Note: This spotlight on SKS Empire was originally written for Rough Asia and was published on 2 Aug 2018.
The origins of Muay Thai brand, SKS Empire is intricately tied to its 36-year-old founder, Romain Denevault Rossi and more specifically, a quaint, countryside camp known as Singkhlongsi Gym.
For a few years before he first came to Thailand in 2006, Rossi worked for a number of streetwear brands in France while sidelining as a rap musician. These experiences would serve him well later in life when he founded his own brand.
During the same period, Rossi also began training Muay Thai back home in France. For both purposes of work and training, he began making frequent trips to Thailand.
Rossi was deeply inspired by Thai culture and in particular, his time training Muay Thai in the sport’s motherland. And so, like many before him, he began to contemplate the prospects of living in Thailand. Like a prophecy, he quit his job and returned to the country in 2009 where he immersed himself fully in the life as a Muay Thai fighter. He tells me,
“It was never my ambition to become a champion. I just wanted to experience the way of life of a Nak Muay. When I came to Thailand, I knew I could not stay in a city like Pattaya or Phuket if I want to focus on training. There are way too many tourists, discos, and other distractions.”
It takes only the intrepid to venture out into rural Thailand in search of rustic Muay Thai camps. Rossi’s quest took him north of Bangkok to the province of Lopburi, an area famed for its wild monkey temples and vast sunflower fields. Here, he found Singklongsi Gym and fought a total of 12 fights for the camp.
“It’s a very authentic and old gym. Back then, it’s not a gym for foreigners, only Thais train there. I was privileged to be the camp’s first farang fighter,“ Rossi said.
Singklongsi Gym was founded in the 70s and produced a number of champions during Muay Thai’s golden era. Some of the camp’s most notable fighters were incidentally the founder’s own sons. All 5 brothers were champions back in their days, and collected a number of belts from Lumpinee and Rajadamnern stadiums between them.
Following the passing of the gym’s founder in 2010, Singklongsi began to fade into obscurity. The camp’s head trainer got into trouble and landed in prison, and many fighters left. The ones who stayed slumped into losing streaks and by 2012, Singklongsi was ready to shut its doors
That was when the camp’s devoted farang stalwart came to the rescue. Rossi enlisted the help of a French compatriot and accomplished fighter, Charlton Henri who stepped in as the camp’s trainer. With the 2 chipping in their efforts and resources, the camp’s fighters returned and Singkhlongsi soon found itself back on track and on winning ways.
In a bid to revive the camp’s former glory, the idea came about to revamp its image with customized gear equipment bearing the camp’s name. Rossi then decided to take the concept further by developing it into a full-fledged brand which he could market to other gyms in Thailand. Part of the profits would then go towards funding Singklongsi gym.
With the blessings of Singklongsi’s new owners, Rossi began his project in building the Muay Thai brand in 2012. His first task was to come up with a suitable brand name. He explains,
“If we call our brand Singklongsi, no gym in Thailand would want to buy it because you can’t be spotted with another camp’s name. So I shortened the name, taking the initials and rebranded ourselves as SKS Empire.”
To give the abbreviation more meaning and relevance, Rossi came up with “Sports Kombat Strategy”.
As one of the youngest Thailand-based fight brands, SKS Empire finds itself up against the industry’s seasoned players. Rossi roped in his elder brother, Guillaume as the brand’s designer, and the 2 brothers teamed up to find their place in the market.
The older Rossi brother is a self-taught graphic artist and he puts his expertise to work. SKS offers complete gear customization service that includes coming up with designs for their customers as part of the deal. Like any brand, SKS also offers its own catalogue of products. It’s not hard to spot the hip hop influence in the form of graffiti-style fonts, a deviation from traditional Thai designs. Rossi says,
“We try to differentiate ourselves from other brands with new, unique designs. We avoid making the same as what’s on the market. This is our top selling point.”
SKS also attempts to level the game by offering high quality at more affordable prices. On a check, SKS products are all priced more affordably than its competitors. The strategy has worked well for the young brand. SKS receives orders from within Thailand as well as around the world. Besides a significant French customer base, SKS has worked with gyms in Europe, Brazil, and Australia.
Through his French connections, Rossi was able to collaborate with fellow Frenchman and Muay Thai legend, Jean-Charles Skarbowsky.
SKS provides gear and equipment to both Skarbowsky gyms in Paris and Bangkok. The brand is also the gear sponsor on Skarbowsky’s “Best of Siam”” events that are held periodically at Rajadamnern Stadium. With the frequent association, it’s no wonder why many people frequently mistake SKS as an abbreviation for Skarbowsky.
Other than the French partnership, SKS now sponsors 2 local fighters, Ritthewada Sittikul and Zaza Sor Aree. The former is a Lumpinee Stadium champion while Zaza is one the country’s most prominent female fighter who fought recently on Glory. Both fighters regularly model for the brand’s social media pages. Rossi now hopes to expand the SKS Thailand fight team to extend the brand’s community outreach.
As the brand continues to expand and grow in prominence, SKS Empire continues to funnel part of its profits towards funding Singklongsi gym and its fighters. It’s the one thing that has not changed since day one.
“We started from zero, down from the roots. The brand was born out of Singklongsi gym, and it grew slowly to where we are right now. We never forget our roots.”
At the moment, production for SKS gear and equipment remains outsourced to a factory in Samut Prakan, while all Muay Thai shorts are manufactured by a small outfit of local workers employed by SKS. The brand may have some way to go before it catches up with the scale of its competitors but Rossi dreams big.
“In the future, we would like to have our own factory. I hope to bring the brand to every country in the world. We’ll work hard to get our Empire to be as big as possible.”