ISTANBUL — Fifteen years ago on a September evening, members of the Akarlilar family had a heated discussion with executives at the family's Erak Clothing company here.
"You are mad,'' one of the senior executives said. "You can't go giving a brand a Turkish name like that. Why not choose something more exotic? Something English or Italian, perhaps?''
"You can't make a brand name from an adjective,'' said another.
The Akarlilars, father Sait and his children, stood their ground. If they hadn't, the Turkish denim brand Mavi Jeans — mavi means "blue" in Turkish — would not be celebrating its 15th birthday.
"Then, all the company names here were foreign, but my father and my sister, Elif [now global brand manager], were especially behind [the name] Mavi," said Ersin Akarlilar, 36, who took over as chief executive officer last year. "I think it was so right. It was such a brave decision that it gave us the courage to get to where we are today."
After producing denim for others for many years, the company branched out on its own to launch a high-end denim brand. The firm took a bigger risk in 1996 when it looked to bring Mavi to the U.S., a strategy that some felt was equivalent to selling refrigerators to Eskimos. Ever since, Mavi has been blazing a trail for Turkish labels seeking to move upmarket and make a name.
In its first five years, Mavi had a major impact on the Turkish market.
"Our aim at first had been to catch and overtake Levi's," Ersin Akarlilar said. "By 1995, we were leaders in Turkey, ahead of Levi's. So then, we began to think that we really could go to the United States."
The U.S. was not a complete unknown. Ersin Akarlilar did postgraduate work in New York and wanted to live in the U.S. He is now based in New York with his American wife and two small children.
Still, establishing the brand in the U.S. would be no easy task. The Akarlilar family did not have high expectations when it approached denim legend Adriano Goldschmied for help in launching the brand. However, Goldschmied agreed, and the partnership lasted several crucial years.Elif Akarlilar said with Goldschmied, the family began to develop the distinctive Mavi identity — sexy, Mediterranean, well-fitting — and abandoned simply trying to sell their best-selling Turkish products in favor of a large range of styles and fits. The company has different cuts and styles geared for the body shapes of each market. With Europe's largest integrated fashion jeans factory, in which Sait Akarlilar invested $20 million to set up in 1996 to make Mavi jeans and well-known brands such as Calvin Klein and Guess, the company can adapt each style to its market.
"‘Mavi fits' became our slogan," Elif Akarlilar said. "The image at the time was Spice Girls and hip-hop, and that image did not fit us, so we developed a more Mediterranean look."
That translated into a relaxed sexiness for curvy women: lighter-weight, low-rise styles that fit rather than gaped. This aesthetic was epitomized by a style called Molly, the first big U.S. success for Mavi with its all-American name and "real woman" vibe. The style emerged when young girls were straitjacketed into the generally unflattering unisex styles.
"For a year, we worked really hard, but nothing happened,'' Ersin Akarlilar said of the brand's early days in the U.S. "The whole year's business there was worth just a few thousand dollars."
The brand was beginning to build momentum when Nordstrom placed a small order; it was an opportunity that Ersin did not want to let slip through his hands. Rather than rely on standard delivery, he loaded two dozen pieces into his luggage and hopped a plane to New York to personally deliver the order.
"We had three to five pairs in a few shops," the ceo said. "Then at the start of the 1997 fall season, we found that suddenly three, five, 10 pairs were being sold. We suddenly began to sell more than established brands, and there was a snowball effect...but we didn't have what Nordstrom wanted in stock. This was really important, and we had to do something."
Today, Mavi sells jeans at more than 4,000 sales points in 50 countries and had a volume of $148 million last year. Turkey and surrounding countries account for about 60 percent of the business. The U.S. market, the company's largest outside that area, accounts for 28 percent."We aim to double the company turnover in three to five years," said Ersin Akarlilar, setting a target of $250 million to $300 million.
The company plans to do this mainly by growing in current markets, although some expansion is planned. Most important, he said, the firm must simply make sure that the jeans are of such good quality that established customers keep coming back.
"The cheapest way to sell another pair of jeans is to sell a pair to someone who has already bought one," he said.
To celebrate the brand's anniversary, Mavi has unveiled two projects. The first is a collection made from 100 percent organic cotton from Turkey's Aegean cotton fields. The second is a luxe collection designed by Turkey's first internationally renowned fashion designer, Rifat Ozbek, his first collaboration with a Turkish label.
"I see this as an important social duty, as well as a new product line," said Elif Akarlilar. "Organic is not just a passing enthusiasm for us. We researched the idea a couple of years ago, but we couldn't find enough organic cotton here in Turkey. We wanted to use Aegean cotton, and we wanted this to be a long-term and sustainable project, so we waited."
The Rifat Ozbek for Mavi collection is a limited edition, although management is considering further designer collaborations. Designed for spring and summer, it will be a premium range collection to be unveiled at the brand's 15th-anniversary runway show in Istanbul this fall.
Both collections will be at the higher end of the price scale for Mavi, but do not represent a strong shift away from the sub-premium range where Mavi has settled. Mavi jeans in the U.S. sell for $90 to $170, but management feels the growing prominence and sophistication of denim provides growth potential in the higher end.
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