A Yamaguchi-based company, Ogori Shōji (which, until then, had been operating men's clothing shops called "Men's Shop OS") was founded in March 1949 in Ube, Yamaguchi.
In May 1984, it opened a unisex casual wear store in Fukuro-machi, Naka-ku, Hiroshima, under the name "Unique Clothing Warehouse". Initially, the brand was going to be registered as a shortened contraction of "unique clothing". However, in 1988, during administration work in Hong Kong for registering the brand, staff in charge of registration misread the "C" as "Q", and that is how the brand name was born. Tadashi Yanai then changed the store name to "uniqlo" across Japan. In September 1991, the name of the company was changed from "Ogori Shōji" to "Fast Retailing", and by April 1994, there were over 100 Uniqlo stores operating throughout Japan.
In 1997, Fast Retailing adopted a set of strategies from American retailer The Gap, known as "SPA" (for specialty-store/retailer of private-label apparel), meaning that they would produce their own clothing and sell it exclusively. They engaged the retail brand consultancy, CIA, Inc./The Brand Architect Group, to guide the company through the realization of this strategy, including consulting on merchandise, visual merchandising and display, store design and a new logo designed by Richard Seireeni and Sy Chen of The Brand Architect Group's Los Angeles office. Uniqlo had begun outsourcing their clothing manufacturing to factories in China where labour was cheap, a well-established corporate practice. Japan was in the depths of a recession at the time, and the low-cost goods proved popular. Their advertising campaigns, clothing quality and new retail layouts also proved fruitful.
In November 1998, it opened their first urban Uniqlo store in Tokyo's trendy Harajuku district, and outlets soon spread to major cities throughout Japan. In 2001, sales turnover and gross profit reached a new peak, with over 500 retail stores in Japan. When Uniqlo decided to expand overseas, it separated Uniqlo from the parent company, and established Fast Retailing (Jiangsu) Apparel Co., Ltd. in China. In 2002 their first Chinese Uniqlo outlet was opened in Shanghai along with four overseas outlets in London, England.
Uniqlo entered the Chinese mainland market in 2002. As of August 2017 there were 555 stores in China, including in Beijing, Guangzhou, Chongqing, Chengdu, Nanjing, Ningbo, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Shijia, Tianjin and Xi'an. The Chinese store count rose further to 782 at the end of September 2020. "Given the population of 1.3 billion, I think we can go for about 3,000 stores," Fast Retailing chief Tadashi Yanai told The Nikkei, indicating plans to continue opening locations in the world's most populous country.
As of 2019, Uniqlo had 13 shops in England. Ambitious expansion plans in the early 2000s were reversed, with 16 shops being closed in 2003, including those in Manchester, Coventry, and Leicester. Uniqlo opened a brand new shop in Manchester on Market Street in April 2019.
In September 2005, Uniqlo opened its first United States store in the Menlo Park Mall located in Edison, New Jersey. In November 2006, Uniqlo opened its first store in the SoHo fashion district of Manhattan, New York City. New fashion designers joined the store's team to boost and rebirth fashion concepts catering to the US market.
2005 saw more overseas expansion, with stores opening in the United States (New York City), Hong Kong (Tsim Sha Tsui) and South Korea (Seoul), their South Korean expansion being part of a joint venture with Lotte. As of year-end 2005, in addition to its overseas holdings, Uniqlo had around 700 stores within Japan. By 2006 sales were $4 billion. By April 2007, the company had set a global sales goal of $10 billion and a ranking among the top five global retailers, joining what at the time was Gap, H&M, Inditex, and Limited Brands.
The German fashion designer Jil Sander joined Uniqlo in 2009, and was appointed creative director of the brand's menswear and womenswear – as well as launching a new label, +J collection, which won the 2011 Brit Insurance Design Fashion Award.
Fast Retailing signed a design consulting contract for Uniqlo products with fashion designer Jil Sander in March 2009. Shiatzy Chen was approached by Uniqlo to produce a capsule collection of ready-to-wear pieces to launch in November 2010, while Asia's largest Uniqlo store outside Japan opened its doors in Kuala Lumpur in the same month.
On 2 September 2009, Fast Retailing announced that the company would target annual group sales of 5 trillion yen (approx. US$61.2 billion) and pretax profit from operations of 1 trillion yen (approx. US$12.2 billion) by 2020. This means that the company is aiming to become the world's biggest specialty retailer of private label apparel with a continuous growth rate of 20% per year. The figure breaks down as one trillion yen from Uniqlo's Japan business, three trillion yen from its international business, and one trillion yen from "Japan-related and global brand business." The company's international business target breaks down as one trillion yen in China, one trillion in other Asian countries and one trillion in Europe and the United States.
On 4 November 2010, Uniqlo opened its first store in Malaysia, in Fahrenheit 88 located in Bukit Bintang, Kuala Lumpur. As of October 2020, Uniqlo now has 50 outlets located across Malaysia, including an online store. Malaysia became the fifth country outside Japan to get a Uniqlo roadside store. The 15,100-square feet store, located in Bandar Sri Damansara was opened in December 2020.
In May 2011, the magazine Shukan Bunshun published a story alleging that Uniqlo had forced employees at its stores and factories in China to work long hours for little pay. In response, Uniqlo unsuccessfully sued the weekly's publisher, Bungeishunjū, for ¥220 million for libel.
In November 2011, Uniqlo generated more than 2 billion won ($1.7 million) in one day's sales on 11 November when it opened Asia's largest flagship store in central Seoul. The sales figure was the highest ever set by a fashion outlet in Korea. Uniqlo sales over US$1.2 billion with 150 shops in South Korea. Lotte owns 49% of Uniqlo's Korean subdiary. It currently operates 180 stores in South Korea.
Uniqlo's first store in the Philippines opened at the SM Mall of Asia on 15 June 2012. On its sixth anniversary, the company opened its flagship store in the country at Glorietta 5 in Makati, it opened on 5 October 2018. The store is the biggest in Southeast Asia.
On 22 June 2013, Uniqlo opened its first Indonesian store at Lotte Shopping Avenue, Jakarta. It has 30 stores as of 2020, spreading east to Makassar, Denpasar and Surabaya, and west to Medan, Batam and Pekanbaru.
Uniqlo started its first store in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on 5 July 2013. There it is known as Grameen Uniqlo, owing to its social business concept joint venture with Grameen Bank. There are currently 16 stores in Dhaka, one store in Gazipur and one in Narsingdi.
Uniqlo opened their first Canadian store at the Toronto Eaton Centre on 30 September 2016, followed by a second store at the Yorkdale Shopping Centre on 20 October 2016. Measuring at 28,000 and 24,000 square feet, both stores are five times the size of the Muji store that opened in Toronto in 2014. Three new stores in Ontario opened in 2018 at Vaughan Mills, CF Markville and Square One Shopping Centre. Uniqlo opened the new Oshawa location at the Oshawa Centre in March 2019 and opened the new Newmarket location at the Upper Canada Mall in April 2019, bringing the total number of stores in Ontario to seven. A third Canadian store, the first outside of Ontario and the first in Western Canada, opened at Burnaby's Metropolis at Metrotown in October 2017 to be followed by Surrey's Guildford Town Centre and Richmond Centre in Richmond, BC. A new store opened at Coquitlam Centre in Coquitlam, BC on 14 September 2018. A new West Edmonton Mall store opened on 27 September 2019. A location opened on October 23, 2020 at the Montreal Eaton Centre in part of the former Eaton's store (and later Les Ailes de la Mode), the first Uniqlo location in Quebec.
Uniqlo opened its first Australian store in Melbourne in April 2014. It expanded into Queensland the following year, with the introduction of two shops in Brisbane. Uniqlo opened a shop in Chadstone Shopping Centre in Melbourne, Victoria, the largest shopping centre in the southern hemisphere, in October 2016 when it was redeveloped. There are currently 22 stores in Australia, including in Sydney and Perth. There is also a Uniqlo store in the Eastland Shopping Centre in Ringwood, Victoria.
Uniqlo's German flagship store opened on 11 April 2014 at Tauentzienstraße, Berlin. By 2019 the company operated 9 stores in Germany, 6 of those in Berlin.
On 17 November 2014, Uniqlo opened its first store in eastern France (and the second store in France outside Greater Paris) in the city of Strasbourg.
In January 2015, a number of labor rights violations were reported at Uniqlo suppliers in China. Uniqlo pledged to remedy the violations.
In November 2015, investigations into the measures Uniqlo introduced in the wake of the January 2015 revelations found that the remedies had been only partially successful, with significant violations continuing to occur.
In June 2015, Uniqlo factory workers went on strike in relation to lay-offs.
In October 2015, Uniqlo opened its first store in the Midwest with a Chicago store on Michigan Avenue.
The first Belgian Uniqlo store opened in October 2015 at Meir, Antwerp. A second store followed at the Wijnegem Shopping Center on 25 March in the same year. 19 October 2017 saw the opening of a third store in Brussels.
Uniqlo began operations in Spain in 2016 with its online store, and in September 2017 opened its flagship store in Barcelona (Passeig de Gràcia). It also owns two more stores in Barcelona and one store in Madrid.
In October 2016, the report This Way to Dystopia: Exposing UNIQLO's Abuse of Chinese Garment Workers by SACOM and War on Want claimed that it was still the case that "excessive overtime, low pay, dangerous working conditions and oppressive management" were common in Uniqlo factories in China and Cambodia.
Launched in January 2017, "Art for All" was a partnership with New York art dealer and curator Jeffrey Deitch. The project involved selling, for under $100 per item, 65 limited-edition products made by commissioned artists such as Marie Roberts, Starlee Kine and Ken Kagami.
Uniqlo opened a store in India in October 2019, following the company's announcement about the same on 9 May 2018. The company will set up a wholly owned subsidiary in India.
The first Dutch Uniqlo store was opened in Amsterdam on 28 September 2018. The official opening was marred by protests against Uniqlo's unethical business practices in its factory in Jakarta, Indonesia.
In October 2018, Uniqlo collaborated with designer Alexander Wang to create a line of Heattech layerable basics including tank tops, leggings, underwear and bodysuits.
Also in 2019, an international Uniqlo advert was uniquely subtitled for the South Korean market in a manner widely perceived there to have trivialized the trauma of comfort women.
In 2019, a number of Australian workers reported that bullying and harassment is rife, there were "shouting rooms", and a toxic work culture. They claimed they had to work 18-hour days, had to fold seven shirts per minute, and that everyone leaves with "some form of PTSD".
On 3 June 2019, artist and recent Dior Homme collaborator KAWS participed on KAWS x UNIQLO UT. "Perhaps because all the other collections were the subdued Uniqlo trademark, KAWS’s subversive art was able to stand out all the more."
In October 2019, Uniqlo signed a lease for its first North American distribution center in Phillipsburg, NJ, leasing a space of over 950,000 sq ft.
Uniqlo had 60 stores across the Philippines as of October 2019. It has partnered with the SM Group's SM Retail Inc. to bring the brand to the Philippines.
As of 30 November 2019, the company reported that 2,249 Uniqlo stores were operational worldwide.
On December 6, 2020, the flagship store in Myeong-dong was closed due to low sales from COVID-19 and anti-Japanese protests.