Mujirushi is the Elvis of that marketing sub-genre known as the private brand. Launched in 1980 by Seiji Tsutsumi, the chairman of the Saison retail group, as an inexpensive line of merchandise for his Seiyu chain of supermarkets, the “non-brand” (which is what mujirushi means) soon garnered a following thanks to its iconoclastic simplicity courtesy of Ikko Tanaka, who designed the line for Tsutsumi.
In 1983, Saison opened the first Mujirushi Ryohin store in Aoyama, Tokyo. By that point, the line had outgrown its original set of cheap food and household products to include apparel, stationery, accessories, even furnishings. Of course, the idea of having “no label” implied that the usual advertising and marketing costs attached to “brands” did not apply, but while the items weren’t as expensive as many brand products they weren’t cheap either, and the irony implicit in the Aoyama store’s subsequent success was that “no brand” could itself be a big brand. By the ’90s, when Mujirushi Ryohin Keikaku split from Seiyu it represented a distinct lifestyle to many people.
Mujirushi peaked in 1998 when it reported ¥13.3 billion in profits. But the company got cocky and opened stores faster than it could develop new products. It lost the simplicity of its original design model and by 2001 profits had dropped to ¥5.6 billion. That year, it had to destroy ¥12 billion in unsellable merchandise, mostly clothing. Already, other companies had appropriated the no-brand concept, like the drug and sundry retailer Matsumoto Kiyoshi, the apparel maker Uniqlo, the household goods store Nitori,and the myriad ¥100 shops that were features of every new mini-mall. But Mujirushi cleaned itself up and returned to its roots, and now it’s bigger than ever.