This fall, Gaidama closed out the season with one of their biggest events of the year: an epic open mat and photoshoot that united this brand's incredible sponsored athletes from around the world.


Like many of Gaidama’s best products, the now-epic open mat has humble origins. “Our epic open mat was conceived out of a photoshoot,” explains founder and CEO Kendall Vernon. “I flew out our top ambassadors for a short trip to model our new gear.”


The energy from that event alone was electric. Kendall, ever the savvy business owner, wanted to bottle it for the greater good. “When I realized the very awesome and very unique opportunity this had created – a dozen or so competitive female athletes from all over the U.S. spending a weekend together – we added an open mat to the schedule and invited everyone,” she remembers. “We hired some photographers and videographers and set up a booth. Even at our first event we had about 60 people show up from all over our state and the surrounding states. Because it was such a huge success, it just became part of the agenda.”


Since then, Gaidama has only grown in breadth, scope, and quality – and the epic open mat is bigger than ever. “It was breathtaking,” says Gaidama sponsored jiujiteira and ONE Championship athlete Amanda “Tubby” Alequin. “It was a memorable experience. All the ladies were lovely and unique and different but we all shared the same common love, joy and outlet in jiu jitsu.”


The women on the Gaidama team are incredible – and I'm assuming that's because Kendall and Karla only select great women to represent them – but seriously every lady I met [at the open mat] was super down to earth, humble, and inclusive of everyone,” agrees Gaidama sponsored athlete Erin Johnson.


I got to attend this event last year and this year I made it a point to return because it was the first all-female event I've been to where I felt completely comfortable and included. Everybody talked to everybody, there was no pettiness or high school drama, which maybe sounds like it should be a given but that's not always the case. We have some serious talent, but you wouldn't know it from the way the women interacted with each other and the ladies who came to roll with them at the open mat. I felt super proud and honored to be included in that group. Everyone is also really fun and we laughed frequently throughout the weekend.”


Johnson, a black belt professor and academy owner in her own right, knows a thing or two about business chops – and according to her, Gaidama’s owners have it in spades. “Gaidama is continuously working to improve their product and you can tell,” says Johnson. “They just released their third iteration of their shorts and went through I don't know how many designs of their spats and gi.


I feel like other brands put out one women's rashguard and think, ‘okay, cool, we placated the women's community, we've been inclusive,’ and then give themselves a pat on the back even though their gear doesn't fit and looks horrible. Kendall and Karla actually care what their clothes look and feel like and how they help their athletes perform.”


Videographer Christopher Innes – whose daughter trains jiu-jitsu with Gaidama co-owner Karla Shellhammer – filmed this year’s event, and offered up a similar testimonial. As a father of two female grapplers, Innes has long been a strong advocate of women’s jiu-jitsu, and loves the role Gaidama has played in leading the charge for female empowerment on the mats.


My daughters and I are so grateful that there is a company that is focused on women’s jiu-jitsu,” enthuses Innes. “It seemed like with a lot of the other brands the women’s attire was an after thought and with Gaidama it’s a priority.”


Working with [the owners] was so incredibly easy,” adds Innes. “They simply shared their vision, and then let me take control – which is a relief and allows me to be more creative as well. I met Kendall for the first time in Tulsa, and was absolutely blown away by her focus on the brand and her commitment to doing what’s right all of the time. It was so incredible to see the turnout at the event, to see so many people coming from all over to share in a sport that they are so passionate about.”


Beatrice Jin, another Gaidama-sponsored athlete, additionally praises the strong personal touch the company offers. “Gaidama’s highest priority is quality human connection, which results in quality products for humans,” she observes. “Kendall and Karla go out of their way to rigorously test materials and fits on multiple shapes and sizes of people, source their photographers and models locally whenever possible, and sponsor athletes who genuinely love the brand as opposed to those who fulfill certain resume requirements.”


It doesn’t matter to the owners if a product release is a few months delayed if it means that the quality will be higher,” adds Jin. “There is no middle (wo)man — all of the public’s feedback is heard directly by the core team. Having met the team, I know that this is a life passion project for them, not a side hustle, and it shows. Nothing I own from Gaidama has ever failed me since their first pair of spats in 2020.”


That’s no accident, according to Kendall. Previously a software developer for video games, Kendall loves geeking out on the secret sauce that goes into making Gaidama gear truly extraordinary. “Almost everyone takes the physics engines and the collision detection systems and all the unseen mechanics of a video game for granted and just wants to discuss the art because that’s what all we see with our eyes on a finished product – but it’s all that behind the scenes tech stuff that you take for granted that I really get passionate about, and I’m the same way with textiles,” she explains.


I get more excited when we’re talking about the different properties of fabrics and the geometry of the technical patterns and how to implement a new feature without compromising on something else than I do about what prints go on them in the end.”


Gear quality is Gaidama’s selling point – but aesthetically pleasing style is another major factor women cite when singing the brand’s praises. “I absolutely adore the Women’s Premium Ribbed Fitted Muscle Tank and the Women’s Every Wear Jogger,” says Beatrice Jin, who modeled both items for the photoshoot.


When explaining why, she points to both form and function in the outfit: “It works perfectly as a full workout set. As a woman with broad and boxy shoulders, it’s tough finding tank tops that are flattering that also don’t make me feel like a boulder. The slim fit and criss-cross design are super chic. The joggers are incredibly soft. They’re thin enough to workout and sweat in, and thick enough to keep warm in the DC winters.”


Erin Johnson has similar praise for Gaidama’s brand new electric pink Avant Garde rashguard and updated board shorts. Normally a decidedly anti-pink girl, Johnson nonetheless found herself falling for the unique look of Gaidama’s electric pink design. “I've been obsessed with the Avant Garde rashguards for a while and this one fits just as nicely, but the hot pink added a special edge, and it was fun feeling like a neon highlighter for the night,” she shares. “The board shorts have been my favorite for a while and this new edition was just as good.”


Tubby echoes commendations for the new color offering, exclaiming, “I felt like a total Barbie!” In this era of Barbie mania, it’s possibly the ultimate seal of approval for anything pink.


Gaidama isn’t simply selling functional, fashionable jiu-jitsu gear to women – though that’s obviously the core of the brand. At heart, however, the company wants to empower female athletes in a still male-dominated sport.


Jay Shellhammer, husband to Gaidama co-owner Karla Shellhammer, has practiced the sport for seventeen years and counting, and has always appreciated and admired the women who dive into the traditional boys’ club of jiu-jitsu. “That being said, seeing a platform like Gaidama created for these women and girls has been amazing to watch,” says Jay.


Kendall and Karla truly understand that if you make a high quality product – which women’s jiu-jitsu and MMA has desperately needed – you need to add a spotlight not just on the top athletes, but also the everyday practitioners who work full-time, have children, and still train or compete. To let them feel truly part of this fast growing sport. To be seen and to be appreciated as women who love jiu-jitsu and MMA – and that can be shared through Gaidama. I love it.”


Nowhere is Gaidama’s commitment to women’s jiu-jitsu clearer than in the company’s relationship with the athletes who have earned sponsorships.


I think we never really ‘look’ to sponsor anyone,” says Karla Shellhammer. “Our thing is catering to the collective that supports us, so a lot of our connections have evolved through interactions we have with athletes on social media, tournament booths, events and word of mouth. We definitely believe in the creative potential of the grappling community and are constantly trying to collaborate with an array of individuals with different skillsets to take part in the growth of our vision.”


If athlete experiences at the event are anything to go off, Gaidama has been beyond successful in that endeavor.


It really struck me how confident and highly individualistic everyone was,” Beatrice Jin says of meeting her fellow Gaidama athletes. “No one there was trying to be anybody or measure up to anyone. Everyone chose their life path, believed in it, and just put in the work. I think once you get to brown and black belt, most BJJ athletes have gone through a fair amount of struggle and reckonings. Add being a woman in a male dominated sport on top of that, you’ll see a lot of us kind of step into our power as we trek along the long path of jiu-jitsu.


It’s normal to have doubt about the lives we choose. Being around these women reminded me of how real confidence is built by working on what you care about every day, not any ideas or affirmations. Every athlete present was highly accomplished, but I’m sure none of them would be happy if they accepted this moment as their peak for the rest of their lives. They are amazing because of how they live and grow daily.”

December 21, 2023 — Andrea Tang