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International Business Edgy design piqued Asian interest, but golf apparel company can’t rely on foreign factor

Chinese golfer Guan Tianlang during the Masters golf tournament in 2013, in Augusta, Ga.

Matt Slocum/Associated Press

When a 14-year-old Chinese teenager bucked the odds to become the youngest-ever player to make a PGA Tour cut at the 2013 Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Ga., it had an unexpected impact on one southern Ontario company.

Guan Tianlang stood out not only because of his precocious play but also because of the clothing he wore, in bold patterns and eye-catching hues ranging from bright orange to lime green.

His choice of golf attire was manufactured by Sligo Wear Inc., a Canadian golf clothing company, that set up shop in Mississauga in 2004 with the express purpose of providing an edgier take on an industry that had traditionally been as conservative as any in the sporting world.

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With Mr. Guan choosing to wear the company's apparel in one of the biggest events on the global sporting calendar, Sligo received an instant boost to its reputation, one that has grown in the teenager's home country and other Asian markets on the strength of its edgy designs and colour schemes. The company estimates it now does 15 per cent of its business in Asia, compared with none before 2013.

A change in Asian attitudes toward conformity has been a boon for retailers looking to export their product to the region, where views toward long-held social no-nos, such as showing a visible tattoo in a professional environment, have softened, allowing for greater expression in personal choices.

"Consumers are becoming more diverse and individual in their tastes," says Matthew Crabbe, Asia-Pacific director of research for global market research firm Mintel Group Ltd. "Previously assumed trends are no longer the rule. … This is why less conservative fashion, including in sports, is growing."

The golf industry itself is estimated to be a $15-billion (U.S.) concern by 2020, according to the Golf Equipment and Consumables: A Global Strategic Business Report, put out in February by Global Industry Analysts Inc. And while it estimates that the United States will continue to be the world's largest market, the Asia-Pacific area is predicted to be the fastest-growing, with a compound annual growth rate of 6.8 per cent over the next five years.

Receiving celebrity endorsement from a Chinese athlete at one of the leading global sports events gave Sligo instant credibility with Asian consumers.

"You can't really put a value on that; to get exposed to a worldwide audience is amazing," says Shawn Aucoin, Sligo's director of sales and one of the company's four founding partners. "That was really a big, big help in having our brand basically out there."

Mr. Aucoin says that Mr. Guan's choice of apparel at Augusta led directly to two Sligo apparel distributor deals in China. In the years since, one of Sligo's Chinese distributors has gone out of business. But the local relationship meant Sligo got crucial information about local needs, such as sizing.

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"More so than anything obviously, in Asia sizing is on the smaller scale," says Mr. Aucoin, "whereas [say] Australia is completely polar opposite. Asia is extra small, small-medium and Australia is large, XL, XXL and triple X.

"The Asian market [is] no shorts, always pants and if we have any long-sleeved pieces that can work in a hotter climate they tend to gravitate toward that as well."

But it is not just sizing that helps a company such as Sligo become entrenched in the Asia-Pacific retail market, where it now distributes in the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia, as well as China. The appetite for defying conformity in all walks of life has grown in recent years, and clothing and fashion are certainly no exception.

"Being different is no longer taboo," says Mintel's Mr. Crabbe.

"Having an edgier, non-traditional design aspect could be a key reason why Sligo has chimed well with Asian consumers. By being less conformist in design, Sligo has probably successfully caught the wave of this change in attitudes."

Bold and bright colours and patterns certainly underpin Sligo's design philosophy, and help set it apart from some of its competitors, but it may have another advantage over larger apparel companies, which also produce quality products.

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"Wealthy consumers in Asia, and in China, are widely travelled and very sophisticated, and with plenty of money to spend. Quality should therefore be a given," says Mr. Crabbe. "What they want on top of that is the personal touch."

Smaller-sized companies such as Sligo may well be able to use this to their advantage, given the more hands-on, streamlined production process their clothing goes through to get from design board to store window. In addition, having its apparel worn by golfers such as Mr. Guan, along with PGA Tour players such as Brian Gay and Canadian Roger Sloan, has given Sligo a certain cachet.

But this is not enough to allow it to rest on its laurels.

"Brand is now about being relevant now, as opposed to just having the heritage [of outfitting pro golfers]," Mr. Crabbe says. "The obvious luxury brands have become just that – obvious. This has meant they are losing some of the more sophisticated luxury clients to niche brands."

He goes on to explain that businesses that want sustained success in the Asia-Pacific market must prove their relevance on arrival and continue to do so, engaging and learning from customers in the region and avoiding any tendency to rely on old assumptions.

"The key thing to realize is that foreignness is no longer an immediate passport to success – it has not been so for quite some time now."

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