Speed to market, a vertical supply chain and strong relationships make Turkey a prime sourcing location
The Turkish economy is heavily dependent on the fashion industry. Market research firm Euromonitor reports that textiles accounted for the greatest share (18.5%) of total goods exported from Turkey in 2015. In monetary terms, the value of clothing exported reached US$ 16.8 billion (£13.4 billion) in 2015, figures from the Turkish Ministry of Economy show.
Although the country has faced political upheaval and has been subject to the terrorist activities that are affecting many countries across the world, its focus on supplying fashion to Britain and further afield shows no sign of abating.
"Turkey is a crucial market for many UK fashion brands and retailers, whose fasttrack and capsule collections are dependent on very short lead times and high flexibility from suppliers and factories," explains Peter Rinnebach, senior manager at global consultancy firm Kurt Salmon, part of Accenture Strategy.
Although more expensive than their counterparts in Asia, Turkish manufacturers can offer faster delivery times and the flexibility to repeat in season. Asia cannot compete with Turkey's close proximity to the UK and Europe, which allows buyers to quickly make repeat orders on products that are flying off the rails or to quickly make changes – for example, trying a new pattern or a new colourway – to existing designs.
"While Turkey has a higher level of production costs compared to typical Far East sourcing destinations, it does offer a favourable exchange rate," adds Stephen Taylor, senior manager at Kurt Salmon. "Overall, the higher production cost in Turkey compared with the Far East can be levelled out by the benefits of shorter timelines and faster reactivity to market developments."
This is echoed by Cem Altan, board member of textile industry body Istanbul Apparel Exporters' Association and managing director of Istanbul-based jersey garment manufacturer Aycem Tekstil, "With Turkey, brands don't have to order big quantities that they need to keep in the stock cupboard," he says.
"Brands can make small orders and repeat on styles. They don't have to carry extra stock. They don't have to commit, so instead of ordering 20,000 pieces of a garment they can try 5,000 instead."
And product can be turned around quickly, he adds, "Orders can be placed and samples can be received five to seven days later." Quick turnaround is one of the reasons retailer Asos has been manufacturing its own label in Turkey for 10 years, soon after the publicly listed company launched its own label of products.
"The key factor to sourcing from Turkey is speed to market," says Asos sourcing director Simon Platts. "The ability to place small through to larger-scale orders gives flexibility, and the ability to trial new products and trends, and be quick to market with these." There are other advantages, explains Karen Millen production director Fay Tear, "Speed to market is absolutely an advantage, but we plan our collections up to nine months in advance of delivery, thus all the Far Eastern and European product gets delivered together for the relevant package or retail month."
"But if and when we repeat, a denim supplier, for example, is able to get product into stores much quicker than the Far East and the current exchange rates means they are very competitive at present." Furthermore, Turkey offers a well-developed supply chain, meaning buyers can find most of the fabrics, washing and embellishment needed for their garment requirements within the country, well known for its established textiles and fashion clothing manufacturing industry.
"Turkey can offer customers vertical manufacturing capability, which makes a real difference in delivery times," says Kurt Salmon's Rinnebach. "In addition to garment production, it has a strong heritage in textiles – it remains a top 10 producer of cotton, wool and polyester – and has fabric and knit production and finishing capability." Breaking it down, Turkey exported US$ 8.9 billion knitted garments in 2015, US$ 5.9 billion in woven readywear and US$ 1.9 billion in readymade clothing, figures from the Ministry of Economy indicate.
Platts says that over the past five years Asos has increasingly sourced a wider range of products in Turkey, leading to growth in the overall percentage of its production in the country. The retailer manufactures a range of clothing from basic jersey through to heavily embellished denim-washed products in and around Istanbul.
Its ability to produce a diverse range of products is one of the advantages of manufacturing there, says Platt, "The production capabilities are wide and the ability to understand and accommodate garments requiring quality and high fashion content are plentiful.
There are manufacturers for denim, jersey, knitwear, tailoring, outerwear, swimwear, underwear, lingerie and many accessory types, including bags. It also has the specialist capabilities the supply base offers, with washing, embellishment and printing being key." As Turkish manufacturers are capable of producing a wide range of textiles and finishes, everything for garment production can be produced in the one country, providing a smoother and easier sourcing journey.
"You don't need to import from other countries," says Altan, who champions the quality it offers compared with other regions. "The Far East has a completely different offer. It's a cheap market – here we offer value-added garments. The quality is better than the Far East. And we have reliable factories and deliver on time and deliver quality."
Karen Millen, which has a longstanding relationship of almost 20 years with Turkey, produces around 30% of its European clothing in the country. Turkish product is focused on tailoring, denim and a small amount of leather, Tear explains, "For tailoring, they have a very good tailored 'handwriting', which gives Karen Millen the clean, stamped-out, structured look.
Our tailoring factories are cut, make, trim (CMT) which means we provide the patterns, fabric and trims, all the development work is completed here at Paul Street (Karen Millen's headquarters in London), and they manufacture the product. For the denim, they have good Turkish denim mills, which give us premium denim."
Turkey not only offers a good quality workforce, but it is also attractive for buyers geographically. "Turkey is close to the UK and other European countries," says Altan. "You can fly to Turkey and do business in the same day."
Tear says producing in Turkey enables the team to visit regularly for relatively little cost, "Our roving quality control executives will visit the factories on a regular basis to ensure the production is maintained to the Karen Millen quality standards and ensure there aren't any production issues. It is easy to jump on a plane and visit each supplier to resolve the issue quickly and productively."
As well as being a close hub to the UK, many talk of a close relationship between Turkish manufacturers and brands. "If they ask us to stock a fabric for them, if they want a different colour, we will quickly dye it and send it in three weeks' time so it's ready for the shop floor," explains Altan.
Taylor also believes the country enforces strict controls when it comes to what it is producing. "Turkey takes a proactive stance on environmental concerns in the supply chain," says Taylor. "It is one of the few countries to mandate all textile manufacturers to comply with internationally accepted environmental standards, which is another plus," he says.
The industry also asserts that its record on corporate social responsibility is improving. Karen Millen works closely with its four Istanbul-based suppliers, as Tear explains, "Our suppliers are an extension of our brand and we believe in working in partnership with them, so most of our relationships are direct with the suppliers and not through sourcing offices.
"The design, product development and technical team will liaise daily with the suppliers. The teams that have suppliers in the Far East will visit twice a year, but our European visits are much more frequent." She says the Karen Millen design team will visit Turkey for "development and inspiration" trips, and the product development teams will go to discuss deliveries, prices and production planning.
In addition, the technical teams will visit suppliers to support the development process or review production as pieces are being manufactured. Platts also talks of working very closely with suppliers and manufacturers in Turkey. He says regular communications are vital to make sure the speed producing in Turkey can offer is maximised, "Planning is critical and visibility around where the Asos products are made is paramount."
Tear believes the key to working well in Turkey is communication and speed, "Building long-term strategic relationships, and planning and commitment are crucial to maximise the potential Turkey production offers. "As with any successful working relationship, it is very much about having a two-way partnership with clear communication.
"In recent times it's been difficult for UK buyers to visit Turkey for security reasons, but face-to-face time via video tech and visits to the UK by our Turkish partner suppliers have kept the communication channels open."
Allaying apprehensions of business ethics
The Istanbul Apparel Exporters' Association president Hikmet Tanriverdi believes that that Turkish textile and apparel manufacturers have been diligently following ethical business practices.
He allayed fears of the international buyers following media reports of Syrian refugees working as forced labour in Turkish factories. Said Hikmet, "The Turkish apparel industry represents 35,000 manufacturers and more than 15,000 export companies. We want to underline that the individual cases do not represent the whole sector.
At IHKIB, we aim to address and eliminate these concerns through a wide range of activities. For example, we have contacted buying groups to discuss the problems and their solutions. Alongside these, we have kept the sector up to date about all the progress in this field. We've also discussed and presented our suggestions about foreign labour employment to the Ministry of Labour and Social Security."
While Turkish labour and employment laws are in keeping with the various international standards, Turkish industry too has been adhering to these laws and standards.
"Our exporter companies are under strict control by international buyers' auditing systems. In this context, to have ethical, sustainable and clean production," stressed Tanriverdi.
Turkey's design capabilities
In addition to garment manufacturing, Turkish suppliers are building their design skills. On a whirlwind tour of Istanbul manufacturers, it is clear that beyond the buzz of noise coming out of the factories – whether garments being washed for dyeing or trousers being stitched – there is much more going on than the mechanical production of clothes.
A key part of these vertically integrated Turkish manufacturers is the design of clothes for brands. "Over the last 10 to 15 years, Turkey has evolved to house design departments in its factories," says Cem Altan. "It's now a very important part of the manufacturing make-up.
Customers come to visit factories to see their collections and choose what they want. Most factories will have designers in the UK who keep abreast of the latest fashions and keep up to date with English culture.
While some brands have their own designers, stores like Next and Debenhams will choose from our collection and will say, 'Can you change this or adjust this?'" explains Altan, who adds that his factory employs designers in London. While suppliers are investing in setting up the most well-equipped design studios, buyers remain apprehensive of trying out something that has not come completely out of their studios, or something they have not seen on fashion catwalks.
Family-owned Özak Tekstil, which specialises in denim for brands such as Sandro, Maje, Marks & Spencer and Hugo Boss, has a dedicated design team of 10.
The company's three plants and 2,200 staff produce clothes from the factory to the shop floor within four to six weeks. "Some brands have their own design team, but sometimes they want the manufacturer's design team to come up with their own ideas," says the factory's CSR manager Koral Ersin.
"Our design teams are really experienced. They go on store visits, and they follow the latest trends in magazines and websites to find new innovations and inspiration. Some customers send us a prototype of a garment and ask us to make a sample. Some brands just send their designers here and spend time with the design team."
"We see things very early," says the factory's head of design, Özlem Tüfekçiolu. "I push the companies and brands to try this new trend because I believe it will be good, but it's only when, say, Gucci etc have it, that they say: 'Can you do this?' I would have already showed it to them two seasons before, but they weren't interested."
However, Tüfekçiolu says there are pitfalls to being a leader in design, "Sometimes they take our models and share the ideas with other manufacturers in other countries.
Sometimes it's expensive in Turkey so they choose a cheaper option. I see the garments in the shops, and I see this is our model, but not from Turkey."