Muji’s Mighty Magic

The Muji flagship opened in Plaza Singapura last Friday, occupying the 1,896-sq-m expanse that was vacated by the doomed John Little’s last year. Is the Japanese specialty store set to take the place of traditional department stores, such as Tangs and Metro, which have become increasingly lacklustre?

Muji PS pic 1Muji’s new flagship store at Plaza Singaura

Muji is many things to many people. To some, it is a fashion store. To others, it’s a beauty bar, and, many still, a furniture seller. There are also those who consider it a mini-market. If you visit its new flagship store, it’s manifestly all of the above and more, so much so that it, despite its comparative smallness, easily surpasses the offering of any department store in Singapore today.

This is Muji you’ve not seen before. Not even the ION Orchard store, already considered sterling by so many of its fans, is as expansive, wide-ranging, or atmospheric. This is Muji built on some performance-enhancing magic bullet. It is stocked to the rafters to entice, to arouse, and, ultimately, to encourage spending.

That Muji is able to do all this with merchandise that, for some, is just too bashful in design is testament to the brand’s skill at pulling deceptively simple things into a rather grand whole. There’s a sense of authenticity—an unabashed Japaneseness—and an unwavering minimalist aesthetic that has kept them in good stead indeed. No matter how wide their product offering, they’ve kept to their DNA of uncomplicated, and indeed straightforward, designs that are augmented by their welcome usefulness.

Muji PS pic 2Muji Labo: a more forward collection that pays particular attention to fabric and cutMuji PS pic 3There’s athletic wear now, presumably to take advantage of the athleisure trendMuji PS pic 4A new jeans section that is so extensive it easily rivals Uniqlo’s

The new store is reported to be the largest flagship in Southeast Asia. Designed by Super Potato, the Japanese ID firm of Takashi Sugimoto, who is noted for his impressive list of hip stores and restaurants designs such as the Grand Hyatt’s Mezza9 and Straits Kitchen, this is a Muji conceived for discovery, zoned to bring you from one corner to another, not quite knowing what to expect. Those “Mujirers”, as they’re known, who are compelled to visit every Muji store in the cities they operate in will see the similarity with the Shanghai flagship in Huaihai Lu (淮海路) than, say, the Tokyo store in Shinjuku—one neo-rustic, the other white-steel-modern.

This is not a one-look-and-see-all approach to store layout, which, in many ways, had been Muji’s preferred floor-plan treatment until the arrival of Muji Yurakucho (Tokyo) store, a multi-floor behemoth that strikes awe with its warehouse-like space in which pockets of visual merchandising delightfulness are erected. The Plaza Singapura store is, perhaps, a lot more atmospheric (the differentiated lighting, for example, is a lot warmer than their other outlets here, and really recalls the Muji Chengdu flagship) and visually more engaging, with much of the store’s merchandise employed in its imaginative, tactile decor.

The focus is clearly on customer engagement, which accounts for the new areas in the store such as Found Muji in which items sourced from around the world is picked for their shared aesthetic values with the brand, and “re-tailored” to sit suitably alongside other Muji products. This includes an exhibition area, Open Muji, done pasar malam-style to show that regardless of provenance, good and functional design is border-less when it comes to usefulness and beauty.

Found MujiOne of the new concepts seen in Singapore for the first time is Found Muji, a collection of wares selected from different parts of the world

Found Muji pic 2Open Muji showing the various products from all over the world that inspire Muji designsIdeeIdée shows off a more ‘designed’ aspect of MujiMuji wall hangingIdée is stocked with unexpected items such as this wall hanging by Los Angeles ceramic artist Heather Levine

This belief is also exemplified in Idée, a line of merchandise described by Muji as “based on the theme of ‘Life is about everyday’”. But there’s nothing really “everyday” about these products since a knowing customer would immediately see the everyday-ness as ‘elevated’. Idée started as collaboration with emerging designers for furniture a few years back, but soon grew to cover table ware, textile, and decorative accessories that include art and even wall hangings. This, to us, is one of the most alluring parts of the new store.

In fact, furniture and furnishings now make up nearly half the store’s offerings. This may pose some competition to Ikea, although, admittedly, Muji’s prices are not as wallet-friendly and can, in fact, match those of stores such as Conde House in Millenia Walk. And as with Ikea, the new store offers interior decorating service, as well as custom-order for rugs and such. Customisation is, in fact, a crowd charmer, with shoppers drawn to the customised embroidery service available to those who purchased clothing in the store.

The thing about Muji is that no matter how wide the product categories or varied its in-store services, there’s an aesthetic oneness that does not arouse the senses for the sake of getting your buying urges in a knot. It makes one sometimes ponder, and, many a time, enjoy. For naysayers, Muji makes very plain and basic products. This plainness and elementariness do indeed make their success all the more beguiling. Is it saying that our appreciation of good design is finally seeing some semblance of sophistication?

MUJI furniture and furnishingAn impressive selection of furniture and furnishing is available in the new Muji Muji furniture and furnishings 2Bedding, always a strong product category, is now even more alluringMuji food 1Food remains a strong offering and now even more strikingly presented

It is ironic that Muji has occupied the space where John Little’s has failed. Since 2013, Singapore’s oldest department store has been relegated to the annals of our island’s retail history as a forgettable relic. Despite its heritage (174 years in business), John Little’s simply could not keep up with the changes that equate modern retailing. Muji opened in Singapore in 1995, four years after its first overseas store in Hong Kong. Its debut in Liang Court proved a little too premature as local shoppers didn’t quite understand the brand’s striking, chic minimalism and found the “plain things” (now dubbed by the press as “commercial zen”) too expensive. It exited Singapore after the Asian financial crisis of 1997 (also known as the tom yum goong crisis as it started in Thailand) and returned in 2003 in then Seiyu department store (now BHG) to a staggeringly warm welcome. From that point there’s no stopping Muji, which now numbers 13 stores island-wide.

Muji, an abbreviation of the full name Mujirushi Ryohin, or “no brand, good quality” in Japanese, is now a staggering enlargement of the 40 products it started with in 1980, when parent company Seiyu created the private brand for their eponymous supermarkets as a way to lure shoppers tightening their purse strings during the economic downswing of that era. According to media reports, Muji presently retails more than 7,000 products, covering nearly every aspect of the urban lifestyle, with many of them having won awards in the category of design.

Some industry observers state that Muji is able to do what they do because they create everything under their own brand. Department stores, especially those here (Japanese ones too), have long forsaken the model of producing house brands that can be differentiated from those of competitors’. Instead, much of the space in department stores these days is leasable space, which inevitably means stores are no longer ‘curating’ their offerings the way they used to. Department stores are landlords the way mall operators are. Additionally, according to London-based BMI Research in a report last year, department store’s declining popularity, “can be attributed to an outdated approach to demands of local consumers”. That Muji’s customers are forming long queues at the cashiers’ even five days after the opening high perhaps indicates that the brand knows how to appeal to shoppers. This, even without industry admission, is likely the envy of trad stores such as Tangs and Metro.

Muji flagship store is on level one, Plaza Singapura. Photos: Galerie Gombak

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(2016) Winter Style 4: The Blanket Wrap

uniqlo-2-way-stoleUniqlo’s handsome blanket stole. Product photo: Uniqlo. Collage: Just So

As the drapey silhouette is increasingly preferred over the structured, some of us are retiring tailored outerwear such as the Chesterfield coat until they are road-worthy again. One of the easiest ways two lend softness to the outline of any outer is to throw on a shawl. This season, the blanket wrap (also known as a stole) is making a splashy entrance like never before. Oddly, though, few retailers are offering them in addition to the standard scarves.

That’s why it is surprising to us that such a stylish piece could be found in the stores of mass retailer Uniqlo. Thanks to Japan’s biggest fast fashion brand, those bound for wintry lands are now owners of at least one down jacket, and, this season, perhaps also the blanket wrap. Uniqlo’s version, called the stole, is especially appealing because it can be worn on both sides, each a different colour or colour-block. To make this an even bigger draw, Uniqlo has called it a “2-way” and touted its versatility as a wrap and a scarf.

journal-standard-blanket-shawl-aw-2016Journal Standard blanket stole for men. Photo: Journal Standard/Baycrews

Scarves, as a practical accessory, are gender-neutral, yet, puzzling as it may be, the brand is peddling this blanket wrap only to women and has availed them only in the women’s department. Perhaps the problem lies in the name: men don’t wear stoles! The striking thing is, none of the pieces available are particularly feminine. And with a size that’s no different from an airline blanket’s, these are not exactly filmsy-bitsy pieces to be tucked away in a handbag until you need it when the MRT train is unusually cold.

Interestingly, the blanket wrap is also available in Muji and, similarly, is stocked in the woman’s department, possibly due to the how-to-wear hang-tag with a figure that’s clearly female. This seems to us at odds with what many retailers in Japan are doing. One of them is Journal Standard, and they’ve made their mono-tone versions (above) a must-have of the season to update the winter wardrobe of both men’s and women’s. If a friend is in Tokyo now, do ask a favour.

Uniqlo acrylic knit 2-way stole, SGD29.90, is available at Uniqlo stores

 

GSS In December?

muji-sale

This just appeared in our inbox. And it was definitely a ‘huh?’ moment. Could it be that the year isn’t coming to an end, and that the Christmas songs playing in the distance are a part of our over-active imagination? Sometimes you smell pine even when you’re not in a forest of conifers; so desirous of a non-tropical Christmas that the yearning plays tricks on your olfactory organs. If only it’s the month of May! But, it’s been a year of lows more than highs, and many of us want next year to come, in the hope that things may be better. Skip Christmas altogether!

Muji, you’ve got us mystified. It was like looking at a monthly calendar that stopped being flipped on the month of Labour Day. Or maybe someone in marketing sacrificed her bonus this year in order to recycle a six-month old ad.

Blues For Any Day

muji-re-muji

Here’s another way to explore sustainability. How about re-colouring what you cannot move on the selling floor? That’s exactly what Muji is doing with their new sub-brand Re-Muji, which the label describes as a “recycling initiative whereby selected unsold garment items would be re-dyed as an effort to reduce and eliminate waste, while giving the product a ‘new life.’”

Sure, the clothes were subjected to the usual rounds of markdowns. But when even that can’t clear the merchandise, rather than discard or destroy them, Muji facilitates a rebirth by treating the garments to a colour job, in this case, blue. Not just any blue, but the Japanese plant dye indigo. And as with dyeing the natural way, the shades of blue varies. Therein, for us, lies the charm.

muji-re-muji-2

In keeping with Japanese brands that tout their love and penchant for indigo, such as Blue Blue, these clothes not only have an earthy patina; they feel lived-in too. Most of these new-again garments come with contrast top-stitch of khaki. The effect brings to mind Japanese finishes such as those by Junya Watanabe. A shopper was heard telling the staff that many of the styles in their original colour held no appeal for her until the appearance of this inky wash.

Surprising for so many charmed by the blue is what Muji is charging for them. Nearly all the pieces, whether tops or bottoms, for men or women, go for the very persuasive price of S$29. This is lower than similar garments displayed under the section New Arrivals.

re-muji-pants

If there’s a problem with such a concept, it’s the availability of sizes (mostly S and XL). Chances are, you’ll not find the style you want in the size that fits you.The staff could not confirm if the stocks of any particular model will be replenished. “We were not told,” one of them said with a hint of regret.

Still, the fun is in what you may unearth. There’s a thrift-store aspect to the experience. For the eco-warrior, the additional appeal of shopping with less guilt could be had. These clothes were rescued from the brink of death by dye. Muji reworks Muji. Who’d have guessed?

Re-Muji is available at Muji, Ion Orchard. Photos: Galerie Gombak

Snug Is The Fit

Uniqlo Nylon Waist BagDespite its many reiterations, the bumbag has never really caught on here. Its association with the un-cool and the money bags of wet market stall-keepers gives the bumbag an undeservingly poor standing. If they’re used by fashionable individuals (and they are), the bumbag has become a bit of a misnomer since they’re worn as a cross-body bag, strapped closely to the back, a practice made popular by the Japanese in the ’90s. The move of the bumbag—also known by the unattractive name fanny pack—to the back of the upper body gives it a certain rugged appeal not unlike the messenger bag. The posterior has lost a companion.

This is why Muji’s compact version is appealing to us since it is clearly not designed to have the flexibility of a bumbag that can play the messenger cousin. Calling a spade a spade, Muji named its version the Nylon Waist Bag, and it can sit, to appropriate Madonna’s current favourite word, unapologetically on where one would normally strap down a belt. An additional bonus is the slimness, flatness, and compactness of the bag: it hugs your hip so snugly that you do not feel you’re carrying anything extra with you. This is especially useful when you need to be unencumbered by a bag (there are many instances when freedom of the hands is very much appreciated), and yet you have smartphone, eyewear, and whatever else you are so inclined to bring along. Modern life, as you know, doesn’t allow you to be free as a bird.

In addition, for something that can be worn so closely to the body, we were quite amazed to find in it a total of four pockets and three slots for pens or masculine accoutrements such as torchlight or screwdriver. The front pouch-pocket sits in front of a rear slip-pocket that is barely discernible, perfect for securing cash and credit cards. As it follows the contours of the lower body so closely, the bag is no hindrance to whatever the wearer does. Functionality rarely looks and feels this good.

Muji Nylon Waist Bag, SGD29.00, is available at all Muji stores. Photo: Jim Sim