Written by: René Jakl
Photo by: René Jakl
For sports-oriented customers looking for functional underwear in the Czech Republic, Moira has become synonymous with quality and comfort in extreme weather conditions.
ALTHOUGH ITS PRODUCTS were unknown until recently, during the nineties the Czech brand Moira did very well. What Electrolux is to vacuum cleaners and Xerox is to copiers, Moira is to functional underwear in this country. Sales are still rising by 40-50% a year. However, the firm’s meteoric arrival is also its greatest drawback – it can’t always handle growth-associated problems.
Mario Vlček, a mountain climber, aviator, motorcycle racer and the charismatic manager of the firm sewed customized sleeping bags and down parkas during the socialist era. After 1989 he founded a firm called Alae Lupuli and enriched his assortment with other top-quality gear for extreme conditions. “No one knew anything about functional underwear here,” says the 54-year-old Vlček. “The little they did know was something about Goretex functional textiles. But a Goretex parka doesn’t work properly if there is no proper undergarment.” The function of this inside layer is to draw off perspiration, thereby allowing cooling. At the same time, it moves water further from the body and does not absorb it, so when you become less active it doesn’t make you cold, it makes you warm. It was the development and sale of this heat-regulating inner layer that Vlček wanted to use to set his products apart from strengthening competition in 1993. “Items for elite athletes under extreme conditions weren’t enough to keep the firm in business. The price corresponded to the quality, so only snobs or athletes being supplied by sponsors could afford the products.”
So what should the new products be based on? After looking around for a while, Vlček decided on inexpensive but solid polypropylene fabric. In cooperation with the Slovak Technical Fabrics Research Institute in Svit, he developed a patented technology based on five-lobe polypropylene fabric. And Moira textiles – named for an anagram of Vlček’s name – came into being. The investment in developing the new material proved to be crucial. Other market players were afraid to intrude on the domain of giants like DuPont.
– innovative approach
– high-quality products
– relatively low production costs
– development of original material and ongoing investment in further development
– strong brand image in targeted consumer group
A happy coincidence also helped the new company at the beginning. “In 1993 I bought six knitting machines for CZK 10,000 each from Fezko in Strakonice, which was going bankrupt,” Vlček says. “They were worth CZK 18,000 just as scrap! They’ve already made me millions,” he adds. He was able to make further investments in the millions thanks to Moira products. Moira didn’t take its first loan for eight million until this year, in the aftermath of the catastrophic floods that destroyed 13 tons of inventory worth CZK 9 million. “At the beginning we had just two girls, and it was problematic simply reaching CZK 1 million in sales. The turning point came in 1993 and 1994, when we began making underwear. We now have over 100 employees. Our revenues are rising by 40-50% a year.” This year Vlček expects sales of between CZK 90 and 97 million. Were it not for the floods, he says sales would have reached CZK 113 million.
Challenges to growth
“We’re unable to meet today’s demand,” says Zdeněk Svoboda, the firm’s director – and he really means it. A new, integrated system connecting communications, logistics, and accounting should help satisfy customer needs. However, according to production director Marcela Truhlářová, this situation will improve significantly when the planned concentration of production on one site becomes reality. Vlček would also like to increase the level of control.
Moira is still growing by leaps and bounds, but due to competition the firm has lost significant market share in functional underwear. “Nevertheless we still hold a dominant market position,” says Svoboda. According to Vlček, the largest competitors are the Swiss firm Craft, the Czech firm Jitex, the Slovak firm Slovenka, the Swedish firm Helly Hansen, the Austrian firm Löffler, the Norwegian firm Brynje, and the Swiss firm Odlo. Competitive pressure has shown the people at Moira that design and comfort are as important as functionality. For this reason, the company is always trying something new. The fabric should become even fine (they say it should feel like cotton) while the patterns are to be modernized. Today, specialized company shops offer T-shirts and socks containing the American fabric Outlast, which first retains heat and then releases it as the temperature drops. Another new fabric is the Japanese Eks, which generates heat only in the presence of moisture. The latest news from the firm’s workshop is pleasant-to-the-touch knitwear called Imarion, which on one side draws off moisture and on the other side provides warming. Flat, level seams let you choose which side to put next to your body.
The firm’s strategic plans include the idea of connecting with Schoeller, a Swiss underwear maker that has a well-established brand in Europe, and delivering Moira fabrics to it. However, the visionary Vlček is looking beyond textiles: “I’m considering adding our polypropylene fabric to concrete to prevent its fracturing when it dries. The fine, chemically inert fabric could also find interesting uses in dust filters.”
|Moira’s originsSpun in Slovakia from a Swiss nozzle, enriched in Germany with American and Japanese supplemental materials, and knit and sewn in Strakonice. In brief, this is how the Czech Moira came into being.
First it’s necessary to spin the fiber, which is produced in Svit, Slovakia. “Polypropylene is a very cheap raw material as it can be produced from nearly anything, from diesel fuel to gas emissions from dumps,” says Moira’s owner Mario Vlček with only slight exaggeration. When the fiber is produced it goes through a special spinning nozzle made in Switzerland that forms its patented five-lobe profile. This gives the fiber twice the surface it would have had in a circular cross-section, allowing it to carry moisture.
The prepared fiber is spun and functional additives are introduced into it. This isn’t simple. German expert Wolfgang Harmgharth was the first to do it, and all the fabrics Moira produces go through his factory. The rest of the manufacturing process takes place in Strakonice, under the supervision of production director Marcela Truhlářová. The result is eight basic fabrics broken down according to the ratios in which they combine the two basic parameters of functional underwear: moisture removal and heating. Finished T-shirts, briefs, slips, sweat shirts, scarves, caps, face masks, union suits, and more of the products are delivered to the firm’s three sales outlets, with the rest going to six regional dealers that see to nationwide distribution. “About 10% of our production goes to exports,” says director Zdeněk Svoboda. Most exports go to Slovakia, with smaller orders shipped to Hungary, Canada, Germany, Switzerland, and Chile.