of Chinese and Japanese shoppers.
Uniqlo opened two new Uniqlo stores in Tokyo in upscale Ginza and in the shopping hub of Harajuku in June. And in November it announced a partnership with German designer Jil Sander and a new collection for men and women’s clothing ranging from turtleneck sweaters to cardigans to chino pants. Last month, it also debuted at the annual China International Import Expo in Shanghai with a LifeWear global brand exhibition.
Based on the assumption that Covid-19 may finally be contained after March 2021, Fast Retailing has forecast a 10% uptick in revenue for fiscal 2021 and a 83% rise in net profit. It guided that the first six months of fiscal 2021–from September 2020 to February 2021–will be tough because of declines in Southeast Asia, North America and Europe, but sales in the second half from March to August are expected to be strong.
“In FY2021, we expect domestic Uniqlo profit to approach a record high and China Uniqlo to reach record highs in both operating profit and margin,” says JP Morgan’s Murata in an October report.
Yanai, who grew up above his parents’ clothing store in a small town in Yamaguchi prefecture in southwestern Japan, aims to become the world’s largest apparel retailer. Currently, Spain’s Inditex, best known for its Zara brand is the world’s largest clothing retailer with annual sales of $31.6 billion followed by Sweden’s H&M with sales of $24.8 billion.
Inditex founder Amancio Ortega is the world’s richest apparel billionaire with a net worth of $76.9 billion, while H&M’s Stefan Persson, who has a fortune estimated at $20.4 billion, is in third place after Yanai.