The invention of the most functional fabric in the world, denim, is a result of a mistake. When the weavers from the French city of Nimes tried to reproduce the famous Italian-made cotton corduroy, they made an error in the dying process that resulted in a more durable fabric. The warp threads were dyed with indigo while the weft threads remained white, giving this fabric a unique look and texture that made it appealing for many. This fabric, found practical during the Gold Rush and put to work by Levi Strauss, began its international career that continues to the present day.
Compared to more than a century-long history of blue jeans in the US, the Turkish leg of that story is relatively new, with its beginning marked by World War II. Negatively affected by the practical quality of denim fabric, Turks began to purchase second-hand outfits from American soldiers, quickly spreading international trends amongst themselves. Having observed the new fashion in France around the same time, Turkish entrepreneur Muhteşem Kot decided to introduce production of the fabric to Turkey. He founded the Kot brand in the 1950s and took his permanent place in local fashion history. Blue jeans are known in Turkish as “kot,” and this word has assumed a place in the official Turkish dictionary since 1973.
Trying to follow the latest fashion trends, local vendors in Istanbul struggled to source the most current looks involving denim. In the 1970s, local students would buy worn items from foreign tourists for half of what they’d pay for the new items from Turkey. The best deals were offered by travelers from India, and this second-hand market, although thriving, wasn’t resulting in any major business deals, as both selling and buying parties were relatively poor. Rumor has it that one of the local restaurants, Yener Lokantası, used to offer free meals to Indian tourists who ended up making absolutely no money on selling their second-hand jeans to Turkish students. Students who could afford the new items, would work on their fashionable look for hours, wearing the fabric out with pumice stones and bleach.
Though chemical dyes are mostly used to dye denim today, in the past, natural indigo dye was more commonly used due to local knowledge of traditional carpet weaving. The threads were colored entirely with dyes obtained from leaves and roots of various local plants. The recipes used for these dyes were personal; therefore, use of the same material by different dyers resulted in variant tones, which were further affected by factors such as soil type or local microclimate. Aytaç Kot, Muhteşem Kot’s son, remembers the dye used in the Kot factory was so intense that the company had no choice but to focus on producing only one type of fabric, with everything within the facility being painted blue. The company’s first advertisements advised their customers to wash their denim trousers in seawater in order to preserve the colors and shapes.
From past to present
Today, Turkish production of denim takes approximately 7% of the world market and equals more than 30% of the entire local woven fabric production. When browsing through blue jean designs in international chain stores such as Levi's, H&M, Zara, Benetton, Dolce & Gabbana, Guess, Calvin Klein, G-Star, Lee, Mavi, or Wrangler, despite the varieties on offer, the fabric used to make them most likely comes from Turkey.
The sudden boom of local denim production is related to the position of the Turkish textile industry in the world. Due to special qualities of its fiber as well as its production volume, Turkish Aegean cotton is considered to be one of the best and most accessible in the world. With its long-staple fiber, designers such as French brand A.P.C. choose to highlight the natural shine and strength of the fabric in certain designs. Large international manufacturers closely work with denim mills to achieve the product they are looking for from the start. This involves choosing the right yarns, dye shades, and type of selvedge. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of each mill, designers also tend to focus on specialized production sourcing materials for only certain type of products. For example, Isko is well-regarded for its stretch fabric.
Today’s denim production is not only about competitive price and ability to deliver using the latest technologies. Independent designer brands look to collaborate with manufacturers who use organic products and implement good practices in their everyday operations, both in the manufacturing process and in work conditions. Following this line of production, ISKO joined the Sustainable Apparel Coalition; Bossa, which does manufacturing for brands such as G-Star Raw, Topshop, and 7 For All Mankind, launched a collection with aims to reduce its use of water; Calik Denim, known for its sustainable practices, has been awarded the European Business Award in 2016.