"Hello my brother in christ. I make custom leather very good price, you give measurements and best qality you must be happy."
This is an actual private message sent to my personal Facebook page. I didn't have to dig far back to find it either, since I get at least one per day. Chances are, if you have a motorcycle in your profile pic and/or have a network of motorcycle enthusiasts in your social media circles you get one or two requests per week as well. They're Pakistani suit makers, and they want to make you qality lethers. At good price. Must be happy you.
On one hand, you have to respect their hustle. I've seen some of the rejection messages people send these guys, including all the foul language you can think of and going so far as to include a death threat here or there. Despite this, they get back on the horse and message their next potential customer. On the other hand, however, this tactic of hocking cheap (both in terms of price and quality) suits via random "cold call" social media messaging campaigns has degraded the credibility of the otherwise excellent Pakistani leather goods industry. Speaking of which, I think before we proceed it is necessary to give some backstory into the history of Pakistan and their production of leather goods.
The Pakistani leather industry
In the 1950's leather tanneries began to pop up in Lahore, Pakistan. This was the beginning of what would become something big for the state, and by the 1970's more advanced factories were blossoming and beginning to produce finished leather. Quality improved through the 1980's, and by 1990 the leather sector in Pakistan had become the second-largest foreign exchange earner for the country. According to businessmirror.com, Pakistan's leather industry is sharing nearly $1B per year and comprises of six sub-sectors including tanning, leather garments, gloves, footwear, shoe uppers, and leather goods. Industry experts are of the opinion that Pakistani leather technology and quality are reckoned at 2nd behind only Italy. There are about 800 tanneries in Pakistan, with 213 members presently recorded with Pakistan Tanners Association engaged with exporting finished leather and/or leather products.
These days, you might be surprised to know that some of your favorite motorcycle gear companies are contracting their production to a Pakistani factory. Most companies are shy to admit this, and you have to dig around before you can find their country of origin. At Bison we are not ashamed to say our suits and gloves are built in Paksitan. Heck, I'm here writing an entire blog about it! In terms of motorcycle gear specifically, the quality of not only the leather hides but the overall construction, armor and branding elements have caught up to - and in some cases surpassed - that of products being produced in the European and US markets. Obviously this is a blanket statement. With hundreds of factories out there, some factories are turning out superior goods while others are extremely lacking. Let's take a look at why Pakistani leathers aren't all bad.
Weeding out the bad apples and overcoming the Pakistani leathers stigma.
In the title of this blog I say it's time to get over the "bad Pakistani leathers" stigma... mostly. Like anything else in this world the level of quality varies greatly from manufacturer to manufacturer and as I mentioned above, there are hundreds of tanneries and factories fighting for the business of a handful of distributors like Bison. Of those hundreds, only a single-digit quantity of them would be considered "top tier" manufacturers with modern facilities, leathersmiths with experience in assembling racing gear, certificates of authenticity, insurance, and proper tax & duties reporting.
You may be wondering how all of these factories came to be? Essentially what you have are dozens and dozens of spin-offs. An employee at a larger factory who learns just enough about the industry that they detach and start their own venture. Because the exchange rate is so high (currently over $165), selling suits and gloves in low numbers to individuals in countries like the US are a sustainable business model. Hence, all the social media messages in your inbox. It's simply a numbers game. They contact everyone, even your aunt or brother who have never ridden a motorcycle. If one person out of 100 agree to buy a cheap suit, they're floating along and most don't care if you're unhappy with the product. Fitment issues? Good luck. Workmanship warranty? Um, no.
Counterfeits and knock-offs
There is another way Pakistan managed to shoot themselves in the foot when it comes to credibility: knock-offs and fakes. Chances are the Pakistani guy messaging you on social media will send images of impressively-authentic looking Alpinestars or Dainese suits, gloves and boots. This is a complete farce and infuriating to those of us making an honest living in the industry. In fact, Bison has been impacted by theft of logos and photos from Pakistani competitors on social media and various websites, one of which went so far as to copy our entire website verbiage and lift all our stock website photos for use on their own site, complete with poor photoshopped versions of their logos over ours.
Beyond the knock-off branded gear coming out of the factories, an even more worrying trend is the litany of fake items being used in the construction of motorcycle gear. Every component that makes up the overall construction of a set of leathers, for instance, can be had in knock-off form. From zippers to kevlar, to thread and yes even the animal hide itself... There is more than one" knock-off" version of each component available on the market. I met with a rep from one Pakistani factory who laid out all the components of a suit on a long table. There were zippers of all sizes, both in plastic and metal styles. The gentlemen said "Here we have genuine YKK zippers in metal and plastic. Next we have the Pakistani copies. Finally, the China copies. Price begins high and goes down respectively". Suffice it to say, we shunned the very idea of using anything short of genuine items. We then asked for appropriate certificates showing the actual origin of the YKK zippers.
And this, in my opinion, is the single-most damaging thing to the public perception of Pakistan leathers. It's unfortunate that these people felt they had to rely so heavily on fake Dainese and Alpinestars gear to get people's attention and it's worsened by the fact that they are undermining their respectable skills as leathersmiths by relying on cheap knock-off materials which fail and put the wearer in danger. Fortunately the reputable producers realize the errors of others and they're working to reverse the damage. By using their own branding and designs these companies are building a name for themselves instead of relying on fake replicas of the big name brands' stuff. These manufacturers have also abandoned the "cold call" messaging tactic in favor of seeking partnerships with established companies like Bison.
Why contract to Pakistan?
By the time I made the decision to start a bespoke leathers company I had already owned several custom suits. The feedback I would give those suits ranges from "uncomfortable and heavy but crashed well" to "exploded on impact and got me hurt". I found very quickly that there were differences between each company. So I started to do my homework.
The first step for me was performing post-crash "autopsies" on damaged gear from every company I could get my hands on. What kept me (or my friend) safe, what could have been there to keep us safer, and what - if anything - catastrophically failed on the suit/gloves? After that, comfort and mobility came into play. What features and cuts were most comfortable while retaining structural integrity? Could anything be added or changed to make our gear stand out among the competition in these areas, and lastly, in terms of style?
Once we answered those questions we began shopping suppliers. Thanks to friends involved with the industry, I got some great "ins" and was even able to meet with suppliers in person to see and feel their materials, ask questions and get a general idea of what their operations looked like. I logged hours of video calls with potential suppliers overseas and finally, we ordered pre-production goods from the short list of final candidates.
The requirements for a Bison factory were (in no order): the facility itself had to be clean and modern, workmanship had to be top-notch with consistent look and performance from item to item, materials had to be genuine and certified as such where necessary, and the price needed to be competitive despite each item being produced as a "one off" with very few quantity orders being placed. Lastly, we would not do business with any company who promoted or sent us photos of knock-off name brand items produced in their factory.
Once we had pre-production goods in hand, I turned to friends in the United States leather industry for feedback, and to gauge whether it was possible to produce a competitive product in the US. A relative of mine who works in the leather industry out of Wichita, Kansas took a good hard look at our pre-production Thor.1 suit. He nodded in approval and said "This is actually really nice. How much are you charging for these?" When I explained that our MSRP goal was $1000, he laughed and said "I couldn't build this suit for less than that"!
It seemed everywhere we looked for a competitive builder there were tradeoffs that made Pakistan all the more appealing. The biggest issue with production in the US is a lack of skilled workers in the industry as well as price. Vietnam and China have huge language barriers and slow communication, as well as questionable business practices ranging from environmental concerns to tariff evasion. Italy is expensive and, frankly, most leathers coming out of Italy these days are being assembled by Pakistani workers who live in Italy making a far lower wage than native Italians. Mind blown? Yeah, mine was too.
With the above in mind, I will tell you I have seen the "behind the scenes" highs and the lows of the industry. While our suppliers' factories are clean, modern and fully tooled, I have been given video "factory tours" of facilities which were nothing more than an old sewing machine on a dirt-floor garage with a single incandescent light hanging above it,and a pile of hides stacked in the corner (A quick note here: I respect the fact that the guy in the dirt floor garage is trying to make an honest living, and some are indeed great leathersmiths). I've personally crashed pre-production suits that looked great but failed due to poor construction or inadequate/knock off materials. And I've been stood up by potential suppliers all over the world who simply took my money and vanished.
It took a year-and-a-half of trial and error, as well as thousands of dollars in lessons learned for us to finally come to an agreement with a supplier we felt was the perfect match for Bison. In other words, we've done the legwork and spec'd the features so you can be assured you're getting the highest-quality product possible at the best possible price.
Customer service, warranties and guarantees
The last thing to consider - and frankly, the most important second only to the construction of the actual garments - is customer service. This would include things like fitment guarantees and manufacturer (workmanship) warranties. Is the company you are considering buying from active in the community? Do they have a presence and a positive reputation in the community? Do they have written warranties and guarantees? In other words, if something does go wrong with your order or your gear is someone standing behind the name, ready to make the situation right? If you do some quick research you'll see there are a few of us out there who stand behind our products, and some pretenders who would rather sell you a suit then vanish.
In the end, there are two ways to figure out who's who in Pakistan and whether or not the person you are talking to knows what they're doing:
1.) Trial-and-error. Order a suit, hope for the best.
2.) Buy from a reputable company with established ties to Pakistani manufacturers. Of course, this is your best bet and in the case of Bison we've not only verified the quality of the goods, we've also worked with our suppliers to improve our products over the years.
Unfortunately you can't judge a book by it's cover, and just as the guy in the dirt floor garage might turn out a beautifully crafted suit, the super-clean modern factory might make excellent fashion jackets but have no clue how to build a proper, safe set of motorcycle racing leathers. The guy messaging you on Instagram trying to sell you a $350 suit? Unless you have $350 to toss away on a prayer and you have really good health insurance, pass on those offers. There's a reason they've given Pakistani leathers a (mostly) undeserved bad rap.
Go fast, be safe,
Rob Lackey, Co-Founder, Bison Track LLC