Tadashi Yanai: the lazy youth who found a gold mine

Tadashi Yanai © Getty images
Tadashi Yanai: inspired by Next

Japanese billionaire Tadashi Yanai had a relaxed start to life, but since discovering a talent for high-street fashion, he is bent on world domination. Jane Lewis reports.

When asked recently to describe what guides his vision, the Japanese founder and CEO of Uniqlo, Tadashi Yanai, produced an unusual historical artefact – a 1987 catalogue from the mass-market British retailer, Next. “All the clothes are so classic that they could be worn today,” he observed approvingly.

An 1980s high-street catalogue is hardly everyone’s idea of a fashion bible, but Yanai is an Anglophile who found early inspiration in the way Next, and another of his early favourites, M&S, sold “timeless basics” to virtually everyone. Uniqlo clothes, he says, are similarly “geared to all types of people”: from billionaires like himself – he often sports a polo shirt – to “the lower end”.

A long shot to the top

Fortunately for shareholders of Uniqlo’s parent company, Fast Retailing, the brand’s recent trajectory has been rather different from that of the founder’s early icons. A decade ago, when Yanai outlined his goal of becoming the world’s largest fashion retailer, it seemed a long-shot. But he’s already clawed his way into third place, behind H&M of Sweden and Inditex, the Spanish owner of Zara, says The Economist.

Yanai now reckons “rising Asia will push his firm to number one”. In the process, the ever-competitive Yanai has also got a lot richer himself. Between 2013 and 2018 – when Uniqlo was opening new stores at the rate of around one a week – Yanai’s net worth jumped from $15.5bn to $24bn.

“A slight, wiry man, with alarmingly short grey hair cropped as if for the priesthood”, Yanai is “bent on world domination” and says the urge to achieve it gets stronger the older he gets, says the Financial Times. “There is a toughness, almost a pugilism about him…His face is stern, though beneath is a hint of amusement. Every so often, he bears his teeth as he erupts into laughter.”

Astonishingly for someone now so driven, Yanai admits to being a lazy youth. Born in 1949, in the mining town of Ube in Yamaguchi Prefecture, where his parents ran a clothing store, he describes himself as “not that hungry” or “motivated” to work, says ABS-CBN (Philippines). Above all, he wanted to avoid getting stuck in the family firm. While studying politics and economics at Tokyo’s prestigious Waseda University, Yanai “devoted much of his time to mahjong and pachinko”, says the FT. But he also soaked up American culture and student activism, and travelled abroad to the UK.

After graduating in 1971, he worked briefly for a supermarket chain before reluctantly returning to his father’s suit-and-tie shop, which he set about expanding. In 1984, he achieved his main aim of launching a “casual clothes” outlet, establishing the first branch of the Unique Clothing Warehouse (soon to become Uniqlo) in the back streets of Hiroshima.

Set wild goals and achieve them

“At that time I thought I had found a goldmine,” Yanai later remarked. He was right. By the mid-1990s, Uniqlo had more than 100 stores in Japan and had begun churning out “hit products” – typified by the $20 fleece said to have been purchased by one in four Japanese. That became the foundation of Uniqlo’s success with incorporating technology into clothing: under Yanai’s guidance, the firm emerged as a pioneer of “breathable” materials. Even as Uniqlo has expanded abroad, it has risked becoming “a victim of its own ubiquity” at home, noted the FT in 2013.

There is a slang term, “unibare”, meaning “to be caught wearing Uniqlo clothes”. But no amount of brand snobbery can stifle Yanai’s full-throttle expansion plans – and he has two consecutive years of record profits under his belt. Despite the promotion of two of his sons to executive positions, the 70-year-old is as active as ever. As one business partner concludes: “he knows how to set a wild goal and achieve it”.