Anybody who wanted to make a buck or two joined the circus. The crash was inevitable. After 1998, many Turkish firms found staying on the bandwagon trickier than actually getting on it. Looking through previous fat leather fair catalogues is an exercise in nostalgia.

Names like Antilop and Donmez are no longer in Türkiye. Antilop’s derelict retail outlet in midtown Ankara is a sober reminder of times past. Türkiye’s doubleface industry is now going through a Darwinian, survival of the fittest, phase.

Despite reports of some leather firms using bank credits and others still trading with Russia on open account, these are poor cousins compared with dyed-in-the-wool tanners who uphold the integrity of the sector. Suzanne Swan met with Gunduz Kurk’s board member, Ms Ruken Mizrakli, to see how established, prominent producers stay on top form and why leather professionals are an endangered species.

Q Let’s start at the wet-end and hear how your tannery is set up?

A We have two tanneries in Corlu, one for turning raw skins into crust and the other for finishing skins to customers’ requirements. We process approximately 6,000 raw skins per day. This runs to 8,000 daily with overtime at peak season. We cannot compete in nappa, where supply exceeds demand, so doubleface is our stock in trade.

The tannery operates eleven months of the year, closing in January for maintenance. The size of lambskins is very important: these must be 5 to 5.5 sq m and we buy them between February and May. After May, a 6 sq m lambskin is a different kind of skin and the quality unsuitable for our fashion garments.

Most of our orders from the Far East come in February. So timing is critical to match supply with orders. One has to know customers very well.

Q How do you cope with the risks involved?

A It is an enormous risk to buy millions of raw skins in March before orders come in and to turn these into crust. Climate and fashion play vital roles in shearling production and these must also be taken into consideration when buying and selling. Knowing your customer well enough to anticipate his preferences is essential to minimise risk.

Q What about the prices of raw skins?

A Once, price was the over-riding production factor. But leather supply markets are more stable these days and prices reasonable. But at Gunduz we need to factor in everything, not just raw material prices, to come up with the best qualities for export. We buy all our raw skins direct from our suppliers, not brokers or traders, to narrow the quality band.

Q The condition of crust must be one of the most important factors?

A It is the most crucial and is the ‘common secret’ known to all the big-name tanners. When we receive raw skins, we cannot always identify flaws until the skins are processed. We have our own grading system, it’s a very critical process involving controlling the crust and keeping it in perfect condition. It is a hands-on enterprise.

There are standards in place to reconstitute crust but the challenge is to know what you have available in crust, what quality it is and to select it intelligently, almost on a one-by-one basis. You must identify the defects on the wool and flesh sides. Sometimes heavier skins are mixed in with the lighter ones.

We know the inherent characteristics of our crust, so we can finish and dye each customer’s requirements according to the skin’s individual attributes.

But we also have to be involved in the whole fashion process. It is difficult enough to be a tanner but we are fashion gurus as well!

Q What other fashion aspects are important for a tanner these days?

A New colours and trends are always at the fore. Currently we are trying to replicate textile effects on leather, incorporating four or five colours into finished skins, a bit like multi-coloured fibres in woven textiles. There is a lot of call for hand dyeing in leather. Everyone is looking for novelties and original ideas. Zippers are no longer undercover closures but expose their functionality in gold, glitter or diamante. The in jewel of the moment is crystal. Upmarket clients specify the real thing – Swarovski.

Q Some visitors seemed disappointed in the Hong Kong Asia Pacific Leather Fair. What was your impression?

A For Gunduz, APLF is a global trading post. We used to attend this fair for social reasons and to show our presence. Now, we go to take export orders for finished doubleface. Our customers know us for our focus on global quality and commitment to personalised details and this is an important fair for Gunduz.

Q Who are the buyers?

A Garment manufacturers are our customers and these, in turn, are mostly exporters. We have Japanese customers and US ones, who cut and stitch doubleface into fashion garments, mostly made in China. In Türkiye, our sister company is Pasha Deri, producing 60,000 high-fashion garments annually.

Q Are Russians not buying these days?

A Russians have developed into such professional buyers that they now teach others about this skill.

Q What about profits?

A One of the tricks to staying in business is to adapt to small margins. In the wilder days of Turkish leather, profit margins were huge and there were rich pickings for everyone. Now, profits are diminishing every year and risks are increasing. To a large extent, the tanners who have remained in business can be defined as those who are skilled at risk management.

Q In the new ‘minimalist’ climate, what does this mean for investments?

A Investments are made only for increased quality, not for higher volumes.

Thank you for being so candid about media questions.

At Gunduz, proactive media relations are corporate policy.