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For most of us, the process of ordering custom cycling kit is simple. You choose your design, place your order then wait a few weeks for your items to arrive. But here at CyclingTips we were interested to learn a bit more about the process. On our flying visit to Hong Kong and China this week we got a behind-the-scenes look at how Champion System goes about producing their custom clothing.
If you haven’t worn Champion System custom kit in the past you probably know someone that has. But you mightn’t know much about their story.
The company’s founder, Louis Shih, found himself working in the fashion industry after moving with his parents from Hong Kong to San Francisco in the 1970s when he was 19. As his career progressed he eventually opened an agency which processed orders for women’s clothing in Hong Kong after Britain returned sovereignty to China. In Hong Kong Louis met a bunch of guys to ride with and they started their own club, the Evergreens. Through the process of ordering some club kit for the Evergreens, he found the process and the results underwhelming.
With a career spent in the fashion industry and, Louis decided he’d have a go at starting his own custom clothing manufacturer, and thus Champion System was born in 2005. Venture capital came from funds generated from Louis’s other garment production business and his three partners.
Fast forward six years and Champion System provides custom kit for cyclists of all levels, from amateur teams that want their own kit to wear on their Sunday café ride, to local clubs, to the professional teams Champion System sponsors.
One of the company’s biggest projects was born in 2010 when the Champion System Pro Continental team was born. Louis told us that the team was founded with the overriding goal of developing Asian riders into top level cyclists. In 2013 Champion System was approached by Lampre-Merida to supply the World Tour team with clothing.
“We had been approached by many World Tour teams in the past”, Louis told us. “Lampre has been around for almost 20 years and was trying to break out of the old-school Italian mould with a deliberate strategy of working with Asian manufacturers. It all came together at the last minute in December 2012.”
Champion System is just as well known for its back-end systems and customer service as it is for its custom kit. Chris Reynolds, an Aussie living in Hong Kong who has been with Champ Systems nearly since the beginning said, “Everyone thinks of us as a company who makes kit, but we’re almost an IT company as well. We have an enormous amount of staff coding our back-end systems to make ordering, production, and delivery processes as efficient as we can.” For an example of this, have a look at the CS-Direct ordering system.
Without these back-end systems and processes in place, Champion System would never had been able to get hundreds of sets of kit to Lampre-Merida ready for the Tour Down Under only a few weeks after the deal was struck. “We don’t have a separate team dedicated for Lampre. We have a person in charge of sponsorship relations but the rest of it is absorbed into our existing processes and resources,” Louis told us.
But Louis and the team came across unexpected challenges in sponsoring a World Tour team, challenges they hadn’t faced in owning a Pro-Conti team.
“To Lampre’s credit, they’ve been supporting cycling for 20 years, however they have ways they like to do things that they don’t like to sway away from”, Louis told us. “For example, logo size and placement sometimes comes at the price of not being able to give the riders the kit that they want. The panel layouts and kit designs sometimes aren’t what we would call ideal for the riders.”
“The reason we undertook this major step was so that the team would push us and put us out of our comfort zone so that we could be challenged to produce better garments”, Louis continued. “We have to work around some of these obstacles such as logo placement which we never have to do with our Pro Continental team.”
Putting it all together
Lampre’s team kit is manufactured in the Champion System factory in Shenzhen, China, just over the border from Hong Kong. We were fortunate enough to get a tour of the factory to see how the operation works.
Even though the Shenzhen factory is only 50km from the Champion System office in Hong Kong, the visit took us most of an entire day. After driving to the Hong Kong-China border carpark we had to catch a shuttle bus to border control, apply for a five-day Shenzhen visa, pass through customs, then get driven to the factory from the other side of the border.
Once there we were given a tour by a member of factory management, a fun-loving guy called Garf, who ran us through the process of producing an item of kit.
As you might expect, the first task in producing custom kit is to decide on a design. We counted roughly 70 designers in the Shenzhen factory whose job it is to work with customers around the world, to process and refine kit layouts. Their role is less about helping to design the kit as it is to make the changes the customers want before uploading the proofs to the Champion System website.
At this point the customer receives an email saying their design is ready to approve or adjust and once their approval is given, production begins.
For each item of clothing produced, a huge white sheet of paper is printed with each of the panels for that item of clothing. So for each jersey, for example, the printers will produce a sheet with a front panel, a back panel, two sleeves and a rear pocket.
It takes a few minutes to print each sheet of paper, which quickly adds up when your order extends into the tens, hundreds of thousands of units with the 24 hour operation.
The paper sheet is then cut roughly into its various panels and laid face down onto one large piece of the fabric of choice. This is then fed into a giant iron-like heater at 210 degrees C which vapourises the ink on the paper which is then absorbed by the pores in the fabric. This process is known as “sublimation printing”.
Once the ink-filled fabric is removed from the press it is checked to ensure no bleeding or other printer errors have occurred. The fabric is then cut roughly into the various panels before being sent over to the sewers to start assembling.
When the finished garments emerge from the sewing room they are checked for any blemishes, such as incorrect seams, and a team of workers do spots checks to ensure garment sizing is as it should be.
With everything present and correct the items are bagged individually before being sent downstairs to be freighted out to the customers.
Throughout our tour we had the great opportunity to be able to see a limited edition CyclingTips jersey being made from scratch. It probably only took 15-20 minutes from the time the design was printed onto the paper until we were holding the bagged jersey but in that time it must have passed through 10-15 people’s hands. It gave us a real sense of just how much is involved in putting a simple jersey together.
We had a similar experience while watching a pair of socks get made. You’d think there’d be a single machine that could churn out dozens of pairs of socks per minute but in reality it takes probably 10 minutes, per sock, from start to finish. The machine weaving the socks takes probably four minutes, leaving the operator with a sock that’s open at both ends.
From there the sock is passed to a pair of skilled technicians who do what Garf described as “the most difficult job in the factory” — separating out the individual threads at the toe end of the sock and threading them onto a machine that sews the sock shut so no seams are showing. Logos and branding are then ironed onto the sock according to the customer’s order.
Like most people we hadn’t really give much thought to how much is involved in producing custom clothing. But having seen it first hand it’s provided a great perspective on how kit goes from concept to reality.
The factory tour also gave us first-hand experience of what the conditions inside a Chinese textile and printing factory are like. It was certainly far better than how you might expect a factory of 600 workers to be. The place was well maintained, clean, well lit and was a far cry from the “sweatshop” you might imagine.
Here’s a selection of the photos we were lucky enough to take while spending time with the Champion System team in Hong Kong and in the Shenzhen factory.