Doug Lee from Kinji San Martial Arts Supplies in Brooklyn, NY answered our questions about what it takes to get BJJ uniforms manufactured overseas. His family’s company has been in the martial arts gear industry since the 70′s, and they now offer their own Ronin brand BJJ uniforms. A hands-on review of Ronin’s “Fighter” model is coming soon.
How long have you been in the martial arts gear business?
The business has been here since 1976. I was introduced part time in 1990 when I was about 11 years old. I would help the employees unload the boxes from the containers and help put them in order. I became owner in 2001.
What were the working conditions like in the martial arts gear factories you’ve visited?
I went to Taiwan when I was 13-15 years old with my dad for karate gis and protective gear. Working conditions in that factory are good. I did not get skeeved out.
We have been dealing with a small factory in Japan that makes one model for our karate heavyweight. I never went there so I can’t say how conditions are.
Never went to visit the Chinese factories, but I know 2-3 very large, highly reputable ones.
My main Pakistani manufacturer happens to be the most impressive. They are a large company that has about 8-10 cleaning ladies on site at all times. It’s very clean. The employees seem to like working there. The factory itself is made of granite and limestone and looks like the Buckingham Palace in the UK.
I also have a secondary factory I deal with in Pakistan. The working conditions are okay, but it just doesn’t smell like Mr. Clean and Windex all over like my main one.
As for Brazil, I was there about 4-5 years ago on a bachelor’s party and accidentally ran into a BJJ gi factory while drinking all day.
What do you think of company owners who don’t travel to see the factories?
There’s nothing wrong with that. Most of the brands manufactured in China have reps. Ironically, even in today’s era, most of the Chinese factories don’t know English. They have reps that handle everything for them. These factory owners should learn English, but I guess they feel that one day Chinese will be the language to learn, so why bother learning anything else. I have a rep there as well. We manufacture our own Kinji San plastic shopping bags for our retail store. We didn’t have to go there. The rep made a percentage and handled it for us.
People don’t want to go to Pakistan because they are scared, and I don’t blame them. The Pakistan factories all speak English, so there’s no need for a rep. I think if many of these brands went to Pakistan to visit their factory unexpected, they would probably get disgusted and not want to make gis anymore.
I happen to be treated very differently when I go there to visit my factory. They take me to visit other large reputable factories to see their processes too. They also discourage me from visiting the smaller ones so I don’t get a bad opinion of Pakistan.
What is the quality control like in Pakistan?
If you have no experience, quality control is bad and stressful. I went through it before with karate gis 20 years ago. We were approached several times by a smaller factory that would not leave us alone. We gave them a chance with a small trial order for karate gis, and we got screwed. The shipment did not consist of karate uniforms. They were more like nursing uniforms. My main manufacturer in Pakistan found out who they were and took care of the international law suit, and we won. It was very nice of them to do this for us.
I have heard stories from other gi companies about quality control never being consistent. This is common with smaller factories due to the high worker turnover rate. Most of these small factories have employees that range in ages from 10 to 55. These factories are not stable and consistent.
Are there a lot of problems with corruption, as outsiders tend to assume?
I would guess yes, in certain situations. I don’t know the behind the scenes situation there with the government and customs officials.
Are there major differences between the factories (e.g., areas of specialism, experience, materials, etc.), and if so, how significant are they? Can you tell if a clean white gi is from Pakistan, Brazil or China just by looking at it, and if so, how?
No, I can’t tell what country a plain white gi comes from. For example, with the Ronin judo double weave, Adidas has the same model from the same factory, but of course with different sizing and specs. They chose a light almond white, whereas we choose a brighter ultra white with a slight tinge of blue. That looks more eye catching to me, but it’s the same cloth. We use this optic blue-white for our Ronin karate gis too.
The cloth comes in a unbleached badge color. They dye it white, blue, or black. Then they rewash it to get excess dye out before they sew on the patches.
Regarding cloth finishes, Japan has the best technique. This skill is sacred to them. They will not teach anyone the process, just like a Japanese sword maker (I’m a sword collector.) He will keep the secrets passed down from his ancestors. I have my Pakistan factory send the cloth to the Japanese factory to get finished and assembled. My Taiwan and Pakistan factories cannot replicate this finish on the karate gi. I deal with a handfull of high end Japanese brands that stand out in a league of their own: Mizuno Judo, Shureido, Hirota, Kasukura, Ronin, Tokaido, Mitosboshi and Toyo.
In Pakistan, there are no special materials for judo and jiu-jitsu weaves. If one factory has that weave or cloth, then ANYONE in Pakistan can get it! For example, gold and pearl weave are a dime a dozen there. If any brand advertises that they have a limited special produced weave, and the gis is made in Pakistan, then they should market themselves differently. They are always using the same materials—gold or pearl weave with different weights. It’s really a no brainer. As a tourist, you can go buy the fabric there and bring it back home.
Experience and specialism are the KEY. The better factories have techniques and higher end machinery. They also guarantee their product.
Why is the BJJ gi industry so heavily tied up with Pakistan?
Cheap prices is number one. The US dollar goes a long way in Pakistan.
Reason number two is that the smaller Pakistani factories are like leaches. They will email and call you 100 times in a month to beg for an order.
Number three is because the smaller factories will take small orders (under 3,000 gis). Everyday there are new brands being made in Pakistan. If you go there, you may get disgusted to see what goes on in some factories or even living rooms and backyards. All these BJJ brands are made in small factories. Larger factories are well established and committed to their clientele.
How have the political and military conflicts of the last few decades affected production?
This has not been an issue with me so far. I doubt it ever will because too much money and trade is at stake.
But getting back to the manufacturing, I like dealing with Pakistan better because they are more loyal to me. The Chinese factories, big or small, I sense will stab me in the back. I already had offers from Chinese manufacturers that make other brands to sell them to me behind their backs. They will bootleg and knockoff anything to make money.
A perfect example, Apple was already knocked off. The factory made a few thousand more iPads, iMacs and iPods, and opened up a shop in China without Apple USA knowing.
Same with Nike. The Air Max 95 sneakers are bootleged all over NYC. Yes, they are real! They were brought into the black market without Nike USA knowing. That’s typical Chinese manufacturing. Politicians can talk all they want, but I don’t think this is enough for the US to get the military involved.
Given their similarities, why do BJJ gis tend to cost so much more than judogis?
Marketing is key. It’s funny, I pay more for my Ronin heavyweight karate and the Ronin double weave judo gis than my BJJ uniforms. However, I sell the BJJ ones for a lot more. The double weave just look and feel much more durable with craftsmanship. It’s just the cut that is different. IJF rules require the jacket cover the butt. Single weave judo gis are less but not based on the weaves. It’s a rice grain weave. There are a handful of BJJ brands using this weave. It’s very inexpensive and easy to get. The pearl and gold weaves are about 15-20% more to make. For double weave judo, there are about 4-8 different weave patterns and they get costly.
What kind of R&D went into making your BJJ gi? Have you changed anything based on customer feedback?
We would give samples out to a few wholesale customers that were serious in BJJ. Back before 2008, customers were not so involved in the quality and fit of the gis. They were just happy to have a decent BJJ gi to wear. There were not too many brands to compare against. What I’m trying to say is that new gi companies now have it a lot easier to make a good gi on their first try. The reason why is because most of the factories in Pakistan have experience now, and there are about 8-20 brands that are considered good.
What do you think of the trend of taking preorders before the gis are manufactured?
From the gi companies’ point of view it’s simple. They know factories want a deposit upfront before they start working. Let’s first do a pre-order to know how much to make and use the customers’ money to fund the job. There’s really no big expense out of pocket and it’s a good idea.
From the customers point of view, some may not like it, and so they don’t have to order it.
However, when that product arrives, the gi company has to deliver a high-end item with good customer service. If not, then they can wind up like the Sidekick Limited edition cell phone, where they produced limited amounts with payment upfront. T-mobile lost tens of thousands of customers.
What’s your opinion on Shoyoroll’s new membership program?
I hope it works out for them since I’m sure many have joined. I don’t like to see customers get cheated or screwed in any way. They probably raised a lot of money, which is great on their end, but it’s the factory you have to work well with. They have to be ready to ship out orders on time. Then there’s customs in Pakistan and the US. Both sides can take up to 4-7 days each side.
My honest opinion is that if Shoyoroll cannot guarantee 7+ of the models they promised to produce then they should honor to the loyal members and offer pro-rated refunds.