Twenty-five years ago, two young people made a life-changing decision. Yılmaz Yılmaz, a naval officer, and his wife Gülden, a teacher, decided to invest in something completely unfamiliar to them: the textile sector. During the summer of 1988, they opened a shop in Kuzguncuk, a small, picturesque neighbourhood on the Asian side of Istanbul. The shop was a mere 25 metres square, fitted out with shelving taken from a nearby shop that was being renovated. Today, the Koton brand has 220,000 square metres of shop floor area in 310 stores found in 24 countries across the world.
Yılmaz Yılmaz smiles as he reminisces about the company’s launch. ‘It was a pursuit of new opportunities,’ he recalls. ‘We gave ourselves three months to succeed, or we would return to our day jobs.’ By the end of the summer, business had exceeded their expectations. The shop soon became a phenomenon: women would visit every day to see the newest items. ‘In those days, our collection consisted of pieces from different brands made in Turkey. The production of Koton-branded items started in 1995,’ Yılmaz Yılmaz explains.
New style millennium
The secret of Koton’s success, its customer-centred approach, became apparent during those early days and remains key to the brand’s appeal. This approach helped the couple to understand what their audience needed: democratic fashion with a good price-quality ratio, presented in a relaxed, spacious environment. ‘Our turning point was the new millennium,’ says Yılmaz Yılmaz. ‘We had grown to 10 stores and 300 square metres of shop floor by the year 2000. We did a big market research study, interviewing 24,000 people face-to-face, which at the time was very new in Turkey.’ The Yılmazes have divided up tasks since the beginning of their enterprise. While Gülden Yılmaz is in charge of marketing and brand design, Yılmaz Yılmaz’s expertise lies in strategy, human resources and running the business.
Another fundamental key to Koton’s success is the variety of products offered, including clothes, shoes and accessories. Nearly 20,000 pieces are produced each year, which means every store holds a wealth of product.
The different lines are also expanded each year, with menswear, womenswear and childrenswear all enriched by seasonal collections such as beach and party ranges. The Koton design department, which comprises around 100 people, is highly versatile; the designers travel the world, visiting design fairs and seeking out inspiration.
‘We see trends and their creation as a synergy. We believe that trends can come from abroad as well as from within our country. Turkey is a country of production and needs to be innovative in order to compete; this also drives trends,’ says Yılmaz Yılmaz. ‘As a brand, we draw from both sides. This advantage makes us quick and flexible within the fashion industry.’
Koton tailors its collections to the different countries where it operates, since local needs can vary widely according to both climate and cultural preferences. For countries such as Russia and Dubai, Koton creates exclusive collections. Within Turkey, the brand’s capsule collections are a phenomenon of their own. Over the years, high-fashion designers such as Hakan Yıldırım, Bora Aksu and Jean-Pierre Braganza have created well-received collections. Another collection with almost cult status is a T-shirt series that incorporates imagery from Turkish artists and style icons; the most recent line features the popular late Turkish singer Barış Manço.
The goal for the future is to remain a major player in fast fashion. ‘We are not the biggest yet, but if we work on creating the strongest and most-liked collection, I think we can take a step towards becoming one of the biggest fast-fashion brands in the world,’ says Yılmaz Yılmaz. ‘Our strength lies in the fact that not only are our basics affordable, but so are our fashion items. That’s what separates us from our competitors.’
Koton is focusing on the international market, but the brand remains firmly based in Turkey. ‘Our new headquarters in Istanbul’s Maslak is a very inspiring building,’ notes Yılmaz Yılmaz. The corporate offices also host events such as Koton’s fashion blogger competition, which includes workshops for aspiring young bloggers.
Independent research by the Turkish Council of Shopping Centers showed that Koton was the top choice and most-liked brand among consumers visiting shopping malls in 2012. Meanwhile, the autumn/winter 2012 ad campaign, which featured the willowy Victoria’s Secret model Alessandra Ambrosio and her daughter Anja, has helped boost the brand’s global appeal.
‘It hasn’t been an easy road, but it has always been a fulfilling one,’ says Yılmaz Yılmaz. ‘We had and will continue to have the potential to grow. That is an inevitable part of the Koton story.’