Why YKK zippers are the brown M&Ms of product design: look at the little details to judge overall gear quality

A ‘pro tip’ for evaluating the quality of a piece of gear is to look at the small details, such as zippers and stitching. Cheap-minded manufacturers will skimp on those details because most people just don’t notice, and even a cheap component will often last past a basic warranty period, so it’s an easy way to increase profits without losing sales or returns.

If a designer does bother to invest in quality components, that’s a tried-and-true sign that the overall product is better than the competition.

Zippers are a classic example when looking at backpacks, clothing, and similar gear. And although there are a few other fine zipper brands out there, the king is YKK Group — to the point that the first thing some gear reviewers look for is the “YKK” branding on the zipper pull tab.

My dad used to do some work for YKK back in the ‘90s, so I wanted to dig deeper into why they’re the king and what makes their zippers so associated with quality.

YKK history

YKK is short for Yoshida Kōgyō Kabushikigaisha, founded by Tadao Yoshida in 1934. Today, the YKK Group makes roughly half of the world’s zippers.

Yoshida didn’t invent the zipper — the concept predated YKK by nearly a century and the first zipper manufacturer was Talon Zipper, founded in 1893. Yoshida copied Talon’s design and began making his own zippers out of Tokyo until it was firebombed at the end of World War II.

After the war, Yoshida moved back to his hometown of Kurobe and started over, and that’s when YKK’s greatness began. Over the following decades, YKK grew from being an imitator to an innovator, creating the world’s first nylon zipper, polyester zipper, concealed zipper, and the world’s smallest zipper. YKK zippers were used in the spacesuits that went to the moon in 1969.

How did Yoshida rebuild from nothing to build the greatest zipper producer in the world?

What makes YKK zippers so good?

Yoshida was inspired by Andrew Carnegie’s Gospel of Wealth to create his own business philosophy, called the Cycle of Goodness. In short: no one prospers without rendering benefit to others. The Cycle of Goodness seeks to create what many of us in the United States would call a “360 win” where the company, its employees, its customers, and all of society benefits from what YKK does. While YKK avoids the media, the company takes the Cycle of Goodness so seriously that it produced a 10-issue manga series that explains it in detail. (YKK also made a zipper-themed anime.)

Many companies have some sort of lofty mission statement that flies out the window the second it gets in the way of business, but Yoshida’s own son compared him to a cult leader in his dedication to The Cycle of Goodness. (You might say Yoshida was the Steve Jobs of zippers.)

That philosophy led to an obsession with vertical integration, constant refinement, and being a good guest in the countries YKK spread to. YKK set up subsidiaries in other countries to work around tariffs and purchased most of its materials and machines from that country — with the exception of YKK’s specialty zipper-making machines, which are a closely guarded company secret.

The YKK Group has developed an unrivaled reputation for zipper quality. Fashion designer Trina Turk once told Slate:

Now we just stick with YKK. When the customer is buying $200 pants, they better have a good zipper. Because the customer will blame the maker of the whole garment even if the zipper was the part that failed.

Ororo, a company that sells heated outdoor clothing, published a post praising YKK zippers: “The zipper is tiny, but it is also so significant because a well-made zipper ensures you wear the jacket for years while a poorly-constructed zipper destroys the whole wearing experience with all sorts of problems.”

YKK zipper comparison
A YKK zipper vs. a competitor. The YKK zipper has a larger pull tab and bigger teeth.

YKK doesn’t share many technical details, but Ororo shed some light on what makes YKK zippers so good:

  • Square-tooth technology that ensures smooth, reliable zipping
  • Self-locking design that keeps the zipper from unzipping itself
  • Self-lubrication that keeps the zipper working well

Recycled Firefighter, a company that makes wallets and other gear from recycled fire hose, also praises YKK zippers:

YKK Zippers are amazing, because they self-lubricate the more you use them. You’ll notice that other brands of zippers become sticky and gritty over time. Not with YKK…They will feel more smooth, the more you use them.

They also tout YKK’s water resistance: “YKK Zippers seal up incredibly tight when zipped up. They are also treated in such a way that they shed water quickly, and repel it from seeping through to your inside contents.”

Erika Bunker, the proprietor of the long-running DIY Style fashion sewing blog, said of YKK zippers:

So as of today, YKK is my zipper brand. They’re considered the best zipper brand in the world. And it’s the brand that most designers use. Just grab a random RTW garment of yours and look at the zipper. It will almost always be stamped “YKK”.

Reddit user ectomania said in the great r/BuyItForLife subreddit, “If you want something that can be abused for years and years and still performs like a champ, YKK is your best bet.”

Why brown M&Ms can mean big trouble

The point isn’t an unpaid advertisement for zippers, but to illustrate how producers who care about the quality of their products hone in on the fine details. It’s not a perfect heuristic. A manufacturer could spring a few cents for YKK zippers and cut corners elsewhere, but that’s rare and the correlation pattern has held up well over time.

Here’s a story to illustrate the concept. The rock band Van Halen became notorious for demanding no brown M&Ms backstage at their shows. For years, stories abounded about how Eddie Van Halen would walk away from shows or destroy entire stages if he saw a single brown M&M. Van Halen’s diva behavior became a rock and roll legend.

But the truth was that the brown M&M demand was a smart safety precaution. Van Halen put on elaborate, potentially dangerous shows, and it was essential that all of the work was performed correctly. If the band walked backstage and saw brown M&Ms, they instantly knew that the instructions hadn’t been followed. Once, the band noticed the brown M&Ms and the stage later collapsed because the stage crew didn’t follow orders. Of course, the story became Van Halen destroying a stage because they hate brown M&Ms and the legend grew. (It didn’t help that Eddie Van Halen trashed the dressing room between discovering the M&Ms and the stage collapsing.)

The next time you’re looking at your clothes or gear, take a look at the zippers. I have a Carhartt jacket that I love, and sure enough, the zipper is YKK. The zipper has always been rock-solid reliable.

YKK zipper on a Carhartt jacket

My favorite pants at the moment are the Basic Operator Pant from LA Police Gear. Sure enough, they also have a YKK zipper.

YKK zipper on LAPG pants

You can’t judge a book by its cover, but it’s a pretty good indicator of the contents. In a world plagued by information overload, it’s useful to have little guideposts like this that help you make decisions.

There are other signs to look for in products. For instance, a full-tang knife will usually be better-made than a partial-tang knife. Shoes and boots with a Goodyear welt construction are usually well-made (and can be repaired by a cobbler).

What little things do you look for when evaluating a product? What are your brown M&Ms?


  • 10 Comments

    • Hardened

      Fascinating history Josh, thank you.

      My “brown M&M” for a product is an endorsement from The Prepared, ha!

      Another good correlate I’ve found is German design.

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    • David Dabney

      Love this! What a great/practical idea, and I appreciate the context as well. Thanks!

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    • M. E.

      Such a perfect post! I recently bought some apparently high-quality reflective gear – online so I couldn’t check the zippers – and sure enough the first thing to fail was the zipper (which was not YKK). It is SO annoying. As “Hardened” mentioned below, I pretty much go for “Prepared” recommendations first; they’ve proven immensely reliable.  I also read reviews in well-respected, long standing outdoor gear sites, as they tend to put stuff through the paces.

      Sadly there are lots of very sketchy review sites out there that look legitimate but have downright dangerous recommendations on them (example: storing propane indoors – WHAT? Not a good idea) A good tip is to check the “WhoIs” information for the site. If there’s no contact information for an actual human, and the domain is housed in a tiny country far-far away? Do NOT read their stuff!

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      • OKORO GOODLUCK M. E.

        Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I really appreciate your efforts and I will be waiting for your next write ups thanks once again.

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    • mopdx

      This is amazing and enlightening read. The Brown M&M Van Halen story is one of my favorites ever for Quality Management. And I had no idea about the history of YKK.

      Domo arigato!

      6 |
    • Taylor Welden

      Excellent piece! Love this!

      I wrote something similar Carryology article a while back (less detailed, with a bit of humor):
      https://www.carryology.com/insights/insights-1/how-to-choose-a-well-designed-backpack-according-to-designers/

      Listen to OutKast

      My single best piece of advice for choosing a well-designed backpack, borrowing from my dozen-plus years as an Industrial Designer focusing on softgoods design of bags, packs, and travel gear for some major brands in the industry… My best advice…

      Yes, listen to OutKast.“I’mma show you how to wild out like Jack Tripper. Let me be bambino on your snipples. YKK on yo’ zipper, lick you like a lizard when I’m slizzerd”. That quick 4-word verse snuck in there from Mr. Big Boi can make all the difference between choosing a great bag and one that falls apart on you at the worst time possible. For example, when you’re 8 days into a 15-day adventure and the contents of your pack completely spill out over the floor of the Narita airport as you’re sprinting to make your flight to Manila which leaves in 10 minutes, leaving you no way to refill and close your bag, as the zipper completely self-destructed. Pretty horrific, eh? Well, that’s probably because that zipper was some no-name generic garbage nonsense.

      There ARE many other high-quality and trustworthy zipper manufacturers out there (TiZip, RIRI, Talon, just to name a few). And I personally have and still confidently use all of these zipper brands on bags and packs I’ve designed… frequently even. But for a quick and easy way to choose a great bag… look for that industry standard, the YKK zipper. Or at least look for a zipper that is branded with a quality zipper manufacturer’s name on it. If the maker of the bag doesn’t call out the name of the zipper on their website or on the product hangtag, it’s because they’re embarrassed and don’t want you, the customer, to know. So remember… listen to OutKast. And look for that YKK on yo’ zipper.

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      • mopdx Taylor Welden

        Very informative article. Thank you for the Carryology link, Taylor!

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    • G Greene

      I have a coat from Arc’teryx which is their warmest (and most expensive) model. It’s spectacular. I’ve survived two winters in Sweden in it. But this year the zipper broke. I have no idea who manufactures their zippers, but it’s not YKK (or not branded as so, at least). Arc’teryx gives a lifetime warranty, but I have to ship it all the way to Canada at my own expense, wait for them to assess the damage, and either get a repair or a replacement many months later. Not only does this really put me off as a customer, but it makes me wonder just what the hell I would do if I were on Everest or something wearing this coat and the zipper just broke like that. How much does it cost a manufacturer to put a better quality zipper on a coat that costs as much as an iPhone???

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      • Robert Larson G Greene

        Oh man! That sure has got to be frustrating! A YKK zipper couldn’t really be that much more expensive than the knock off brand that was probably put on there, they should have went with that in the first place to prevent their product from failing as much. Sorry to hear that.

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    • mopdx

      This post (and the insightful Comments) had me thinking for quite some time about where YKK zippers might be found in my everyday (non-prep) attire. So I raided my jacket/coat closet to gather data points. Here is a summary of interesting observations found in my closet (YMMV):

      • As expected, many (but not all) of decent technical jackets were outfitted with YKK, although some companies did not use YKK across all product lines.
      • Surprisingly, some “value engineered” and “fashion-focused” apparel manufacturers use YKK.
      • Invariably, all of the off-brands and “made-to-order” companies did not use YKK.

      Detailed observations:

      Nearly all of my outerwear from Columbia Sportswear have YKK–these include vests, puffy jackets, rain jackets, and heavy winter jackets. The only exceptions were the economical 100% polyester vest and a really old wool coat (circa 2008).

      I was not expecting any of my Uniqlo jackets and coats to include YKK, as they are mostly known as value-engineered, contemporary clothing retailer. But all of them include YKK! One minor complaint, however, is that some of their outerwear have smaller zipper teeth sizes.

      Likewise, my roster of Adidas track jackets, hoodies, and other fashion-centric jackets were all outfitted with YKK. I guess that means I can rock the looks of both Run-DMC and OutKast now. 😉

      The technical cycling jackets by Showers Pass were a puzzle. Their $120-ish windbreaker jacket was outfitted with YKK, but their more expensive jackets were completely unpredictable, as they both had YKK on *some* of their zippers. One high-end jacket had YKK zippers on hand pockets, but not anywhere else. Another high-end jacket only had YKK on the main zipper, but not elsewhere. The brown M&Ms were not evenly distributed here.

      And as much as I appreciate my conference presenter/volunteer hoodies (which I received as gifts) and customized hoodies/track jackets from Neighborhoodies, they were not YKK-equipped.

      I haven’t collected data points on backpacks, travel luggage, hip packs, jeans, or man purses yet. Maybe I might embark on those inventories at a future date!

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      • Robert Larson mopdx

        I’ve been doing the same thing lately. Every time I pull a jacket or bag out of my closet I’ve been looking to see if it’s a YKK zipper. Surprisingly many of them are, and the ones that aren’t, I already know that I don’t like those coats as much.

        Kind of bummed out that my new wallet that I bought, which zips shut, didn’t come with a YKK. It is so stiff and hard to open and close and just doesn’t move smoothly. I’m going to try the old method of rubbing some wax on the teeth to see if that can help it run more smoothly. 

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