2018 FIFA World Cup full of Taiwanese hidden champions (series 1/3)
By Shih Hsiu-chuan, CNA staff reporter
There is no better stage to showcase sportswear than the world's most-watched sporting event-- the FIFA World Cup -- and Taiwan has as in past World Cups taken advantage, even if in relative anonymity.
The tournament places huge demand on uniforms; jerseys have to provide great fit, breathability, moisture resistance and sweat regulating properties while offering maximum comfort and mobility, and Taiwan has apparently met the challenge.
At least 15 of the 32 teams competing at the World Cup, including Belgium, Brazil, England, Egypt, Germany, Japan, Sweden, and Saudi Arabia, were equipped with uniforms made of innovative fabrics from Taiwan, according to Taiwan's Industrial Development Bureau (IDB).
That's not a surprise considering that major sports apparel and shoe brands all rely heavily on Taiwanese suppliers even while fiercely competing with each other.
Favored by sportswear giants
"Taiwan is the most favored country by sportswear giants such as Nike, Adidas, Puma, and Under Armour when they source workout fabrics," Huang Po-hsiung (黃博雄), head of the Department of Products at the IDB-affiliated Taiwan Textile Research Institute (TTRI), told CNA.
The big brands have long outsourced most of their products to Taiwanese-owned ODM (original design manufacturers) or OEM (original equipment manufacturers) suppliers because Taiwan is recognized as the place to go for functionally advanced textiles, Huang said.
It also helps, he said, that Taiwan's manufacturers promise sustainability in the production process.
In recent decades, Taiwan's apparel industry has relocated most downstream production bases overseas and gradually also moved upstream and midstream manufacturing operations abroad, while focusing on research and development (R&D) at home.
IDB section chief Hung Hui-song (洪輝嵩) attributed the transformation of Taiwan's textile industry from a low-cost fabric supplier into a technical textile powerhouse to the heavy investment made in R&D.
High tech makes smart apparel
The advantages of the technologies Taiwan possesses in the semiconductor, biomedical and electronic components sectors also contribute to Taiwan being a pioneer in developing smart apparel that can pick up users' biometric signals, according to the IDB.
About 80 percent of the functional garments sold by the world's top-five sportswear brands have used fabrics from Taiwanese companies, IDB data shows.
That pivotal role in the textile supply chain is not widely known among end users, largely because of client confidentiality clauses required by the sportswear brands.
Far Eastern Group Chairman Douglas Hsu (徐旭東) recently lamented that it was a pity that the uniforms of England, Brazil and Saudi Arabia at the 2018 World Cup did not bear "made by Far Eastern New Century (FENC)" tags, referring to the group's textile unit.
FENC, a world-leading producer of non-woven polyester staple fibers made from recycled plastic bottles and plastic waste in the ocean, was again a primary supplier of World Cup uniforms this year after making several improvements.
Among them was coming up with a fabric for the jerseys that was 15 percent lighter than the material used in 2014, said Martin Cheng (鄭學博), a senior manager with FENC.
Another advancement was the use of a weaving technique called jacquard weaving, in which complex patterns are woven into a fabric. This allowed for more openings in areas where players are likely to sweat more, facilitating air movement and cooling the body.
According to the TTRI's Huang, upstream producer Shinkong Synthetic Fibers, midstream suppliers Fu Hsun Fiber and Men-Chuen Fibre and downstream producers Eclat Textile Company and New Wide Enterprise were also involved in manufacturing the 2018 World Cup jerseys.
A presence in entire supply chain
"Taiwan has a presence throughout the entire supply chain," he said, adding that there were many other Taiwanese firms in the supply chain, but they prefer to fly under the radar, given confidentiality issues.
Beyond uniforms, several Taiwanese-owned footwear makers, such as Pou Chen Corp, Feng Tay Enterprise, and Ching Luh Group, which are long-term suppliers of Nike, Adidas and other major brands, manufactured cleats for players at the 2018 World Cup, the IDB said.
Their subcontractors included the Long John Group, which supplies the upper section of Nike's Flyknit footwear, highly touted for its featherweight materials and virtually seamless knitting technology.
Also among them is Ever Tech Plastic Co., a manufacturer of plastic-injected soles that reportedly supplies nine of the world's 10 most popular sports shoe brands, the IDB said.
Lai Chi-chien (賴奇見), secretary-general of the Taiwan Footwear Manufacturers Association, said Taiwanese manufacturers account for about 80 percent of the sports shoes produced in the world, with South Korean makers their main rivals in the production of running shoes.
Taiwanese companies have emerged as the top choice of the big brands when sourcing shoes from ODM or OEM contractors because of their reputation for innovation, trustworthiness, and reliability, Lai said.
"Taiwanese manufacturers usually strictly adhere to client confidentiality, and their mass-produced items are the same quality as samples provided," he said.
Many of these Taiwanese contractors who serve the big brands are "hidden champions," a phrase referring to small- and medium-sized businesses who are leaders in their respective fields but generally unknown to the public.
Long Way Enterprise, a producer of athletic protective gear and other accessories, is one of several companies that refused to comment on their roles in the 2018 World Cup supply chain when asked by CNA.
But an IDB official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirmed that, along with Pakistan, Long Way manufactured some of the Adidas balls being used in 2018 World Cup matches in its factory in China, just as it did for the 2014 World Cup.
Lucky Art Crayon Factory, a patent holder of body paint that can make a national flag of three colors on a face, is a primary supplier of face stickers for football fans.
Frank Hsu (徐凡), vice president of the only body paint manufacturer in Taiwan, said demand for the product began to explode a year ago because of the 2018 World Cup, especially from European countries, and reached about 5 million sets for the 2018 World Cup alone.
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