Turkey has long been renowned for its leather industry. With a heritage stretching back hundreds of years, the country reaped the benefits of the export boom in the early 1990s, and since then has risen to become one of the leading suppliers in the world. It is particularly known for processing sheep and goat leather, for which it ranks second place in Europe.

A whistle-stop tour of the country would make this commitment clear. There are production facilities in Bursa, Gerede, Usak and Gaziantep, alongside 13 organised industrial zones in Tuzla, Menemen and Corlu. Quality here is as critical as quantity, and much of the country’s exports consist of meticulously crafted goods.

The sector, however, has proved unwilling to rest on its laurels. While trade in the global leather industry has a value of $225 billion, Turkey accounts for just $5 billion (2.2%) and all parties concerned are determined to see that figure rise. In recent years, Turkish firms have doubled their efforts in the field.

Their endeavours were highlighted at Asia Pacific Leather Fair (APLF) in March. Established in 1984, the Hong Kong-based fair is regarded as the most important meeting point of the industry and encompasses all things leather related from raw hides through to business services. This year’s event, which saw some 1,200 exhibitors and 20,000 visitors, featured Turkey as a country of focus.

Most notably, it included a special project from Turkish Leather Brands (TLB), which was designed to raise the profile of Turkish leather and showcase its global influence. Out of the 76 Turkish firms at the fair, 50 were led by TLB in collaboration with designer Ümit Ünal. The majority of these were in the fully- or semi-finished leather and raw materials sector, with the remaining five in chemicals and machinery. Together they broke participation records.

The event came at a critical juncture for Turkish leather. In 2012, exports to Hong Kong and mainland China reached double digit growth, highlighting the importance of Asian platforms to Turkey’s leather trade.

"Asian markets including mainland China and Hong Kong account for a significant portion of Turkey’s leather exports with 7.5%," said Lemi Tolunay, president of the Istanbul Leather and Leather Products Exports’ Association (iMDiB) as well as TLB. "Our leather exports to Hong Kong and mainland China grew by about 10% in 2012. Our total leather exports to both regions have reached HK $780 million (US $100 million). Our goal is to double this figure."

While the country’s status as an exporter is well known, exhibitors were particularly keen to emphasise Turkey’s prowess in design. Ümit Ünal, who is based in Istanbul, was on hand to explain how Turkish style could work in a global context.

"Today, Turkey has risen beyond a successful solution partner to prominence as a country that influences the entire global leather fashion industry with its design capability," he said. "We wanted to exhibit this modern and realistic attitude in design."

This attitude has come to typify the country’s leather industry at large. Turkish firms are using branding to their advantage, with a view to further strengthening their position on the world stage.

In July, entrepreneurs set up a formalised Turkish Leather Promotion Group, which will have a presence at major Fashion Week events. Having already increased exports to Asian markets, Turkish firms are now turning their focus to Russia, Italy and the US. They will be looking to boost their image through prominent promotional campaigns.

The group was responsible for the recent 15th Leather Summit at Ciragan Palace, in which leading figures convened to discuss the future of the industry. One key point of discussion was ‘Brandisation with Turkish Leather’, with two separate panel debates set up to tackle the topic.

The first panel, entitled ‘First Step of Branding: Making a Difference’ featured personal case studies from three big names in retail. The second, ‘Design Form of Leather’, addressed its fashion potential. Both discussions highlighted the importance of customer satisfaction in an era of growing luxury consumption.

This summit was followed by the DETAY awards, a leather design contest and fashion show. Organised in conjunction with the Ministry of Economy, Turkish Exporters’ Assembly and the Leather Promotion Group, the show selected 18 projects from 114 designers’ work. Winning designs were exhibited on the catwalk and choreographed by Ugurkan Erez.

Of course, while branding is important, it is far from being the industry’s only consideration. This summer, the Government of Turkey drafted an action plan to establish logistics centres for the leather sector, as well as equivalent centres for textiles and apparel. Designed to reduce production costs, it will reduce the sector’s overreliance on Istanbul and other ports. By 2017, new centres will have been created in the villages of eastern and western Turkey, rather than merely clustering in cities.

The industry has also developed goals for the next decade and beyond. Speaking at the 15th Leather Summit, Turkish Exporters’ Assembly president Mehmet Büyükeksi detailed these aims for the future. The country’s total export competency, he said, had improved by 50% within the last three years and now stood at $150 billion. By 2023, the figure is projected to rise to $500 billion, with an impressive $10 billion in leather export alone.

Whether these figures will be realised, time will tell, but the mission for now is clear: to improve the image of Turkish leather internationally, and bolster the country’s status as a leading exporter of leather goods.