ISTANBUL — No doubt about it: Turkey needs to brand itself.

This story first appeared in the November 7, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Faced with much cheaper competition from huge Asian countries like China, it is no longer possible for Turkey to be the world’s clothing assembly line. But the metamorphosis from fashion’s ugly duckling to its stylish swan is a long road — as evidenced by the decision to cancel the inaugural Istanbul Fashion Week planned for this month.

To hear them talk at the recent International Apparel Federation’s Congress in Istanbul, Turkish industry officials are relishing the task. Osman Arar, general coordinator of Orka Tekstil, has high expectations for his company’s men’s wear labels, Damat (suits and workwear) and Tween (a younger, sportier line).

“Our aim was always to be international, and we hope in the years to come that we will be one of the top 10 brands,” he told delegates.

Following years of suffering under the somewhat clichéd image of being from a poor, backward Eastern country, “Made in Turkey” in the widest sense is now becoming a marque of which people here are increasingly proud. As a result, industry officials have begun to speak of the country’s largest city as a new fashion center.

However, at the IAF congress, much cold water was poured over their more ambitious plans.

“You can’t just say we’re going to build a brand,” said Didier Grumbach, president of the French Fashion Federation. “It takes a brand 10-20 years to become international. And the process is very painful.”

Belgian designer Jean-Paul Knott, who has been trying to make it on his own in the competitive fashion world for the past three years after working as an assistant to Yves Saint Laurent, agreed. “It’s easier said than done,” he ventured.

For a country to become a brand like Italy or France, its designers have to create a coherent style.

“I don’t get that vibe yet for Turkey. It still needs coherence, confidence and a certain essence,” said Geoff Crook, designer-director of Saint Martin’s College of Art in London, in an interview.

This needs considerable time, and needs to evolve more organically. All top names today, from Yves Saint Laurent to Jean Paul Gaultier, were avant-garde at the time, Grumbach pointed out. Gaultier failed to sell a single item from his first three collections — hardly the sort of enterprise likely to find favor with a marketing guru keen to establish a brand. So the message was that there is little point in Turkey taking its first aim at couture and trying to become an international fashion capital.

“You are not ready for couture,” Grumbach said. “I think it’s a bad idea…You have a strong industry and good designers, but it will take years to bring the international media to Istanbul, to attract their interest. It’s not right to waste your energy.”

That seems to have been taken on board as Istanbul Fashion Week — which had already been postponed from May — was canceled amid what appears to have been a collective loss of heart. Nelih Akay, of joint organizers Nat Ajans, said the main textiles exporting body, ITKIB, had decided to put its weight behind efforts to send individual Turkish designers abroad. For example, it helped Bahar Korcan with her first show during New York Fashion Week. ITKIB, however, denied that it had anything to do with the Istanbul project in the first place. Whatever the reasons, the result is that Turkish designers have for now lost a collective showcase at home.

“It’s a shame about fashion week — it doesn’t look particularly good for us to cancel like that,” said one designer, who requested anonymity.

As well as their warnings, international fashion experts had advice, too, which could in the long term help lead to Turkey taking a more prominent place in the fashion firmament. One initial step, they said, was to improve manufacturing standards. This area has improved greatly over the past years, but there is still some way to go before Turkey can claim to have the quality and know-how of, say, Italy, executives said. For this, there would need to be greater cooperation between skilled, visionary manufacturers and good, creative designers. Turkish manufacturers should also look at working with foreign talent, said fashion industry consultant Jean Jacques Picart.

All the overseas executives were unanimous on how Turkish designers should try and gain a foothold on the international scene: Go to Paris, like Dice Kayek, and breathe the air of international fashion. The inspiration can come from Istanbul, but unless they show in Paris, designers will struggle to reach their audience.

“The buyers are in Paris, the international press is in Paris, the international distribution is in Paris,” said Picart. “The Turks will have to go.”

There was also a need, parallel to the branding and manufacturing process, to nurture pure creativity, Crook said. Without that, no amount of money, effort and marketing was going to transform Turkey into a fashion base. One positive start has been the announcement that the Fashion Institute of Technology was to establish two joint-degree programs with Istanbul Technical University.

And Turks reluctant to give up have one example before them. Mavi Jeans, which began as a family firm in Turkey and entered the U.S. market in the most underground, word-of-mouth manner, is now achieving what Turks thought would be impossible: selling jeans to Americans in the homeland of denim.

But Crook thinks a much better example for Turkey would be the Italian company, Diesel. It has a high-fashion image and a truly international feel.

“Diesel sounds a bit like a club, it could be anything,” he said. “Concepts like Diesel are not designer-led but represent a creatively relevant brand for the late 20th century. The concept could have been from anywhere — nobody would be surprised if they were told it came from Turkey.”

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