By Lavinia Calvert | November 2010
The idea for Gimono came out of a visit to Tokyo in the summer of 2005. Grant (co-founder) was training daily at the Kodokan Judo Institute. Each night he’d return to the apartment with his wet, smelly, blood-stained gi. He complained it was too hot and heavy to train in and it was affecting his performance and recovery. I told him he probably wasn't training hard enough! Besides, you could go au naturel in Japan in summer and you'd probably still be hot!
I vividly recall the conversation that led to us establishing Gimono because what came out of it ended up consuming the best part of our lives for the next five years. We'd been talking about the fabric from which Grant's gi was made. It reminded us of the heavy, canvas-like rugby jerseys worn in the old days by the New Zealand All Blacks. While strong enough to withstand a fair amount of pulling and tugging, they weren’t designed to breathe or wick moisture and they weren’t exactly lightweight. Not like today’s uniforms. That got us thinking. The sportswear of virtually every mainstream sport in the world now featured high-tech materials designed to provide multiple benefits, both functional and aesthetic. But that didn't seem to be the case for martial arts uniforms. We wondered why. Surely someone had developed a high performance gi by now?
On our return to New Zealand we set about researching the market. We discovered that there really hadn't been any major innovations in the design or construction of traditional gi in over a century. For the most part, they were still made out of cotton or polyester/cotton blends and thickness and weight tended to equate to strength. Their design had remained largely unchanged and until the late 1990’s, when blue uniforms were introduced to distinguish between judo contestants at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, most judogi were white (although other colors had appeared in other styles).
We quickly discovered that Grant wasn't the only player on the planet to be dissatisfied with his cotton gi. We found lots of you engaged in deep conversation about the wear and care of your gi. It wasn't uncommon to hear of people shelling out good money for a high-end cotton gi only to spend hours mastering the fine art of shrinking it to fit before its first wear and hoping it wouldn't shrink any more once you got it right.
We also learned that there are probably 101 ways people have tried to rid their gi of nasty odors … you know, the kind that fake their disappearance after washing only to reappear the instant the garment makes contact with the human body again. And judging by the comments of some, we reckon wear and tear on domestic washing machines might well have lead to more breakdowns than just those of the odd appliance.
So it was clearly no secret that traditional gi had some fairly serious drawbacks. What surprised us most was not the lengths people went to to overcome them – Grant, for one, knew about those first hand – but how well-defined and widespread the problem appeared to be. What wasn't clear however, was why the problem hadn't yet been fully solved. Maybe it had something to do with tradition? Maybe, given the apparent willingness of customers to find their own workarounds, existing suppliers lacked any real incentive to innovate in the category? Maybe it was just all too hard to bring about change?
In our minds, there had to be way to modernize this age-old uniform without losing sight of its heritage or the respected traditions and etiquette of the martial arts. Maybe the answer lay in finding a new way while continuing to honor the old way?