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ISTANBUL, Turkey — If the Istanbul Ready-to-Wear Exporters Association has its way, in the next five years, the Made in Turkey label will grow to rival the Made in Italy tag in quality and style.
“If we are to become globally competitive, if we are to pass into the next phase of our development, we need to elevate the perception of Turkish textiles,” said Nuri Artok, chairman of the association, known as ITKIB. “It is essential. That includes building brands and increasing our awareness to fashion trends. We need to become a world style leader — not just a manufacturing giant.”
For the moment, though, Turkey is precisely that, a manufacturing behemoth — with $31 billion in apparel business last year — and only a handful of internationally recognizable brands.
A large part of its business comes from international fashion firms that turn to Turkey to source their private label business. Exports of Turkish apparel and textiles totaled about $15 billion last year, but sales of Turkish brands accounted for a meager 10 percent of this.
ITKIB, which is subsidized by the government and is the main organization spearheading development of the apparel industry at large here, has laid out a series of concrete initiatives to reposition Turkey on the international stage.
For starters, it provides financial assistance to nascent Turkish brands to show at international trade shows, including the Prêt-à-Porter in Paris, Düsseldorf’s CPD and WWDMagic in Las Vegas.
Meanwhile, ITKIB is sponsoring a show of Turkish fabrics in New York, running through Wednesday, at Cipriani, 110 East 42nd Street. It has sponsored this expo for the past two seasons. ITKIB also sponsors trade shows in Turkey, such as the International Istanbul Ready-to-Wear Fair, or IFF. The fair recently convened June 27-30 in a venue about an hour outside the city.
Although ITKIB has held a young-designer competition here every year for the past decade, its efforts in that domain are only now hitting full stride. Its top three finishers, selected from about 650 applicants, get grants to study abroad for a year in a leading international fashion academy.
ITKIB for two years has sponsored the runway shows of three homegrown talents — Hussein Chalayan, Dice Kayek and Atil Kutoglu. Chalayan and Dice Kayek show in Paris, while Kutoglu shows in New York.
Artok describes the last initiative as icing on the cake. “Let’s be realistic,” he said. “These fashion brands are not going to make the big, big money. But they are invaluable for our image as an industry. They set the standard of what we would like to achieve. We could sponsor other designers in the future, too.”
ITKIB’s storm of activity comes at a watershed time for the Turkish apparel industry as a whole and anticipates the World Trade Organization’s scheduled abolition of trade quotas around the world, including those on textiles, in 2005.
In the past few years, quotas set on Turkish exports to the U.S. have halted apparel manufacturing before the yearend cycle, reining in Turkey’s business with the U.S., one of its most important trading partners. For instance, Turkey is limited to exporting 20 million pairs of trousers to the U.S. each year.
The end of the quota system is sure to be a bittersweet pill for the Turkish apparel industry. Quotas work both for and against the country because its cheaper competitors, including China and Indonesia, are subjected to similar limits. When these limits disappear, undoubtedly Turkey will feel more pressure from these rivals.
“We are at the crossroads,” said Artok, gesturing across the Bosporus, the waterway that divides Istanbul between the European and Asian continents. “We are part in Europe, part in Asia. We are neither the most expensive nor the least expensive. It is an important time of development. And we need to develop our potential.”
This potential lies in Turkey’s ability to move its industry into value-added products, or apparel with fashion input — not just the basics, historically the country’s forte, said Artok.
“When the quotas come down, we won’t be able to compete in the basics domain,” said Esin Benoz, director general of the Turkish Clothing Manufacturers’ Association, during a visit of the IFF fair. “We need to move the industry into fashion.”
Benoz explained that many Turkish manufacturers are currently exploring the purchase of established fashion brands and moving their production to Turkey.
“It’s one likely scenario,” she said. “Brand creation is expensive and takes a long time.”
Still, the industry is working toward goals. By 2005, it hopes to have created some 30 brands that trade internationally.
“We have the goals in mind and we believe we can get there,” said Umut Oran, president of the Turkish Clothing Manufacturers’ Association.
But for almost all of IFF’s 150 exhibitors — except the men’s wear brands Roman and Tween, whose main business outside of Turkey lays in the Mideast and Russia — branded apparel was not the order of the day.
Indeed, Oran, whose company Domino presented at the IFF, only produces private label designs for firms including Hennes & Mauritz and Gap. He said he didn’t expect buyers from similar companies to visit the fair because they run export offices in Istanbul and maintain regular relations with manufacturers.
“The fair is essentially an exercise for companies to get into the swing of showing their products,” he said. “It’s good training for the development of a brand.”
IFF has a troubled past. It was only the fair’s third session, after a troubled showing in March 2001, followed by a postponed session due to economic troubles in Turkey.
But, judging from the show’s shape and aspect, it is on its way up. This year, organizers said they concentrated on attracting visitors from within a three-hour flight to Istanbul, including the Mideast, the Russian Federation and surrounding European countries.
Just last year, the fair only featured about 50 exhibitors.
“The fair will be developed further,” said Oran. “It’s something that Turkey is getting behind 100 percent. The industry recognizes the importance of showing itself off.”
Meanwhile, IFF is not the only show in town sponsored by ITKIB. Twice a year, the International Textile and Apparel Sourcing Exhibition, or ITSE, slated for Oct. 10-13, opens its doors in a space near the Istanbul airport.
Kayhan Ozkurt, marketing director of the show, said efforts to attract more international visitors have been stepped up.
“All of the major fashion firms in the world do business with Turkey now,” said Ozkurt. “But the middle-sized companies don’t know how advantageous production in Turkey can be. Turkish companies produce faster, with more fashion expertise and quality than many other countries.”
Ozkurt said he expected about 350 exhibitors for the show’s next session.