Cycling has always been and remains everything to Čestmir Kalas. At the beginning of the 1990s, when the Tábor cycling team lacked financial support, he made a risky decision. Without any previous experience, he set up a factory to produce cycling clothing, from which some profits ensured the survival of the team. This year marks 30 years since Čestmír Kalaš began to build a company that has now over 200 employees and sells to more than 50 countries. We bring you a unique story to follow up on how one determined cyclist embarked on an uncertain business and managed to build his production into world-class cycling apparel that is recognized at the very top of the world peloton. In Chapter 1 we told you how Čestmír Kalaš fell in love with bike racing and his journey to becoming a national team coach and active fund raiser for his local cycling club. In Chapter 2 we explore the early days of setting up the factory in Tábor where he made high quality cycle clothes for an established Swiss brand.

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Chapter 2  

The Apprenticeship

With a completely new and unexpected business plan in mind, Kalaš returned to Tábor [in Autumn 1990], where he immediately started making the necessary steps to set up his own production for custom cycle wear. He sought out the largest clothing company in Tábor, where he hired his first seamstresses and began to absorb the basic sewing procedures. Every month he made a journey from Tabor to Lugano, where the company for which he was to make cycling jerseys and shorts was based. On his first visits, he spent several days at the factory so that Toni could thoroughly initiate him into production and show him how to sew properly and with quality. With a head full of knowledge and a van load of fabrics, he returned to Czechoslovakia where he had to hand-sublimate the different parts of the fabrics by screen printing and have them sewn together before taking them back to Switzerland.

Čestmír Kalaš made countless regular trips from Tábor to Lugano through the snow-covered Alps. 

From the first orders, it was already evident that the quality of the clothes produced by Kalaš in Tábor was of a high standard, and so more and more orders came in. As the number of orders grew, so did the need for larger premises and more staff. The Tábor clothing company Otavan, from which Kalaš had initially had his first orders made, ran into financial difficulties and was forced to make large-scale redundancies. Several unemployed seamstresses appeared on the labour market and Kalaš immediately offered them jobs. He found a suitable building on the outskirts of Tábor to set up a new production facility and was thus able to accept further orders from Switzerland. Toni's wife also came to visit him in the new workshop to pass on her experience and to train the new seamstresses, who sewed according to the sample jerseys and shorts.

"She was a lovely lady of Greek origin who spoke several languages. When she came to the production, she took off her mink coat, sat down at the sewing machine and showed us how it is done. We all looked at each other approvingly and marvelled at her skills." 

The beginnings were not at all easy. Apparent desperation over the flood of jersey orders forced Čestmír Kalaš to expand production immediately. 

Since making custom-designed cycling apparel requires machines other than sewing ones, of which Kalas had only a few, he had to start looking. At the time, however, such machines were not easy to come by. In the early 1990s, several textile factories sprang up in the South Bohemian border region. This gave them considerable competition with the Upper Austrian workshops, several of which soon went bankrupt. A Yugoslavian speculator bought up all the machines from the bankrupt Upper Austrian factories and offered them for sale in his barn. Toni Maier found out about this and together with his new subcontractor from Czechoslovakia went to inspect them.

Toni pointed out several basic machines that would be needed in Tabor for the thorough processing of custom cycle wear. However, Kalas had to invest in the machines himself out of his own pocket. In cash. He spent all his family savings, which at that time amounted to 70,000 CZK, to start his business. That was only enough to get started. Later, he had to invest another CZK 400,000 which he borrowed from the bank.

"I took out a loan for CZK 400 000 and had to guarantee it with our family house. My wife, of course, went crazy. She told me that I had no experience, that I would go bankrupt and that we would become homeless. It was a big commitment and I had to give my best."

New machines were not easy to get into the building. So, a wall had to be knocked down, the machines moved inside, and the wall rebuilt. 

Of course, the business demanded a lot of time and it seemed almost superhuman that Čestmír Kalaš was able to combine his position as a national coach, trainer, and chairman of the Tábor club and take care of a start-up business in custom cycle wear.

"Of course, I couldn't be in so many positions. I remember one weekend we were at races in the Netherlands, I was running around the track all Sunday, then we drove all night to Czechoslovakia and were home by 3am. I slept for a few hours and went straight to the production. So, I gave up the position of national coach."

However, the orders from Switzerland continued to come in rapidly until they slowly began to exceed the time needed to make them, and Kalaš had to start looking for more seamstresses to expand his production. He managed to establish a new cooperation in Veselí nad Lužnicí (20km from Tábor). However, the cooperation did not last long.

To be continued...

You will find out why KALAS quickly ended the new cooperation in Veselí nad Lužnicí and who played another important key role in the history of KALAS Sportswear in the next chapter, which will be published on February 10, 2022.