Japanese design firm
Founded: in 1983 by retail conglomerate Seiyu. Company History: Joint venture with Liberty Plc, 1991-97; opened first European outlet, London, 1991; spun off as part of Ryohin Keikaku Ltd., 1997; announced intention to open 40 stores in Germany over next decade, 1997; majority stake in Ryohin sold by Seiyu, 1999; launched company websites for online sales, 2000. Awards: D&AD Silver award, 1994; Design Week award for Retail Design, 1994. Company Address: Nikko Ikebukuro Building, 4-26-3 Higashi-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku, Tokyo, Japan 170. Company Websites: www.muji.net (in Japan); www.MujiOnline.com (in North America).
Glancey, Jonathan, "No Labels, No Brand Names, No Nonsense," in the Independent, July 1991.
Nakamoto, Michiyo, "Life With Liberty in the Pursuit of Happiness and Joint Profits," in the Financial Times, July 1991.
Furness, Janine, "The Brand With No Name," in Interior Design (London), September 1991.
Louiek Elaine, "If You Want to Make an Understatement," in the New York Times, November 1991.
van der Post, Lucia, "New Worshippers for Japan's Muji Cult," in the Financial Times, June 1992.
Thompson, Elspeh, "Selling a Lifestyle Without a Label," in The Guardian, July 1992.
Horsham, Michael, "Adoration of the Muji," in The Guardian, 21 October 1994.
"Japanese Retailing—Look Out (Japanese Supermarket Chain Seiyu's Restructuring Plans," in the Economist, 24 October 1998.
Nusbaum, Alexandra, "Seiyu to Sell Shares to Offset ¥88bn Charge," in the Financial Times, 23 February 1999.
"Japanese Retailing—A Yen for Cheap Chic," in the Economist, 3 June 2000.
"Muji Online Bows in North America," in WWD, 6 November 2000.
Nicksin, Carole, "Japan's Muji Launches E-Commerce Site for U.S., Canada," in HFN (Weekly Newspaper for the Home Furnishing Network), 13 November 2000.
Terazono, Emiko, "Growing Pains are Natural as Muji Enters the Major League," in the Financial Times, 5 April 2001.
"New Daiei Store Heats Up Ginza Clothing War," in Yomiuri Shimbun/Daily Yomiuri, 9 November 2001.
The company name signals its policy—Muji, short for Mujirushi Ryohin, is represented by four characters meaning "no-brand quality goods." The concept is Japanese; its success has been international. Muji is proving a workable design formula for the 1990s and well into the 2000s.
In providing an antidote to the 1980s designer label obsession, Muji is consciously self-effacing; the policy is to sell quality products at reasonable prices. Clothes, household goods, food, and stationery are staples and the emphasis is on necessity, not superfluity—Muji caters to needs, not wants. The Muji concept is about lifestyle. "Kanketsu," the belief in simplicity which forms the heart of the Japanese art of living, guides the design and retail of the products. Packaging is in simple brown paper bags, swing tags are made of recycled paper and clearly describe the product, in Japanese. The shops are strictly utilitarian: each one is different, but most of the materials and objects used in the construction are taken from local sources, such as scrapyards. The interiors, like the products, are pared down and intended to survive. Typical merchandise includes strongly-woven undyed towels, notebooks made from unbleached paper, reusable storage bottles, rice crackers sold in plain see-through packaging; each item is the result of a philosophy clearly echoed in the clothes.
Muji garments have been described as an "alternative to fashion." Elegant and classic, they are, in the company language, "meant to be worn, not to adorn." White cotton shirts, West Point trousers, Californian cotton rugger shirts, tracksuit bottoms, polo shirts, and Peruvian cotton socks are representative of the range. Clothes are designed to feel comfortable, to be easy to wear, pleasant to the touch and convenient to launder, sound almost anathema to fashion. The company does not use the term, "We would not call them fashion because they might make you think they are expensively designed with bits here and there thrown in for good measure," company materials note. In Tokyo the garments have become an acceptable alternative to fashion; this phenomenon increasingly happened elsewhere.
Since 1983, when it was founded by the Japanese retail giant Seiyu, Muji has achieved cult status. When the first London shop opened in the summer of 1991, at the back of Liberty's of Regent Street, consumer response was instantaneous. Items sold too rapidly to be immediately restocked from Japan. The next summer a second, bigger store followed and Muji clothing featured a strong development in "one mile wear," meaning they were the comfortable clothes worn at home, or within a mile radius, for leisure or for popping out to the local shop. Traditional Japanese workwear inspired relaxed, deconstructed coordinates in comfortable, natural fabrics. Muji clothes are sensible, but not boring, austere but not dull. They mix well with other labels and their no-brand clothes have had designers, such as Masuro Amano, who trained at St. Martin's School of Art in London.
The first ten years of trading in Japan provided Muji with a firm base and an established design philosophy; the next decade brought recognition and rocketing sales of its "spare chic" and accessories, with nearly 300 worldwide stores and dozens planned for the U.S. and Canada. But before the newest stores debuted, Muji brought its wares to North America via the Internet. Muji's first website was launched exclusively in Japan, and a second was tested in America in 1999 and officially went online in 2000, as many Japanese retailers were recovering from a years-long recession. Even Muji's ultimate parent, Seiyu, had been forced to sell all but five-percent of its stake in Muji's immediate parent, Ryohin Keikaku Ltd., to offset losses in 1999.
As Muji expanded outside its home base of Japan, especially in the U.S. and Canada, its biggest competition came from brands like Gap and Abercrombie & Fitch. Both Gap and A&F were immensely popular with young men and women from teens to thirties, the same segment Muji had so enthralled in Asia. Yet even Muji finally succumbed to competition in Japan, as upstarts followed its lead into pared-down clothing and accessories. In 2001 Muji suffered its first loss since its creation, as two rivals—Y100 and Fast Retailing—lured away teenaged customers. Muji executives reacted quickly, reducing its products line (which had grown from 40 to over 6,000 items in 12 years) and shored up its image. Further, Muji decided to move from cult status to well-known retailer through advertising, not unlike the transformation of Gap years before.
Given Muji's track record and emphasis on tradition and longevity, the Japanese no-brand leader would rally from its temporary woes. In the U.S., the firm was scouting locations to build its freestanding, no-nonsense stores in New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Muji stands for quality at reasonable prices; its message and its products have a broad international appeal, and the firm poses a healthy challenge to established preconceptions of fashion. Ironically, no-brand became the brand of the 1990s and beyond.
updated by Sydonie Benét