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Turkish leather sector is dressed for success

Interview - July 31, 2015

With a leather heritage spanning centuries, Turkish Leather Council President Erdal Matras shares his vision for turning Turkish leather produce into a globally renowned brand.


How will the leather sector help Turkey to meet its ambitious export goals of $500 billion by 2023?

The biggest thing that encourages us is the production and labor capacity and, of course, the young population of Turkey.

But we have to first talk about the Turkish industry’s experience. Leather is Turkish; it is one of the oldest industries in this area.

Turkey is very experienced, talented, and technologically advanced, supported by a young population and ambitious companies. Of course, another positive is the strategic position of Turkey on the world map.

We are located between Asia and Europe, so this is a logistical advantage.

Despite the financial crisis, Europe remains Turkey’s biggest export market. Why do you think Europeans hold Turkish leather products in such high regard, and how do you maintain your competitiveness against cheaper products from the Far East, for example?

Cheap and expensive are not the same thing. I’m sure the people who buy from Turkey will see the difference between the cheap Far East goods and Turkish products.

Don’t forget lots of worldwide brands are settled in Turkey. Turkey their production area.

We spoke earlier before about the proud history and tradition of leather here in Anatolia in Turkey. How do you think this history shapes international perceptions of Turkish leather products today?

Istanbul was conquered in 1453. Just behind where you are you are sitting, you will see the original declaration on leather from emperor Sultan Mehmet Han.

This is from 1461, eight years after the Ottomans conquered Istanbul. This says that all people who slaughter animals will eat their meats and will bring the skins to the tanners to make leather.

So the Turkish leather industry started in 1461. It’s a long and proud history that no other country can compete with.  

In more modern times, the leather industry here has been primarily focused on subcontracting work. How is the Turkish Leather Council supporting the industry in terms of design and branding so that your members can really add value to the industry and the economy?

First of all, the Turkish Leather Council doesn’t promote individual brands. This is something that we cannot do and we are not doing.

But are you helping to support the creation and success of brands?

Yes, we are trying to improve the awareness of the Turkish leather market and Turkish leather garment producers, tanneries, leather goods, and shoes. I’ve been in this group for the last 10 years, since it started.

We have members from all different sectors like garments, shoes, tanneries, and personal. We discuss what we can do for those subsectors in terms of exports. The Turkish Leather Council doesn’t work for Turkish sales.

Turkey has a huge internal leather market worth $75 million, but we focus only on exports.

We did a lot of research on our target countries. I tried to understand where we can sell our goods. With professional advisors we deduced that Turkish leather has big potential in Russia, Italy and China – because China’s population is getting richer every day, and since they are threatening us with cheap leather goods they can be a good customer for our high quality leather goods and shoes.

The fourth and fifth biggest targets are Japan and the United States of America.

We then strategized with our advisers on how to promote ourselves in these countries. You cannot do the same promotion in Italy that you do in China.

I have three different advisors, one from China, one from Italy and one from Russia, who work for us in those countries.

Russians love television so if you want to say something to the Russian market you have to say it on TV. In China, it’s very difficult to reach everybody because the population is so big.

You have to go to the sector first, so we have been attending trade shows all over China. Anyone who has been to a Chinese leather fair in recent years will know about Turkish leather.

Everyone know the Turkish Leather Council puts on a great show and our booths are magnetic; everyone is drawn to us because of the spectacle and promotional material we offer.

Italy is totally different. You cannot talk about fairs in Italy. You have to do something about fashion. It must smell like fashion. You must team-up with a fashion-media guru.

Since last year we worked with well-known fashion group Walk on Walk Italy, and we also worked with Condé Nast group, which has nine different magazines.

This was very effective. It was the right way to penetrate the Italian market.

We also made an impact in the fashion capital Milan. The Milan Duomo is a one-in-a-million place. We hired eight windows in the famous Rinascente department store near to the Duomo to exhibit our goods.

That was huge.    

What are we trying to do here? We are trying to say that the Turkish leather industry is experienced, talented, has huge capacities and capable of forming partnerships with any brand working with leather goods.

Any company working with leather garments, shoes or accessories should come and see Turkey at least once.

As I mentioned, we don’t promote any single brand. We have our own logo, our own brand, but we are not commercial and we don’t work for profit. We just spend.

Our logo was designed by Ivan Chermayeff. He is the number one designer of logos and he has more hits than the Beatles. He designed the logos for Mobil, NBC and National Geographic, among others.

He is in his 80s now but I tracked him down in New York and I told him that I want a logo that everyone will recognize one day. I want whoever sees it, wherever they are in the world, to say that this is Turkish leather.

You will be looking for shoes in London or Mexico City and you will see this logo and instantly you will know what it means in terms of origin and quality. It will be like the Nike swish.

I didn’t want to work by trial and error with the logo. The logo should be the eternal logo, and it should be done by the #1 in the world, and that’s why I found Chermayeff.

This is not any logo, this is a Chermayeff logo. He did this. That is very important.

So it matches the grand ambitions you have for the industry?

Yeah. I spent a lot of time with him. He spent a lot of time with many different Turkish leather people. He understood, and finally he brought me three different types, but our current one was the best.  

One of the major priorities of the Turkish G20 Presidency is SMEs. How does your work here at the Turkish Leather Council support the G20 objective of helping SMEs access global value chains?

Everything we do here is for SMEs, because the Turkish leather sector made-up almost entirely of SMEs. There are a couple of big brand factories with more than 1,000 employees, but the rest are SMEs.

Whatever I’ve told you so far, it was all related to SMEs, not big brands.

You hold many esteemed positions both within private companies and within stakeholder organizations here in Turkey. Could you sum up your overarching vision for the future of the Turkish leather sector and how you would like it be perceived when you reach retirement age?

It’s very easy to be a leather man in Turkey because we have such a long and proud heritage. It’s huge. People have been making leather in this country for the past 600 years.

But world leather trade numbers are $220 billion, and Turkey does not even constitute 1% of this. The reputation is high, but the percentage is low.

Turkey’s leather sector should be at least 5% of the world leather numbers. This is my aim. This is not a dream, a utopia. This could happen quickly.