When Funny Michael told me I “had to go to this store called Uniqlo,” it sounded only vaguely familiar, from my scourings at vintage stores like Buffalo Exchange. For some reason, I expected it to be a lot more awful than it really was. I think I had it lumped in with a certain oeuvre — The Brands That Gay Guys Inexplicably Keep In Business. Like YMLA, Pistol Pete or pretty much anything found at International Male (which, perhaps realizing the brand association has rechristened itself as a section of Undergear).
Instead, I found this.
The first thing I saw when I walked in was a multitude of lightweight merino wool V-neck sweaters, vivid (fuchsia, cobalt) or muted (olive, coffee). I immediately loved the place: I tried to snap a cell phone picture of the floor-to-ceiling wall filled with shelves of sweaters, but people kept getting in the way.
But Uniqlo also was a gentle reminder that with age comes the wisdom to appreciate some trends without feeling the need to partake in them. Consider, if you will, the quilted vest:
The store had these quilted down vests in about 10 different colors, and a non-down version for $10 less. I kept walking by the display, taken by the array of candy colors (kudos to the merchandise display managers!), and thinking, “Could I rock this vest?”
I really, really wanted to be able to say yes — imagine how crazy-trendy I would be, the envy of all of the Phoenix metro area when I showed up (two months from now, when it would actually be cold enough to wear it without looking like as much of an idiot) in a puffer vest that was hot pink and shimmered like it was sprayed with dry oil.
That’s the trick of stores like Uniqlo: They make you feel like you might have clothing superpowers that could be unleashed upon an unsuspecting populace. If only you had the stones to try it on.
Instead, I brought a pair of corduroy jeans to the dressing room, where the improbably named Kirby, a wisp of an Asian girl wearing a big white shirt and, apparently, no pants gave me my tag and said, “If you need any help, let me know.”
“Actually,” I said, “I was wondering about these pants. I could only find a 33 on the sales floor, and I was wondering if there were any 31s or 32s available.”
“Oh,” she said. “See, I’m the only person back here, so if you’d like, you can leave your stuff here and check the rest of the store, and then come back.”
“And that’s you helping me … how, exactly?” I said.
“What?” she said. Ah, never mind.
I never did find them in the right size, which was a shame because I wanted them to go with the vest at right. Rather than opt for a long-sleeved sweater, I went for an extra-fine merino wool vest in olive. I am kicking myself for not biting the bullet and buying the cashmere ones they had in store (but not online) — one was a shocking magenta, with fuchsia threads woven throughout. It was awesome — but it also was around $100. Which, when you think about it, is not bad for cashmere, especially something that grabs you so viscerally that you think, “Ooh, I want that.”
But I talked myself out of it using the practical side of my brain: You live in Phoenix. Last year you lost a pair of pants and two sweaters to moths or crickets or something, so don’t set yourself up for heartbreak by having it happen to an expensive thing you love. Plus, I had suffered a little bit of postsale sticker shock at Aedes de Venustas — “I spent what? On two? When you know you’re going to another place after this?” — so any bigger-ticket items were scrutinized even more mercilessly in that light.
But for the full experience, I wandered around and tried on everything from a calf-length officers overcoat to blazers to jeans (and, no, I never tried on the quilted vests). When I finally hit the checkout counter I had only the sweater vest above, the cords in a curry color (the top pair) instead of the original paprika/saffron color (above left), and a host of sorta-dressy socks and fun underwar. (“Funderwear?”) Total tab: Less than $80.