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Today, a number of Rapha products are designed in London and made in China. This may seem like a contradictory statement, but it's not. The creative vitality of the UK and London’s network of talent means it is one of the world’s great design hubs. But in terms of quality manufacturing, to a scale that can satisfy the demand, Rapha has key pieces of performance roadwear made in the Far East.
The discussion about unethical practices in the east continues, but a new trend is emerging: As the Chinese economy’s meteoric rise continues so too do improvements in working conditions, standards of product output, quality and the technology used to create them.
The idea that Chinese-made products are cheap and inferior might be likened to that of the view taken towards electronics and machinery made in Japan fifty years ago. Now, as an economic powerhouse and technological leader, the Made in Japan label holds significant value intellectually as well as economically.
Ironically, as the economy in the west falters, Chinese consumers are enjoying their prosperity through western luxury goods. However, some of these goods are only western by design – designed in the west but manufactured in the east. Indeed, Rapha now have a healthy dose of customers in Taiwan and South Korea.
Whilst a label stating 'Made in England' implies quality, it doesn’t necessarily mean the product has been made with more skill or craft, materials or energy. Some western manufacturers are undoubtedly excellent but there are plenty of these now residing in the Far East.
Standing for Knowledge Technology Craft, KTC's pioneering approach puts them at the forefront of 'performance manufacturing'. Their mantra is simple but it works, which is why Rapha have partnered with the firm for almost six years. Having arrived in China four decades ago, KTC have observed some of the fundamental changes in the industrial worlds of the east and west. Managing Director, Gerhard Flatz, explains how they became pioneers in apparel manufacturing:
"KTC was founded in Hong Kong in 1971 by two Austrians, Hans Kremmel and Dieter Waibel, who imported Swiss yarns to manufacture turtlenecks for one of Austria’s oldest apparel brands, Benedikt Maeser. Following early success, Hans got in touch with the Dassler family and a long and fruitful partnership developed with adidas. Hans Kremmel became the exclusive sourcing partner for production in China, Hong Kong, Macau and Thailand. KTC were one of the earliest western companies to set up production in mainland China. By 1981 KTC had set up a joint venture in China with adidas, manufacturing apparel such as tracksuits. They progressed onto the production of premium ski-wear, most notably for the German brand Bogner, one of the most luxurious ski-wear brands in the world."
Much of this discussion of poor ethical practice is based on misconceptions of manufacturing in the Far East today. KTC, manufacturers of several key Rapha products, see the Made in China label standing as a mark of quality in performance wear, just as Made in Italy might indicate quality in the fashion world. Today a large, motivated workforce resides in the east. Whilst the west has experienced a decline in its skill base and, as a consequence, levels of quality, the opposite has been true of the east. In the last thirty years China in particular has bridged the gap with the west and, in many examples, overtaken it.
As the second largest economy in the world China continues to flourish, whereas the western world struggles through one financial crisis after the next. The national persona of China is a hard working one. The agricultural population, possessing a stringent work ethic, has flocked to the cities. In addition, more than 1.5 million engineers and scientists graduate from Chinese universities every year.
KTC have continued to work with some of the most premium brands in the world, particularly in sports clothing. KTC’s unparalleled reputation is expressed in their phrase ‘the Art of Performance Manufacture’. Gerhard continues:
“The capabilities of Chinese manufacturers are far beyond those in Europe. With such a large, skilled workforce in China and fast developing technology, Europe faces a tough task competing.”
This may suggest the perception of Chinese manufacturing in the west is perhaps owed to a fear of the competition, rather than reality. As the Chinese economy has grown, working conditions have improved and business has developed a social, ethical conscience. There have been major improvements in education, hospitals and the marks of western gentrification, like big fast-food brands, shopping centres, hotels and housing estates. The living conditions have improved rapidly and the east is enjoying what the western world has failed to maintain.
"Consumers need to understand that the time of sweatshops in China does not exist anymore. In their place are highly sophisticated factories with modern work practices and forward thinking employees."
KTC has doubled their workforce’s wages in the last year alone and expects salaries to rise again by as much as 20-30% over the course of the next year. Additionally, the Fair Wear Foundation (FWF), which is dedicated to improving the working conditions in the clothing industry, seek to uphold a strict code of labour practices in the east. KTC was the first independent sportswear manufacturer in the Far East to be endorsed by FWF.
For more information about KTC and their social responsibility scheme visit their website » www.ktcquality.com
Read about the manufacturer of Rapha's leather goods » burfields-and-co