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Where Innovation Thrives:
Introducing a lesser-known member of the ASSOS family.
The conversation strays onto the topic of lemon trees as we drive from a secret airport somewhere in the Balkans to our production facility in Bulgaria, where every single pair of ASSOS shorts is made. Our chat focuses on the tricks that Stavros, the head of this factory, has up his sleeves to protect his beloved citrus fruits from the ravages of the cold winters experienced here; frosts can kill the flowers and with no flowers there’s no fruit. Though somewhat unrelated to textiles, sewing, and creating some of the most technologically advanced pieces of cycling apparel, there’s a synergy with his eye for detail and determination to create the best fruit possible and the work done in his facility. It’s only later that talk moves onto fabrics, stitching, and apparel construction. Even here, he’s something of an expert.
It’s perhaps not widely known, but very few apparel brands within cycling can claim to have their own production facilities. Rather than investing in something this costly, many rely on third-party producers — so-called “ghost manufacturers” — normally based in Northern Italy, Portugal, and East Asia. But not ASSOS: this is our factory, 100% ASSOS, where innovation can thrive. This is the reason we are here. It’s early December 2018 and Stavros is currently in the throes of S9 short production.
When it comes to our products, we pride ourselves on taking ownership of everything from fabric development through to production and logistics. This sees us linking with a select few fabric developers, and means that we have invested in setting up our own production facilities — exclusively ASSOS — of which this is one.
Why? Well, considering that the development time of a new product at ASSOS can be up to 5 years, with somewhere close to 80 different prototypes being developed, it’s evident that there’s no shortage of technology and innovation in all of our pieces. A reliance on third-party production facilities would lead to a stagnation in this development, complete with a risk of secrecy breaches, and wayward quality control. Something that we would never go in for.
This is where Stavros and this facility comes into the equation as a lesser-known but hugely critical part of the ASSOS family. The son of watch repairers and engineers, he has patience and an eye for detail that were instilled in him from a young age. He regales us with figures, breaking down the cost per kilometer of running his car (which has 600,000km on it), production numbers, hourly breakdowns. The list of numbers that he can sprout is endless. It’s also clear that Stavros’ mechanical engineering education in Germany is an asset in his current work; he’s visibly proud as he shows us machines designed by himself to cut different pieces of fabric and speed up his production process.
From the outside the modern façade looks distinguished, and we enter through full-gas sliding doors emblazoned with our cyclist logo, because this is ASSOS after all. Inside is a hive of activity, as the production of the S9 shorts is in full swing. The clicks, hisses, and buzzes of the machines on the factory floor would present a minimal techno producer’s dream, and samples abound for future tracks. This hum is the daily soundtrack to the lives of the skilled workers here, although one could say that it’s somewhat poorly mixed with the Bulgarian radio in the background.
“Each short has about 60 different steps in the production, from cutting the fabric through to packaging it up. This means that each pair of shorts gets the same amount of quality checks too — if not more,” Stavros explains, gesturing intently at the various stages of S9 production. “There are incredibly high standards here, and the staff pride themselves on this; it’s what keeps them motivated. Our mindset is not about doing more but, rather, doing better. When we need to increase production then we hire more staff instead of asking our current employees to speed up,” asserts Stavros. It makes sense, and it’s clearly something that he is proud of.
Having been part of ASSOS for close to 20 years, it’s fair to say that Stavros is something of an expert at enacting our standards too. He recalls with a hearty laugh how the ASSOS founders first tug-tested his stitching — it was immediately approved and from then on he’s been part of ASSOS. These days Stavros is acutely aware that factory work isn’t for everyone, and has therefore taken a more-is-more approach to his staff’s wellbeing: “I lay on a bus from the city center to the factory with free travel for everyone. This factory is brand new and has a working environment that is second to none. I do feel pressure because everyone here depends on us to keep them employed, but I also want to make sure that I retain my staff, because once we’ve invested in training we really want to keep hold of them. And you know what, there are so many faces that have been here since the beginning.” Stavros continues to stroll around the sewing room, flooded by the rich winter sunlight, where it’s nice to be greeted by everyone—all part of the ASSOS family.
Everywhere you look there are deftly skilled hands working on each stage of the production. It’s impressive to see firsthand the technological complexities that go into the production of the S9 shorts. The rollBar and the A-Lock system — brand new for the S9 — are a step above, a flourish that has taken some teaching for the staff. The comfort of their single seam construction might look simple, but as the staff demonstrate, it vastly increases the complexity of production. A single pair takes around 40 minutes to make, around 1/3 longer than their predecessor the S7. Sometimes it’s all too easy to just slip on our shorts, embracing the comfort and performance, and not think about how and where they are produced. Innovation is something that demands investment—as are ethical production methods. Two things that we’re hugely proud to be part of and two reasons why we have this facility.
We leave as the early winter sun cuts a yellow glow over the local mountains. The flock of workers leaves the building at the same time as we do. It’s around about now that we wish we had flown with our bikes to make the most of some unknown Eastern European roads.
There’s one final stop to show us where he is planning on planting some peach trees and a fruit garden, with all the details about temperature and sun paths explained. That heart-warming, boundless enthusiasm for horticulture is once again on show. We know that the fruits will taste great.
Goodbyes are said exuberantly as we head back to Switzerland with the first batch of S9 shorts destined for Team Dimension Data. Will yours be next?