ISTANBUL — When Turkey began to covet the jeans of visiting U.S. servicemen after World War II, nobody thought these all-American products could be made here with any success.
How things have changed. Today, Turkey is one of the world's biggest denim manufacturers and Turkish producers not only make the cloth and assemble the jeans, but also design and produce collections for top international names. Lately, Turks have even been launching their own labels by the armful.
"In the next decade, at least five Turkish brands will have gone global," predicted Nedim Ozbek, head of the Turkish denim manufacturers' collective DENIMDER and owner of Red Star, a label growing in the lucrative Russian market.
Turkish denim exports have been booming recently, with 2005 registering a 28 percent growth to $3.6 billion and 2006 exports rising to $4 billion, despite stiff competition for the apparel sector overall from China's huge, cheap workforce. This compares with exports of less than $400 million in 2001.
DENIMDER has begun running denim-only trade fairs. The latest edition of the hip Bread & Butter fair in Berlin featured Turkish brands Mavi and LTB by Little Big, as well as Turkish-owned Big Star.
"Forget taking part, Turks were not even allowed into these world-class fairs as visitors and now they are setting trends," said Turkish journalist Demet Cengiz Bilgin, who followed the fair.
Mustafa Oguzman, an executive with Big Star, the Swiss brand taken over by Eroglu, which also owns the Colin's and Loft labels, said the key was the marriage of Turkey's big manufacturing base with a need to build brands, which is part of an effort to move away from cheap assembly markets it can no longer dominate.
"Turkey has a large number of denim factories, there is a large infrastructure, supporting industry and accessories — everything is made here," Oguzman said at an Istanbul fashion fair that featured a jeans section with many young Turkish brands. "There is also a large domestic market when you consider that Turkey has an enormous young population and they all love jeans."
When international labels entered the newly liberalized Turkish economy in the Eighties, young Turks snapped up the merchandise and equally eager manufacturers rushed to open production plants. Customs' union with the European Union and clever investment in technology gradually led to easier trade and better Turkish production.
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