Muji Madness Crosses The Atlantic

Susanna Sirefman, an architectural writer from New York, first discovered Muji when she was studying in London in the early 1990s. Since then, she claims, she can't do any work without the Tokyo-based chain store's products. So twice a year she travels to Europe to stock up. "I buy folders, notebooks, aluminum and plastic cardholders, mirror cases, toothbrush holders, canisters, aluminum boxes, lovely pencils," says Sirefman. "My husband thinks I am crazy."

Sirefman is not alone. As the 20-year-old Japanese design chain launches a push onto the Continent, its line of sleek, moderately priced furniture, clothing, accessories and stationery is attracting an international cult following that includes celebrities like Johnny Depp and Catherine Deneuve. Its fans, mostly cosmopolitan twentysomethings, have spread the word about Muji--short for Mujirushi Ryohin, or "no brand goods"--via Internet, Concorde and bullet train.

Americans, though separated from the shops by an ocean on either side, make up some of the chain's most passionate devotees. "They're especially mad for stationery, Filofaxes and pencil cases," notes Stephen Renton, a Muji shop assistant in Covent Garden who says 70 percent of the customers who come into his store are from abroad. For U.S.-based fans, in fact, Muji ranks with the Eiffel Tower and the Tate Gallery as a must-see European destination. "Whenever we're making up a plan of things to do," says Sirefman, "it's right up there on the list: gotta make sure I have my Muji time."

The attraction lies in Muji's spare but chic designs and offbeat use of fabrics. "It's an amazing combination of simplicity and sophistication, but always with a twist," says Mark Gauthier, an advertising copywriter from New York who tends to drop $100 to $200 each time he shops there. The twist is in the materials Muji uses for its products. Stressing environmental awareness and cost savings, the company uses recycled materials and surplus industrial fabrics that it buys cheaply and in bulk. Among the store's trademark items are its line of storage containers made from plain, brown corrugated cardboard; a leathery orange bag made from discarded basketball coverings, and weatherproof seat cushions and suitcases made from fabric used in wet suits.

Though Muji's materials are generic, its designs are not. The company's products have won numerous prizes and have been featured in London's Design Museum. One award-winning item is a $500 bicycle that folds in half and has a steel shaft instead of a chain. The stores' best-selling and most recognizable items, however, are their line of aluminum products: slim business-card holders, pens and pencils, picture frames, an alarm clock. The business-card holder has been making increasingly frequent appearances on the downtown-Manhattan cocktail-party circuit.

Though Muji is still a relatively small chain, its growth has been impressive--especially during the Asian financial crisis. Between 1995 and 1999 its sales nearly tripled to $900 million. And the company, which has 260 stores in Japan, 13 in London and 4 in Paris, plans to keep expanding. By 2003 it hopes to have a network of 50 stores in Europe, including branches in Germany and Italy.

Muji's long-term goal is much loftier: to become one of the world's top 10 global retailers. Keiichi Nakabayashi, a retail analyst at Warburg Dillon Read in Tokyo, says the company is "on the right track." It is currently building larger stores and expanding its product line to appeal to entire families--not just Gen-Xers. "Their customers will start having families in a few years," he says, "and when that happens, [Muji] would like to be there to provide them with everything, from meat to a stainless kitchen sink."

But Muji's healthy growth and expansion into Europe only frustrate distant fans like Sirefman and Gauthier. "Whenever I talk to my friends in London, they always say, 'Why don't you have it there?' " says Sirefman. Unfortunately for American fans, there doesn't seem to be a Muji store in their immediate future. Last September Muji opened a Web site where Americans could buy a limited selection of its products. When the site closed Dec. 15, the results were disappointing. It had made just $50,000 in sales, far short of the $300,000 target. Nakabayashi calls Muji's Internet foray a failure. "They won't try to break into the U.S. market until they've established a certain presence in Europe," he says. "It's a smart strategy." For now Americans will just have to pack up their Muji suitcases and head for the Concorde.