Istanbul — Turkey is seeking to carve out a new niche in the global fashion market by promoting its dynamic generation of young designers.
With a solid reputation for textiles and production for big international brands like Gap and Dolce & Gabbana, it sees its homegrown creativity as the best strategy to combat the threat to the sector from China and the Far East.
"Our target is to make Istanbul one of the top five world fashion capitals, alongside Paris, Milan, New York and London," said Hikmet Tanriverdi, the new chairman of ITKIB, the body representing manufacturers and designers.
Tanriverdi was the prime mover behind August’s Istanbul Fashion Days, the first event to present designers and brands under one roof to invited international press and buyers.
The initiative has enthusiastic government backing, with good reason: 55 percent of Turkey’s exports are to Europe, of which 82 percent are in the apparel sector.
Minister of State for Foreign Trade Zafer Caglayan said Turkey was already "an address for good quality clothing" but needed to develop strong brands with wider recognition.
He was optimistic about the sector’s future, while frustrated at delays in Turkey achieving its goal to become a full member of the European Union
"When it does, the EU’s border will touch Asia. Turkey is a bridge, an excellent corridor between the East and West. It is only four hours by plane to more than 50 countries — a quarter of the world’s population and a quarter of the world’s economy."
While Turkey’s clothing sector had been hit by the global recession, the effect had been mitigated by the falling exchange rate of the local currency to the euro, he said.
As to competition from cheaper Asian imports, he said he was confident: "There are international trade laws which must be respected. I do not see China as a threat. I see China as an opportunity."
Odile Baudelaire, a Paris-based agent who advises the buyers of specialty stores like Nordstrom in the United States and Myer in Australia, agrees: "The price is a bit higher in Turkey than China but creativity and design is much better. So are the fabrics."
Michael Bonzom, a trend spotter for the NellyRodi agency and style consultant, noted there is already regional cooperation over the Asian competition: "Turkey, Morocco and Italy are all trying to get together to beat the threat from China."
Turkey’s very good reputation for respecting production deadlines and delivering on time was in its favour, he added.
On the likely future success of Istanbul fashion week in attracting international press and buyers, opinions were reserved.
"Many Turkish designers don’t show anywhere in Europe so it is a good alternative. I think there is potential. They have the factories and they have the creativity," says Baudelaire.
But she wondered if buyers would trek to Istanbul and whether it might make more sense to hold showrooms in the other fashion capitals.
Paul Chan, a buyer from Singapore, was similarly sceptical: "Paris, Milan, London are all close together and they have the big name brands like Louis Vuitton and Dior."
He said the 10-hour flight was too far for southeast Asian buyers and that Istanbul would need to promote itself in the region. Meanwhile he thought there was untapped potential closer to home: "Why don’t they design for the Middle East?"
The verdict of Faris and Layla Shehri, from the exclusive Art of Kohl Ltd shops in Riyadh, was "quite interesting. It is a good initiative from government to recognise talent in the fashion industry."
But they felt Istanbul had "invited the buyers too soon. They are not ready."
Bonzom was more upbeat. "Turkey is known for casual wear, cotton, denim, beachwear, and leather but not at all for its ready-to-wear. They are quite right to want to construct an identity in the middle to luxury ready-to-wear range. They have some very talented designers, like Arzu Kaprol. Also good menswear. I really hope it will pay off."
Natalie Lacroix, a buyer for the exclusive Franck et Fils boutiques in Paris, was impressed by all the edgily-dressed young women jostling to get into the shows and the hip street scene in Istanbul. "They are clearly mad about fashion."
She liked the idea of Istanbul’s fashion week — "Turkey is the first country in the Mediterranean basin to try to establish its fashion identity" — but the catwalk shows fell short of expectations. "Some designers need to westernise their styling more."
Designer Mehtap Elaidi, who was on the organising committee, said the event already provided a much-needed platform. "To put a show on in Paris costs as much as a whole season here. We want to show we really have something. This is just the tip of the iceberg."
But it takes a long time to build a brand, let alone a fashion capital. As several insiders put it: "There’s a long road ahead."