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Wacky races, camels and kebabs……….

Leaving home on Sunday afternoon, I had a very odd feeling that this was going to be an eventful trip; if only I’d known just how eventful! It was destined to be a very busy few days!

Having made it through security at Heathrow in record time, the five of us from the kids wear team met for a sandwich and a little therapeutic shopping, before boarding our flight to Istanbul. The flight itself was busy but uneventful, but I have to ask, why are British Airways stewardesses always so miserable? “Grumpy” doesn’t even come close to describing this crew! On arrival in Ataturk Airport, one of the buying team put her formidable negotiation tactics to the test, haggling for a great deal on an airport transfer to the hotel. In the past we might have simply jumped in a taxi or two, but the current economic climate determines an alternative approach and in the spirit of saving costs on our “business diet”, a negotiated transfer was the best option. Having checked in, we retired to the bar for a midnight snack and a drink, amazed that it was still open, and even more surprised when a complimentary B52 arrived! Just the one, though, so we had to fight for it, and this was just the beginning……

The hotel was called the “Titanic”, ominous, you may think, but, having stayed in a number of other hotels in the area in the past, this one was by far the nicest, despite the fact that the movie channel played the Titanic on a loop all day, every day!

Up and checked out again by 9am, we split into our two teams, three of us off to visit a regular supplier at a new showroom, and were very impressed with what we saw; some very innovative and creative designs, interesting fabrics and print techniques. They seemed to have really upped their game and I came away very optimistic, mind you I often get very buoyed up during these creative meetings, only to feel let down when the samples either fail to come through at all, or look nothing like we expected, despite our very specific instructions! Let’s hope this time will be as fruitful as it first appeared. Mid day and we’re heading to see a potential new supplier, who already supply many of the major UK high street retailers, and have particular expertise in kids wear. Once again, their showroom was very impressive, and I was surprised to find that they too, are prepared to do relatively small trial quantities! This was to become a recurring theme throughout the week – usually, persuading any factory to do small runs of 300 units is a challenge, but they all seemed hungry for the business, and willing to co-operate, despite the rumblings about cotton prices being on the rise again.

Meeting over and we’re back in the car, fighting our way through the diabolical traffic, heading out to the airport once more, for a domestic flight to Denizli, further south. We were due to meet a supplier for the flight down, but they were cutting it fine, and finally boarded just 5 minutes before we were due to depart! There was a car waiting to meet us at the airport, and after a pretty hair-raising 100mph journey, we had just enough time to check in and offload our bags before heading out for a late dinner. The food was  traditionally Turkish, and delicious, and the company good fun, having been joined by our supplier and one or two other local characters!

Day 2 (it already feels like a lot longer than that!) and we’re up and out early again to visit our supplier here and tour their factory. Just time for a quick stop en route to see the famous local landmark, Pamukkale, which is a series of geothermal pools cascading down the side of the mountain, caused by calcium deposits from the hot springs. It is also the site of an ancient Roman city, with the ruins and remains scattered over the hillside. Things take a slightly comical turn when one of our designers, wanting her picture taken with a camel, suddenly finds herself lifted up onto said camel and disappearing up the road, to my cries of “bring her back, we have work to do!”

Having retrieved the wayward designer, we travel on to our first stop, the dyeing, printing and finishing plant, which is owned by this particular supplier, who also knit their own fabric, as well as making the garments themselves, making them a completely “vertical” source. This gives them much greater control over their fabric supply, and offers us a quick and flexible service. The dyeing plant is huge, with some of the machinery able to take single dye lots of up to 1-1.5 tonnes of fabric, in what is actually the equivalent of a giant washing machine.

This equates to around 10,000 to 15,000       t-shirts in a single dye batch, which is great for achieving colour continuity if you are buying large quantities, and is also the cheapest option. We, however, are more commonly buying between 1000 and 3000 pieces, and therefore requiring much smaller dye lots. The dyeing process is exactly the same, taking the same amount of time and effort, but takes place in a much smaller machine, and consequently adds to the cost. It is the first visit to a dyeing plant for both of the colleagues that I am travelling with and I can almost visibly see the penny dropping as the implications of our requirements start to sink in! The plant is carrying out all of the other processes required in order to turn out fully finished fabric, with both all over roller printing and placement printing on rotary machines which can handle up to 12 colours in a single design, and fixing the stability of the fabric, and the print itself through a series of heat and steam application techniques.

One of my team is taking copious notes and photographs, in order to be able to deliver a training session on the various processes on our return, which I think is a great idea for helping to develop the knowledge level of our more junior team members.

Moving on, we arrive at the main garment producing unit and showroom to start a development meeting and there follows lots of discussion and negotiation over styles we are booking, as well as developing new ideas and putting some smaller trials into work. In the current, very tough economic climate we are developing a more aggressive “trial and trade” mentality, in order to give us the best possible chance of success and minimise risk. Turkey, being close to the UK and very progressive in terms of fabric development, is one of our best options for getting new styles to market quickly, and is growing in importance to the fashion driven areas of our business.

All the while this is going on I am in multi tasking mode, following the progress of the meeting whilst trying to fend off a constant stream of emails from the UK about window graphics, in store graphics and various other supplier quality and delivery problems, as well as questions and discussion regarding a major strategy presentation to the board next week. My head feels like it is going to explode!

Meeting over, we just have time for a quick factory tour of the sewing floors, with numerous styles going through the production lines, a quick lesson for my team on the use of the metal detector (a requirement for all factories with children’s wear production), and a look at the multi headed embroidery machines, before yet another quick dash to the airport, and a flight back to Istanbul, where our presence is required at a dinner/birthday party for one of our women’s wear colleagues.

We dump our baggage back at the Titanic, now drowning in torrential rain, and jump back in another taxi, at which point it all starts to head downhill. The taxi driver, having initially said he knew exactly where he was going, clearly had no idea, and there followed a chaotic race round Istanbul to try to find our colleagues, who had also ended up in the wrong restaurant, courtesy of their, also errant, taxi driver. Having eventually all managed to get to the right place, on the banks of the Bosphorus, we finally began our meal at 10.30pm – it was becoming clear that by the end of the week I was going to be suffering from a severe lack of sleep! Following dinner, we moved on to the bar next door to continue the celebrations, which was clearly unwise, and there were some very bleary looking faces at breakfast the next morning.

However, we were back on the road by 9am, with another supplier, heading for a large factory on the outskirts of the city, where this time we were able to see the knitting machinery in action. This particular factory was even spinning its’ own yarn, something which I have never seen before at a supplier. A further tour of their sewing floors, and a look at the finishing and packing processes, before more costing negotiation on styles we want to place. Following this, we were heading for a late lunch nearby, but not before we had been shown the on site factory farm!! Chickens scattered and we picked our way through the sheep shit whilst the sheep themselves viewed us with suspicion from a distance. All very odd indeed – this trip was turning into something of an animal extravaganza.

Lunch followed, whereupon, a wide variety of lamb dishes, including kebabs and liver, appeared on the table, and all I could think of were their little faces looking at me. I also became uncomfortably aware that I was attracting some unwanted attention – some Turkish men clearly have no shame, and there followed a very surreal conversation which I would really rather not have been having. Awkward does not even come close!!!!! Good job I have a sense of humour as it caused great amusement amongst my colleagues.

Escaping after lunch, we were dropped off at the hotel and just had time to have a quick tour of the large shopping centre next door and catch up on some emails, before indulging in some well deserved early evening relaxation at the spa – this appears to be my trademark, and I think in my old age I would like to become a spa critic, if such a thing exists! Massage over and we were heading out in yet another wayward, and soon lost, taxi, whose final misdemeanour was to crash the car with me still in it! Let that be a lesson, and always wear a seatbelt when travelling by car in a foreign country! Fortunately I was unharmed (although my lovely relaxed post massage state had been replaced by severely frazzled nerves), but the taxi and the car it had reversed into were not in great shape! We left the driver to sort out the mess, while we joined our party at my favourite Istanbul restaurant, Bysteak. It is not glamorous, does not have a fabulous view, and is certainly not one of the fashionable places to dine, but it has immense charm, a wonderful host who really looks after us, fantastic wine, a really great atmosphere and the food is without doubt the best I have eaten in this city – we love it and were able to introduce many friends and colleagues this time, as fifteen of us sat down to eat. We were an eclectic bunch, made up of English, Australian, German, Turkish, a Russian and a couple of Italians – a truly international table.

Our final day passed without major incident, as we met with a couple more suppliers, before joining the long traffic jam to the airport. Whilst on our way, my suspicions about Turkish driving were confirmed as we witnessed a man driving a lorry, having a conversation holding one phone to his ear, whilst he texted on another phone in his hand, and steered with his elbows! We arrived at the airport unscathed, only to find our flight delayed by an hour. This is dangerous – left to my own devices with too much time in an airport I am programmed to shop, and this time was no exception!

I finally arrived home late that evening, knowing that I needed to be up again at 6am to put in a full day at the office and catch up on all that we had missed!

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