By  on May 24, 2007

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.Nurettin Eroglu, who founded Eroglu Group, was one of the many Turks inspired by maverick "suitcase" traders visiting Istanbul from Eastern Bloc countries. Cutting out the middleman, he took products directly to the former Soviet Union, now a major market for Turkey. Colin's, the label Eroglu founded in 1993, is now one of the most well-known international labels in Russia.

LTB by Little Big, the 12-year-old brand owned by Cak Tekstil, chose Western Europe as its initial target, although it also has outlets in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Producing about 17 million pieces a year, Cak Tekstil has plans to open several major European and Asian stores within the next year before setting its sights on North and South America.

Mavi Jeans was not the first, but they are the most established denim brand to come out of Turkey with a strategy that runs counter to all the others. Bravely, it chose a Turkish name (mavi means blue) and, in 1996, five years after it was founded, the company counterintuitively, and successfully, took its product to the U.S.

In addition to fit and quality, Mavi focused on creating the aura of a successful and sexy lifestyle with clever marketing and sponsorship, a tactic others rushed to emulate.

"Image is vital. Even the smallest firm has its own advertising department now," said Cihangir Kasapoglu, who heads communications at young brand Keep Out. "Brands are growing in proportion to their investment in advertising and image. Our ad budget is about 40 percent of our total spend and growing."

As with many Turkish textile companies, denim specialists recruited designers to add value, and big companies such as Bossa and Isko-Sanko made a name for themselves as high-quality partners for retail labels such as Gap and premium denim names such as Seven For All Mankind. Producers say now only the domestic washing capability still requires improvement.

Turkish denim brands are now oozing confidence in an environment where Italy's Diesel has dislodged the idea that U.S. labels are the only ones making desirable denim.

LTB's owner, Fatih Cakoglu, said: "Today, we are no different from European or American brands."

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