Beating the Heat with Cool Textiles
Using a groundbreaking new cooling fabric, an international undergarment brand has unveiled a new collection that's completely Made in Taiwan – from materials to R&D to production to international marketing.
Beating the Heat with Cool TextilesBy Chao-Yen Lu
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 461 )
Since Taiwan and China signed the ECFA trade pact that eliminated mutual tariffs, products made in Taiwan have become hot sellers. International brands have begun to join hands with Taiwanese manufacturers to take advantage of the positive "Made in Taiwan" image to sell in international markets.
This May in Hong Kong, Malaysia, Shanghai, Singapore and Taiwan, Triumph launched its new "Touch Cool" underwear collection, which is said to lower body temperatures by up to 1.27° Celsius. In their design the bras and briefs differ somewhat from the sexy, chic style of Triumph's regular lingerie. Targeting sporty, active women, they come in a series of single colors – blue, green or black. Yet the new line is a major breakthrough, in that every single piece of underwear carries a label that states, "Materials come from Taiwan."
"This is a worldwide first in the history of Triumph," notes Triumph Taiwan general manager Adrian Kang. What Kang means with this so-called global first is that Triumph, which used to design its collections at the headquarters in Germany, while farming out production to regional production centers, this time allowed its Taiwanese subsidiary to design and produce the Touch Cool collection in Taiwan, and also market and sell it from there.
The project represents a major breakthrough for Taiwan's textile industry. In recognition of its importance, Taiwan's Department of Commerce supported it with a special R&D grant through the Assist Service Sector Technology Development program. Chung Kuo-tsui, head of the Industrial Economics Section at the Taiwan Textile Research Institute (TTRI), observes that few undergarment makers engage in exchange with other manufacturers, because they fear that their technology will be stolen. But this time Triumph Taiwan managed to bring together seven OEM companies at different levels of the manufacturing process, the first time a Taiwanese representative of an international brand has put together an entire industry chain to launch a new product line.
Forging Alliances to Go Global
"The times of individual companies fending all by themselves are over," notes Carl Huang, president of Taiwanese textile dye house Cotex. With zero tariffs now that ECFA has gone into effect, half-finished materials from Taiwan can be substituted by Chinese products even more easily. Therefore, Taiwanese manufacturers need to improve their international profile, and they need to cooperate with brand vendors and forge alliances with industry peers.
A number of functional products from Taiwan rank among the best worldwide in terms of technical capabilities. Yet when the companies that developed these superior products participate in international trade fairs and exhibitions in search of buyers, their efforts are often in vain, because they do not have own brands to showcase their materials. Against this backdrop, the Touch Cool underwear line became a new marketing model for Taiwanese manufacturers of superior functional textile fibers. "Now they can follow a brand vendor, integrate upstream and downstream production, and market the products worldwide," rejoices May S.M. Huang, who is in charge of the Touch Cool project as head of marketing at Triumph Taiwan.
Kou-bing Cheng, head of the Department of Fiber and Composite Materials at Feng Chia University, is extremely familiar with the difficulties of commercializing novel materials. First, he extracted the minerals for his material from Taiwan's central mountain range. Then he developed a process to weave the pulverized minerals into textile fibers, creating an underwear fabric that not only slowly absorbs heat, but also quickly dissipates it. But being a researcher, he did not know much about the market, much less about marketing. Since developing the cooling fabric four years ago, Cheng knocked on the doors of many manufacturers to commercialize his invention, but to no avail. Eventually, he got his breakthrough after he approached Triumph.
Cheng flew to Hong Kong to present his fabric at Triumph's Asian regional headquarters. A short while later he was invited to give a presentation at Triumph Japan in Tokyo. These contacts also triggered the interest of U.S.-based lingerie retailer Victoria's Secret.
"When cooperating with brands, it's no longer a question of just considering the technology side. You also have to learn to grasp the demands of the market," Cheng observes.
Persuading Headquarters Step-by-step
It was not an easy thing to get the seven manufacturers willing to cooperate with Triumph to commit funds for R&D even before they had gotten any orders for the finished product.
Another major technical challenge was to evenly weave the mineral powder into fabric. On the one hand, the minerals reduced the fabric's elasticity, while the sharp edges of the mineral crystals blunted the knitting machine needles. Usually the needles must be replaced after one year to 18 months, but with the Touch Cool fabric, they wouldn't last longer than half a month.
Therefore, Triumph needed to dispel some doubts to get the textile manufacturers on board. "From the beginning I promised the cooperating manufacturers that no matter how things turned out, Triumph Taiwan would definitely place orders with them, even if the Triumph subsidiaries overseas would not," May Huang says.
Triumph Taiwan meticulously planned its project, knowing well that it would not be an easy feat to convince the German mother company to let its Taiwanese subsidiary lead the production process, coordinating the Taiwanese manufacturers. In the beginning the Triumph subsidiaries in other countries poured cold water on May Huang's enthusiasm for the Touch Cool underwear. "Some people told me, 'We don't have hot summers like that here – there's no demand for such underwear,'" she recalls.
She decided to let the figures speak for themselves, compiling climatic data from various Asian cities to document that temperatures have been rising over the past decades. "In China they have only preserved the weather records for the past 50 years, but I managed to dig up all of it," she notes with pride. May Huang used the information to convince Triumph managers in other countries that as temperatures rise due to global warming, demand for cooling fabrics will increase too.
She also adopted a step-by-step strategy. First, she won over China and Singapore, which like Triumph Taiwan sit on the company's Asia Brand Board, before enlisting the support of other Asian markets and eventually successfully persuading headquarters in Germany.
With almost 200,000 pieces sold in five countries so far, the Touch Cool collection has generated nearly NT$100 million in revenue for Taiwan's textile industry. For Taiwan's functional fabric makers, the underwear line stands as a new model of bottom-up innovation in production and marketing, and it has also added a comfy touch to the Triumph image.
As Kang admits, a major challenge in competing with Japanese rival Wacoal has been that "customers don't associate Triumph with comfort." In that regard, the Touch Cool line has successfully enhanced the brand's image and competitiveness. After 18 months of painstaking efforts, Triumph and seven Taiwanese textile makers worked out a novel mode of cooperation that enabled "Made in Taiwan" underwear to become a hot seller in markets overseas. Following this crucial first step onto the international stage, cooperation is expected to take place on an even larger scale next year.
Translated from the Chinese by Susanne Ganz