In a recent promotion video released before the recent Christmas holidays, the parents of a small sleeping boy were seen remotely zipping their tent down from the comfort of their campground chairs. The tagline of the short “Auto Camping” film, which can still be viewed on Youtube, reads “Happy Fastening.”
It is obvious from the video that this sort of fully automated zipper is a concept idea that may never see the light of the market. Yet, some version will undoubtedly appear as YKK, the company behind the film, has a reputation for innovation in the extremely specialized field of fastening technology.
Another recent video illustrates the benefits for YKK “Quick Release Zipper,” where a cyclist and a basketball player are seen releasing the zipper by simply pulling apart the garment from both sides of the zipper, with no need of pulling down the slider. Other videos in the same YKK Global series present YKK's reflective zipper and its Soflex zipper, which is flexible and can be stretched by about ten percent. And there is more to be seen under the brand online.
Despite a seemingly simple design of two jagged strips of metal and a slider, the zipper has developed into a piece of precision engineering. The intricacy comes from the way the slider tightly interlocks the two strips of crafted teeth to create an item that has become essential to so many industries, and particularly in the outdoor sector.
Yet, although the zipper is a core item in many products, it is something we take for granted – until the horrible moment when it stops functioning. A broken zipper can ruin a cherished piece of clothing, create an embarrassing wardrobe malfunction and even cause a consumer to forever forsake a brand. In extreme situations, such as in emergency events or rescue operations, a misfunctioning zipper can even cost lives.
If you casually glance at the zipper on your jeans or jacket, there is a 50 percent chance it is stamped with YKK. The three letters stand for Yoshida Kogyo Kabushikikaisha. By some estimates, this Japanese manufacturer produces seven billion zippers annually, about half of the world's annual output.
Then again, accurate statistics for zipper production are notoriously difficult to come by. By another measure, the YKK group is estimated to accounts for 40 percent of worldwide sales of zippers in terms of value, but only 20 percent in volume as its range is positioned in the higher segment of the market.
The company declines to provide figures about its turnover or its profitability. YKK only says that it is a world leader and that it produces about two million kilometers of fasteners annually.
Much like Gore-Tex or Vibram, YKK had become an essential ingredient brand in the outdoor sector and the broader sporting goods industry because of a high degree of reliability and innovation. Its zippers are also used in expensive haute couture dresses, fireman's protective jackets and many other applications in industries as diverse as automotive, workwear and even construction.
If reliability is one of the key selling strengths of YKK, the other is innovation. The QuickBurst Zipper is an example of the company's claim made in the company's main advertising slogan and trademark: “YKK Little Parts. Big Difference.” Originally developed around 15 years ago for use in combination with airbags and car seats, QuickBurst was then used in military and tactical gear, and later again incorporated into vests that automatically inflate in an emergency.
Today, zippers derived from QuickBurst technology are finding their way into outdoor and sportswear. A couple of years ago, YKK worked with Eider, the French sports apparel company owned by the Lafuma Group, to produce Fix A Shape. To the eye, this looks like a straightforward zipper, but when closed, it has a rigid S-shape that pulls the neck of a jacket away from the wearer's chin for greater comfort. The QuickBurst zipper has also been further developed as a quick-release feature in sports clothing. Athletes who are keen to get quickly on the field can pull the zipper sideways for it to open fast and easily.
Johnny DeBoer, senior manager at the Product Planning & Communication unit of YKK Europe, says that the Japanese company has always strived to innovate, but he admits that it has often been reticent to promote its innovations. The reason may lie in the traditions of the firm.
YKK derives its name from Tadao Yoshida, who created it in 1934. Yoshida didn't invent zippers. Gideon Sundback, a Swedish-American electrical engineer, is generally credited with inventing the modern zipper back in 1913. However, Yoshida was an artisan who designed his own customized zipper machines after growing dissatisfied with existing models.
Today, that spirit of innovation is evident in the structure of the company. The group consists of 111 companies operating in 71 countries aligned into three units. One is focused on fastening products, while another one sells architectural products such as window and door frames, developed from the technology used to extrude wire for the zippers on jeans. The other main unit develops manufacturing processes and supplies key machinery and equipment that the other units use for their production.
According to Lynn Whittingham, marketing executive for YKK Europe, this kind of vertical integration enables the company to control the processes and helps all units around the world to work to the same quality standards and speed of production. The company's typical emphasis on quality extends to almost every phase of production, including smelting the brass, developing threads in polyester and other materials, weaving and dyeing the cloth for zipper tapes, and forging the scooped zipper teeth.
Company officials say that Yoshida was more than an engineer with an eye for perfection. There was a philosophical underpinning to his management principles which he termed “The Cycle of Goodness.” It holds that “no one prospers without rendering benefit to others.” In practice, this meant that he tried to produce ever-higher quality with ever-lower costs, but there was also a strong philanthropic aspect to his work as well.
YKK is still a private company overseen by the second generation of the family that owns it and the philanthropic aspect remains strong in its global CSR efforts. Embodied under the slogan of “It's Not Just a Zip,” YKK supports projects as diverse as growing vegetables in Swaziland to combating malaria and supporting economic independence for women in Egypt.
YKK has had an understated approach to broadcasting its innovations as part of its corporate philosophy. Take as one example Aquaseal, an innovative waterproof zipper fastener developed for maritime workwear that was later incorporated into high-end ski clothes as well as motor bike jackets. The solution has now morphed back into active water sportswear clothes and can be found in everything from fishing waders to wetsuits, but few in the clothing industry are aware of just how groundbreaking the technology is.
On a global scale, YKK is divided into six regions and each of them has at least one research & development center. The main R&D unit for the Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) region is located at Runcorn in the U.K. In certain countries, the R&D team may have be dedicated to a specific cluster of activities. In Italy, for example, YKK's research is geared toward high fashion, while in the U.K., it is focused on technical fastening solutions for work and maritime wear.
The development of products for outdoor and sports apparel is shared among different regions, where teams in various countries work on projects as needs arise. YKK's Integra Zipper has gradually emerged from this approach. What is distinctive about Integra is that the zipper elements are incorporated directly into a three-layered membrane that is merged with the fabric of the product. This eliminates the need for stitching and aids in the creation of lightweight, water-repellent garments.
As part of new efforts to raise its profile in terms of innovation, YKK opened in 2015 a showroom in London's Shoreditch district where any kind of fashion designers can get technical advice. They can experience how the company's attaching machines work and interact with various types of YKK products.
Part of the motivation behind the opening of the Shoreditch showroom was undoubtedly the increasing competition that YKK is experiencing from Chinese manufacturers of zippers. Many Chinese companies are trying to make inroads into the global market by approaching mass-market brands in the fashion and outdoor industry with low-cost products. This development led YKK to announce last March that it would invest 277 billion yen (€2,297m-$2,490m) by 2020 to reconfirm its commitment to the entry-level zip segment.
The Shoreditch center can also be seen as a continuation of the company's desire to experiment and innovate. For DeBoer, this is a defining characteristic of YKK and he is looking forward to showcasing two new products for the outdoor and sports industry at the Ispo Munich show later this month. Although he cannot yet say much more about the products, he says that they will include Vislon Aquaguard technology and that there will also be a further development relating to easy opening technology.
One thing is clear, however. None of the new products will be an auto fastener as imagined in the Happy Fastening video. Still, the concept shown in YKK's recent video could have practical applications in new types of smartwear in the near future, such as closing that hard-to-reach back zipper in a women's dress.