If you are part of the BJJ community in California, or pretty much anywhere for that matter, chances are you’re familiar with Scott Nelson or his work. Perhaps you’ve even met him at an event, tournament or in one of his stores. Scott is the owner and president of both On The Mat and Lucky Gi, two long-standing American jiu-jitsu brands, known for product innovation, quality and style. As one of the veterans of the BJJ industry in North America, Scott has a rich history of involvement in the growth of the sport and the development of the products we all use every day in our training; simply put, he’s the real deal.
When Scott started OTM, it was a relatively simple website, offering downloadable videos of BJJ and Vale Tudo matches that were not accessible any other way for Americans. The videos were low quality, and at the time, streaming didn’t exist, so people were lucky to be able to download a video overnight. During that time, Scott was playing around with the idea of developing and producing gis. His friend, recognizable BJJ figure Dave Camarillo, had been constantly bringing back interesting gis from his trips to Japan, and BJ Penn and the Nova Uniao crew would always bring back new gis from Brazil. Scott paid attention to the product and the detail; he would listen to the discussions on the tatami about what needed to be improved about the gis.
At this point, Scott went on to make several important and interesting developments of his own; ones that would change the gi business. He’d met a company that produced raceboat sails, and brought them some gi samples to pick their brains and look for some expertise from outside of BJJ. Raceboat sails are specifically designed to be highly rip-resistant, while remaining lightweight, so the connection between the needs of sails and gis was well-conceived. By applying sail-sewing techniques, they helped Scott to develop designs that would prevent tearing in areas of the kimono subject to high-stress. Among the innovations that came from this consultation was the use of rip-stop materials in gis. Rip-stop had been used for years in other applications outside of jiu-jitsu, and proved to provide an incredible tear-resistance-to-weight ratio, which naturally makes for an ideal fabric for use in gis. Although Scott doesn’t necessarily claim to have invented the use of rip-stop materials in jiu-jitsu, he does admit that back then, when he was researching the raceboat sails, rip-stop materials were not being used in gis yet.
Next, Scott pursued the help of a classic suit tailor; who else better to consult about the fit and feel of a complex cut-and-sew garment. He brought the tailor a gi, one that was baggy and ill-fitted, much like most of the available offerings at the time, and challenged him to redesign the pattern drafting to achieve a cut that fit much more like a tailored suit. Together, they cut the gi up into pieces and rethought each part. What resulted was the predecessor to today’s popular fitted kimonos. They also decided to incorporate a gusset in the crotch of the pants, which had until that point only been used in Karate and the other martial arts that involve kicking. Prior to this, the design of BJJ gi pants didn’t allow for nearly as much mobility or spread range. They tapered the arms and tapered the trunk of the jacket from the armpits down to the lats; in effect, they changed the way a gi was shaped and how it fit entirely.
Once the 9/11 attack took place, Scott decided to leave the USA, packed his bags and moved down to Brazil, where he lived for the following three years.
During this time, Scott explored the business of gi manufacturing, learning the ins and outs of the business and visiting the factories of the who’s who of classic Brazilian gi brands; Atama, War, Krugans, Koral, etc. He had been working as the production manager for Gameness, and saw first hand the hardships of the manufacturing and development process in Brazil. He knew that when the time would come for him to develop his own line, and push the boundaries of innovation in gi design, it would be just a matter of minutes before getting knocked off. So he took all that he had learned during his time in Brazil, and rolled it all into his development plan, one that he would ultimately take to Pakistan.
Scott conducted his initial Pakistan sourcing research online, but this was at a time that BJJ kimono production was not so commonly understood, and certainly not in Pakistan. All he wanted was to create a kimono that he himself would want to use, something that he believed in; it was a labor of love. More than anything, he wanted to make cool stuff that nobody had seen before, which is, in effect, the true nature of entrepreneurship.
He decided to visit Pakistan in person mainly because he didn’t know what else to do; he had spent two years shipping samples back and forth, racking up astronomical DHL fees trying to develop remotely, and getting nowhere fast. But he wanted to make a lot of changes to the design and construction of his kimonos, and improve the fit and feel. His only solution was to go there in person to put everything in place.
Scott may not have necessarily been the first to source kimono manufacturing in Pakistan - although it’s certainly likely that he was among the first - but the factories there never had any western gi developers actually come over to get personally and intimately involved in production and design; the others were developing their product lines via email and enduring the slow and painful process of sampling back and forth by courier, like Scott had done previously.
The goal was to literally show the factory workers and managers exactly what he wanted and how. On that first trip, he stayed a total of ten days, and left with the gi he had intended to create. That gi turned out to be the very first Lucky Gi. The process was difficult for him, there were endless changes and re-workings. The manufacturers didn’t speak much English, and were certainly not familiar with the specific BJJ-industry wording he used to describe the details of his designs. Of course Scott wasn’t able to converse in Urdu, so communication was a sticking point.
Despite the language barrier and the need to educate the factories on the specific requirements of a jiu-jitsu gi, Pakistan was a great choice for Scott. The Sialkot region is one of the largest cotton producers in the world, making for an ideal and accessible sourcing ground for the raw materials. Sialkot is also an important manufacturing center for leather goods, and specifically leather sporting goods such as soccer balls, boxing gloves and punching bags. This expertise in the production of complex cut-and-sew goods is yet another reason this region is ideal for gi production.
The process and experience of innovating in development and sourcing certainly sounds like fun, but Scott warns that it’s not easy, and is certainly not for the faint of heart. As one of the pioneers in this space, it took him five or six years from the start before he had a gi on the market.
But during Scott’s ten days in Pakistan, things didn’t go quite as he had hoped. The gi work was tough, but the real problems found him outside of the factory, in his hotel.
Stay tuned for part 2...