One of Turkey’s largest integrated textile corporations, Bossa creates high quality fabrics for fashion leaders such as Armani and Levis. Dr Sedef Uncu Aki, Assistant General Manager of Bossa, explains how the company’s close relations with its customers, its creative R&D and commitment to sustainability produce innovative, tailor-made materials that are in high demand.
How do you assess Turkey’s progress in narrowing the gender employment gap in the workforce?
It is fortunate that we are working in the fashion textile sector, where women are strongly represented. Around 40% of the mid-level management in our industry, in Bossa, is women, which is significantly higher than the average in Turkey. We have less women working blue-collar jobs due to the shifts, however our industry is successful at attracting women. The government has started introducing some incentives to increase female participation across the workforce and hopefully we will start to see positive results in the years to come.
Turkey has set highly ambitious targets for 2023 that includes $500 billion of exports, of which textiles and clothing are expected to contribute $60 billion. How do you assess the potential of the Turkish textiles and clothing sector to reach this ambitious target?
In textiles, we have a high export potential mainly due to our location and proximity to Europe, which is our main market. If the European economy continues to improve, the production in Turkey for exports will definitely increase.
But it’s not just location. You have a lot of competition from further east. How do you compete globally with countries like China and India, where they have much cheaper operating costs?
We do not really consider the Far East and Asia as our competitors, although of course there are many good companies in places like China and India. We pay attention to what they are doing. And we are doing it innovatively. Turkey is very competitive with European countries, mainly Italy now, and it was not so long ago when we considered Italy as the pinnacle and we were trying to imitate them. These days, especially in denim, we are setting global trends in terms of fabric.
Turkey traditionally is perhaps not known for cutting-edge fashion design. How is Bossa helping to change this?
In the beginning we just focused on CMT (cut, make and trim). In the 1990s, textiles were really booming in Turkey and everyone was investing in this area. This was the time when I was at college and I was attracted to the industry.
Since then, Turkish textiles companies have invested heavily in R&D and design consultancy, and this has allowed us to make giant strides in value-added production. At Bossa, we don’t just focus on design consultancy; we also look closely at the business processes and how we can improve the productivity in the company. We have helped change the mindset of the industry.
Have you achieved international recognition for your designs?
Last year we were honored at the Global Denim Awards in Amsterdam. We won with an entirely Turkish team: from the designer, to the fabric, to the manufacturing. This is a very positive step. All the other competitors used designers in Holland but we have decided to collaborate with an emerging designer here in Turkey.
The European market is very much focused on sustainability in fashion and this is also very important for us. We selected all the fabrics from our sustainable denim collection and our Turkish designer used these fabrics.
When we first started with sustainable fabrics, the appearance and quality of the fabric was not good enough as recycled fibers are very difficult to spin. The result was that people liked the notion of wearing recycled fabric but not the ‘look’.
So, we established a separate spinning mill to focus on producing desirable recycled fabrics and we also looked at combination works. Eventually we achieved the perfect balance between sustainability and nice looking fabrics. Lots of customers don’t care too much about the sustainability aspect, they care about looking good. We created a high-end line at the very end so that customers, even if they don’t care, liked the collection without looking at the labels.
We do care about sustainability, but it is pointless if your fabrics do not sell. Thankfully, with our efforts, we were able to achieve both.
To what extent are your R&D and innovation activities guided by the principle of sustainability?
About 40%. I am not talking about sustainability only in terms of fabric, I am also talking about decreasing the usage of energy, water and chemicals in-house. We take a holistic view of sustainability. We have introduced a program called Bossa Cares, which covers the whole manufacturing process, from the raw material to the end product. There is no point producing recycled fabric if the energy use is so high that it cancels out the sustainability ‘gains’.
We have two main collections each year but we are constantly releasing capsule collections based on our innovations. Sustainability and innovation are the keys to our business model and success.
We have also adapted to changing customer habits. Whereas once denim was just a basic fabric, now the high-end fashion brands want to see our fashion and sportswear lines. Accordingly, we now produce collections with coated fabrics, rich indigo colors, never-fade-out fabrics, fabrics with functional properties and of course sustainable fabrics..
Does Bossa have any plans to use its expertise to establish your own fashion lines and brands?
It’s a different type of business and we do not believe that just because we are experts in fabrics, we can be experts in retail. We don’t have any strategy to move forward in the supply chain.
How do you forge your relationships with world-renowned brands, such as Armani, to name just one of your clients?
We don’t have a way to reach the end consumer. We have a close relationship with our customers as brands and retailers. We visit them continuously and get their consumer details and tastes, and develop the fabric accordingly. For example, if a brand wants a black jean that can be washed without ever fading, we can work on an R&D project to improve the performance of the dyeing process, and come up with an innovative product for the customer.
We also have different trade shows where all of the brands come and see different manufacturers, but we don’t believe too much in generic or general marketing right now. We really believe in a targeted one-on-one relationship with the customer.
To what extent has the Turquality program helped you to grow your international presence and brand recognition?
They supported us, especially with attending trade shows and establishing international showrooms. For example, we have a showroom in New York and now we are planning to open one in Los Angeles. This program helps us to have stronger and firmer export strategies. It also supports us if we want in-house consultancy. I think the mindset is really right because if you can improve yourself internally, you can be more of a well-known brand in the world. I believe Turkey has a lot of branding potential that can extend worldwide. Thus, the program will be a wise support for them.
You export to more than 50 countries. How do you expect your export markets and client base to evolve in the coming years?
Europe is and will remain our main market, but we are also turning our attention towards Asia, especially China and Japan.
Are your R&D activities focused solely on garments, or do you also work with industrial fabrics that can serve heavy industries?
This is a different area and we are a conventional textiles company. That being said, one of our product development managers is currently attending a conference in Austria on man-made fibers. We would like to see if we can take innovative ideas from other parts of the industry and apply them to conventional fabrics. For example, we created a breathable fabric with thermocool fibers that we sold to Levis and they marketed this very successfully.
Are you open to partnerships in your R&D activities?
We get ideas from chemical companies, fiber companies, and most importantly listen to our customers. The whole chain is crucial. As an example, one of the R&D projects we had was with a white appliance company in Turkey. We worked on a denim program for washing machines with them.
What would your message be to young people in Turkey who are considering a career in textiles?
As I told you earlier, textiles was very popular when I was growing up so it was a natural choice for me. But looking back, the most important thing is not the industry you choose, but how you apply yourself to work and invest in yourself. You should also love what you do. When I enter the production, I love the noise and the smell!
If you enjoy what you do and you invest in your skills, you can be successful in any industry.
How would you like Turkish design and textiles to be perceived internationally?
The perception is still not that high at the moment in terms of Turkish designers. But we have lots of up and coming designers who are determined to do well and are willing to invest in themselves. These days there are many courses and master’s degrees for fashion and textiles. I studied at Istanbul Technical University and I did my bachelor’s degree as a textile engineer, and now they have a very good textile design program also. So it’s evolving right now and I think in the near future the perception will improve.