Hong Kong cyclist Louis Shih only wanted to solve the problem of getting a quality cycling jersey for his local club. Today, the co-founder of custom cycle clothing brand Champion System is backing China’s first UCI ProContinental team.
Louis Shih (center) out on the town with his Champion System team. Joris Boillat (SUI) is at left.
Louis Shih moved to San Francisco in the early 1970’s – following his Hong Kong-based parents, who had emigrated earlier – at the age of 19. To support his college studies, Shih applied for a job with a company, ‘Tops and Bottoms’, that he confused for a similarly named retailer. It turned out to be a garment factory.
“They were looking for a Presser. So, obviously I lied and said I knew how to press clothing, which I really didn’t. My colleagues found out after I burnt myself! But it was great. My boss at the time was very nice. He knew I was trying to earn some money to put myself through college. I only pressed for a couple of years, then I worked in other areas of the company like exports and administration.”
Shih eventually started his own agency in the fashion industry, facilitating massive orders of women’s garments for global enterprises such as ‘Limited Brands’. In the final years of his quarter-century living in the USA, a client asked Shih to open a Hong Kong office on their behalf. This request coincided with the impending transfer of Hong Kong’s sovereignty from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China. The opportunities of an emerging Asian economy sealed the deal on Shih’s return to Hong Kong in 1998.
“The cycling was very accidental. When I got back to Hong Kong I met a bunch of guys and we used to bike a lot. We started a club called ‘Evergreen Cycling’ and did a lot of trips together. At that time, if you wanted to cycle in China but didn’t belong to a club or team, Customs would either not let you; or, there was a lot of paperwork, because they don’t want you to sell your bike in China. We set up the team so we didn’t have to pay when we travelled!”
With co-founder Tak Sum Tang on a Evergreen Cycle Club trip to Hokkaido (Image credit: customclothing.com)
When the time came to make a club jersey, he approached a company based in Italy. The resulting negative experience would inform his next venture.
“First was the minimum quantity problem. Then there were a lot of hidden costs, which I didn’t like. Digital sublimation wasn’t even in, so every four colours cost more; full zipper, they charged you more; they never told us the final artwork charge. At the end of the day the biggest problem was the sales service. If they were late, they didn’t care. They never corrected mistakes. It made me very frustrated because, in the women’s apparel business, you could never get away with what they were doing. It wasn’t the expense, though I know that they were charging us too much money now. Not knowing the true cost until the end, was the most difficult part. I decided we wanted everything transparent, clean and clear.
In the end I said ‘You know what? I’m going to do it myself.’”
That was in 2005. Initially, enthusiasm yielded to the equipment-intensive realities of cycle clothing manufacturing processes. Whilst thrusting himself deep into further research about machinery and sublimation, Shih engaged a Shanghai-based factory to gradually develop on-paper ideas to his required standards.
“The quality of the fabric, the trims, the stitch count; all of those things came over time – I didn’t really consider this when we first started. I just knew, from my own experience, I expected to receive a certain amount of quality when I handed over a lot of money.”
A sublimation machine and a heat presser were the first pieces of machinery purchased for Champion System. Venture capital came in the form of funds generated from Shih’s other garment production business and three additional partners. [One of these partners, Tak Sum Tang, is today the Media Co-ordinator (Asia) for the Champion System professional cycling team. Two other companies, friends of Shih’s, also invested but were not involved operationally.]
Though he “wasn’t really planning on making (Champion System) into a big business”, a series of encounters brought Shih – or rather, his clothing – back to America. Following extensive “product testing” by Shih’s Evergreen buddies, Champion System sent its first export consignment to a customer in Alaska; introduced to Shih through a pilot friend from FedEx. The customer, Kathy Sarns of ‘Free Spirit’ clothing, remains a client to this day.
On a separate visit to New York, Shih met racer-turned-promoter, Charlie Issendorf. With his extensive network and profound knowledge of the domestic racing scene – a recent dinner shared at the same table as Issendorf led to a deep ocean of racing anecdotes and stories of friendships with some of America’s biggest names in professional cycling – Issendorf began building Champion System’s US business in 2006. One particularly smart element of the marketing strategy was to supply leaders jerseys to as many races as possible.
Across the border in China, Shih was successful in transitioning almost half of the good provincial teams – those that had money – to Champion System clothing; often replacing Pearl Izumi as the incumbent brand. [A supply agreement with China’s National Cycling team was also recently locked down.]
Explaining the nuances of track cycling to an eager guard; 2012 Beijing World Track Cup, Laoshan velodrome
Today, Champion System has become a well-recognized cycling clothing label in America and the Asia-Pacific region. In fact, Champion System’s presence in Japan proved to be a problem when the team approached Shimano as a potential equipment sponsor; an industry insider informed Shih that Shimano did not wish to support Champion System’s professional cycling team, due to the domestic competition with their own clothing brand, Pearl Izumi.
Back in Hong Kong, Shih rides often and early – rising before 6am to join his Evergreen buddies for a couple of hours within the city’s biggest public park. Every bicycle brand aspires to attract a demographic like that of Evergreen’s:
“We have two partners from the largest Chinese-owned architecture firm in Hong Kong, a couple of judges, four barristers – something like that – a bunch of lawyers, and we used to have two commissioners; one was the head of correctional services (Hong Kong prison system), the other was the immigration commissioner; both are retired in their fifties! We also have two guys that are in the Special Forces; one in the SWAT team the other in G4 (VIP Protection Unit, a branch of the Hong Kong Police) – he was the Clinton guy. They don’t like to be profiled so much.
We never talk about business, though. However, if one guy found out someone got a good deal on bike shoes, all of a sudden you’re placing an order for 25 of them. They’re the only business transactions. Everybody wants a good deal!”
Having spent the company’s formative years inspecting every artwork proof that came through Champion System’s email system, Shih is no longer across every number in the apparel unit’s financial statements. Today, his time is mostly committed to his Champion System cycling team – though he will still get involved in clothing projects.
“I got an email today from another Pro Continental team, now a client of ours, who wants to know if I can get them clothing in two weeks from now. Chinese New Year is only in one week! I can’t believe somebody is sponsoring a team at that level and can’t supply clothing. This team has already had this problem once before. Why are they still with the same people? It’s not that I don’t want to help them – we just have a lot of stuff to get out before Chinese New Year.”
As for sponsorship uptake in Asian professional cycling teams, Shih expresses absolute confidence that Champion System is the precipitate of an impending flood.
“I can guarantee it will grow, and that will be great for everybody. There was only one UCI Continental team in China when Champion System clothing started; now there are eight. When I first began attending UCI2.2 races, there were tonnes of clubs racing the Asia circuit; now they can’t even get in. There’s so many good continental teams. Next year, there will probably be another Professional Continental team.
The key behind our team is I want more Asian riders to go into the peloton. If they go on to get signed by a bigger team, then that’s good. They will always be from our team.”