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Turkey may be mired in political uncertainty and striving to join the European Union, but when it comes to buying expensive merchandise, fashionable Istanbul women are no slouches.

As Turkey’s most populated and wealthiest city continues to become a holiday destination — with new hotels and restaurants springing up across the Bosphorus strait that divides Istanbul into European and Asian sectors — foreign shoppers are discovering the joys of buying here.

This story first appeared in the August 14, 2008 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Let them spend on Turkish looks, asserted designer Bahar Korcan, who helped pioneer the fledgling Istanbul Fashion Lab, which features select Turkish designers’ fashion shows and aims to join the international fashion calendar. It also hopes to stress the importance of design to Turkey’s textile and apparel industries.

“We have set up a platform to support young designers and for foreign buyers to understand us correctly,” Korcan explains. “We aim for Istanbul Fashion Lab to grow and grow.”

For decades, textiles and apparel have been the driving force in Turkish fashion. If you stroll the back streets of Nisantasi to the Sisli district, you pass Osmanbey, a stretch of wholesalers showcasing apparel labels selling markets from Russia to the Arab world. While many of the industry’s facilities may be based outside Istanbul, Osmanbey’s 700-member OTIAD, or Osmanbey Textile Businessmen’s Association, is a high-profile leader of fashion and textile business executives.

The Osmanbey area is home to some 4,000 large and small outlets, with total trade volume over $10 billion a year. “The role of Osmanbey is very significant to the perspective of Turkey’s textile and apparel industry, which has been growing by 10 to 15 percent every year,” confirmed OTIAD chairman Gaffar Koca.

So it may be no wonder the fashion-conscious W Hotels chose Istanbul for its first European offshoot. Spotlighting Turkish interior decor, the hotel is set in a row of restored Ottoman houses cocooned by high-end boutiques.

A few hundred meters up the hill, in Istanbul’s chic Nisantasi district, trendy Turkish children and their image-conscious moms stand out. Istanbul Fashion Academy abuts the new City’s shopping center, home to Jean Paul Gaultier and Roberto Cavalli, among others.

In nearby narrow streets, top labels like Burberry and Louis Vuitton rub shoulders with outlets by Turkish designers such as Arzu Kaprol, Korcan and Cemil Ipekçi.

Rare as it is in this decidedly Western district, there is even couture for the covered Muslim woman: Rabia Yalçin’s often daring gowns can be worn as is, or accessorized with cunning capes and hats for more modesty.

Not to mention the celebrated Kanyon shopping center, a short tube ride away in Levent, where Harvey Nichols and Agent Provocateur lure luxury seekers to the new district.

And last week, Polo Ralph Lauren confirmed plans to open its first Turkish unit in October, a 6,500-square-foot boutique in the luxury shopping complex Istinye Park. Among other shops there are Armani, Chanel, Dior, Fendi, Gucci, Prada, Jimmy Choo and Dolce & Gabbana.

But the outlook for Turkish fashion is not all rosy. For years, textiles and apparel were Turkey’s top export industry, but the sector — with exports of $23 billion last year and home to some 20 percent of all Turkish exports, according to Trade Minister Kursad Tuzmen — has recently been overtaken by other industries.

China’s rise particularly robbed the mass-producing portion of the industry of many of its contracts and shrunk the market.

As a result, a push upmarket resulted, with quality companies producing apparel for big U.S. and European names. Better quality textile mills — like Soktas, which has an impressive new showroom in Istanbul’s boho Asmalimescit district; denim leader Bossa, and suiting expert Altinyildiz — are starting to justify the cry that if China wants to be the new Turkey, then Turkey will become the new Italy.

“Although the quotas [for China] were completely lifted in 2008, apparel exports still rose 16.74 percent. When you realize this, I think sometimes we are too hard on ourselves,” observed Suleyman Orakcioglu, a top industry official whose Orka Tekstil boasts a stable of brands with growing international profiles, such as Damat and Tween. “According to Eurostat, the prices for individual items sold to the European Union have fallen an average 3 percent. Turkey is the only country to increase the prices, with a 2.8 average increase in the price of individual items….This is called design, this is called quality.”

Orka Textil’s Tween, in particular, has gained international renown, and has become an often-counterfeited men’s wear line. In general, the rise of Turkish fashion labels has been slow, but growth of the ambitious twice-yearly Istanbul Moda Show (Aug. 28 to 30, at CNR Expo’s exhibition center) carries potential for growth here.

But the single biggest brand Istanbul has to offer may be the city itself: Selected as the European City of Culture in 2010, Istanbul — once the capital of both the Byzantium and Ottoman Empires — has captured major sports and arts events and grown as a modern and contemporary art venue, thanks to museums like Istanbul Modern and the Istanbul Biennial. It also boasts increasingly valuable real estate and property development opportunities and has top architects like Zaha Hadid putting their stamp on its skyline.


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