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The versatility of denim is a gift to those who work with it. There’s not much it can’t do, and it has a timeless quality, which means there’s apparently no era in which it doesn’t shine.
Even long after jeans seemed to define denim, talented designers were coming up with new ways to clothe us in the popular material. Jeggings blend tights and jeans into one comfortable package, while bags, boots and even chokers are available in the iconic blue textile.
And it’s thanks to companies like ISKO that the denim story is far from over. Sanko Founder Sani Konukoglu started the business in 1904, and ISKO began in 1983. The Turkish textiler is one of the world’s largest producers of denim which, says CEO Fatih Konukoglu, comes with a certain responsibility.
“We must create the best fabric in order to make the best garments,” he says. “That’s our job, that’s what we’re good at.”
As a pioneer of denim (and the inventor of Jeggings), ISKO knows its way around the fabric. It’s a part of Sanko Group, which was founded by Konukoglu’s great-great-grandfather, a weaver. As a fifth-generation leader, Konukoglu says family matters as much as ever.
“Thinking long-term is important if you want to be successful in this trade,” he says. “My father would say that you can do well in the short-term with the right trick, but you can’t sustain it.”
To help with stamina, Sanko’s various silos are split up between Konukoglu and his brothers.
“The sixth generation is about to come into the business now as our kids become more involved.”
And as one generation passes the baton to the next, Konukoglu says it’s just as important to pass on a healthy planet.
“We’ve promised to have a fast and powerful impact on our environment through the work we do at ISKO, so we can leave a better world for our children,” he says. “I think that’s important for all of us.”
While Sanko originated in textiles, it has since branched out into construction and energy. ISKO is part of SANKO TEKSTIL, the textile arm of SANKO, Because of that, Konukoglu has quite a legacy to live up to – and draw from.
“We’ve been in weaving and textiles for decades,” he says. “Our involvement with denim goes back around 25 years, for instance. But my philosophy is about thinking differently. My father always said to innovate and try new things, and I’ve been inspired by that.”
Fortunately, textiles is an industry that lends itself well to innovation. For all of denim’s virtues, there are drawbacks. Environmentally, the multi-billion dollar denim industry is somewhat problematic. The amount of water required to create a single pair of jeans is up to 7,500 liters, while 20 percent of fabric is wasted during the production process.
“We’re in a new era for textiles,” Konukoglu acknowledges. “Sustainability has come to matter much more than it did in the early 90s, when the rules and regulations were written, and the way we used to work has changed dramatically.
“We haven’t always been careful with water usage, but the way things have been done in the past has to change to adapt for the years ahead. Sustainability will be one of the major drivers of our business, so we’re working hard to make sure our products are more sustainable.”
And it is hard work. The process to go from yarn to fabric has had to change entirely, as has the way ISKO produces and uses raw materials. Despite ISKO’s own 2030 targets, Konukoglu says he and his team haven’t wasted a moment to get there sooner.
“It was a journey,” he says. “When you recycle, it’s possible to suffer a loss of quality. We worked to find ways to create a product that was high quality but also sustainable.”
Now, ISKO’s fabrics are a blend of up to 80 percent recycled materials and 20 percent regenerated fibers, with no sacrifice on quality.
“For years we wanted to have more control over this process, so we built our own facilities. We couldn’t wait for the recycling industry to build what we needed for us,” he notes.
“We had the knowledge, so we created it, and now, because we control our cotton fiber and polyester recycling facilities, we can recycle these products to control our quality much better.”
The end result is a product that can be produced quickly and to a high standard, and which also enjoys a long life.
“People want to enjoy jeans for a long time, and we’ve kept that in mind. Even if they want to let them go after a while, someone else has to wear them, and with this level of quality, our jeans can become secondhand or even thirdhand products.”
Konukoglu’s passion for threading together the past and the future has manifested itself in many of ISKO’s new products, all of which adhere to the company’s strict sustainable standards and were made in the first denim mill ever to be awarded the prestigious Nordic Swan and EU Ecolabels.
One such product is ISKO Selvedge, a comfortable and soft denim with superior elasticity despite being made from recycled, reused materials.
“Whoever wears it falls in love with it,” he says. “It’s a really interesting product.”
And in a classic instance of wearing one’s heart on one’s trouser leg, Ctrl+Z is one of the company’s most prominent material sciences to use its responsible innovation strategy.
They’re also great examples of doing more with less, but Konukoglu says it’s the start of something even bigger.
“One of our major goals is to minimize our use of virgin cotton in the ISKO production cycle and use as much recycled material as we can by the end of this year,” he says.
“We have one of the biggest cotton recycling plants in the world, and we’re building its capacity all the time. We’ll reach about 200,000 tons by the end of 2023. In 10 years’ time, we’re targeting one million tons.”
An impressive target, but there’s arguably no other company in the industry better prepared to achieve it. ISKO isn’t just one of the largest, but also one of the most versatile and experienced manufacturers of denim in the industry.
One of the results of this grounding is R-TWO, a product Konukoglu says is “engineered for nature”.
The R-TWO creation program recovers, reuses and recycles to create new denim products that avoid the wastage of the past. The fabrics used in this process are either Global Recycled Standard (GRS) or Recycled Claim Standard (RCS) certified, which instills a sense of confidence in ISKO’s customers.
“R-TWO has had a great impact,” Konukoglu says. “Customers have a great understanding of what we’re doing with R-TWO. Sustainability is a challenge we all need to face together, so it’s good to be on the same page.”
While ISKO works closely with its customers on all of its products, the move into recycling has allowed clients to take part in the collection phase of the process.
“They work with us to collect the garments they want to recycle, so they’ll deliver what they’ve collected and we handle the recycling, the clipping and the sorting. Whatever our customers have in their portfolio, we can collaborate and partner with them and create new garments. It certainly makes their lives easier.”
Recently, ISKO has taken the R-TWO concept even further with Ctrl+Z, a denim made from only recycled and regenerated materials that the company calls “the next generation” of the fabric.
“We’re taking existing jeans and making them into new jeans,” Konukoglu says. “That’s our goal, and by doing so, we’re closing a loop.”
Closed it may be, but ISKO’s recycling ambitions are just getting started. Konukoglu says the company has up its sleeve the technology to make 100 percent recycled denim jeans a reality.
“That will be a great product, and we’re nearly there. At ISKO we’re constantly trying to create a difference in the industry, and with recycling we’ve done that.”
The reuse and recycling of cotton and waterless dyeing are two of the innovative ways ISKO is trying to get the jump on the future, but Konukoglu says any changes won’t come at the cost of quality.
“At ISKO, we’ve always tried to do our best to support our customers; their success is of course our success,” he says.
“One major part we play is creativity when it comes to fabrics, and we have a lot of say about what goes into the fabrics we use. We work very closely with our customers to understand what’s required, but we’ve seen materials of the past have an impact on the sustainability of our products. So we’re working even harder to improve that impact.”
Tasked with touching up ISKO’s cloth is the company’s expert team of textile engineers, technologists and an R&D division working in a research center dedicated to creating industry innovations and new denim products.
“We have a really nice pool of ideas we draw from to decide what we take to market,” Konukoglu says.
“That’s one of our great strengths, alongside our rich portfolio of customers and skilled team. It has to be a strength, because it’s a busy market and there’s only room for one idea at a time.”
ISKO has carved out a name for itself as a leader when it comes to performance, innovation and sustainability, and much of that is down to Konukoglu’s own passion for his work.
“I’ve always enjoyed being in textiles,” he says. “Being such a creative industry, I think it inherently makes you think differently about how you approach your work, and that means you have the room to differentiate yourself from the rest of the pack.”
While a strong brand requires consistency and hard work, Konukoglu believes there’s always room for abstract thinking, new ideas and even a dash of stubbornness. “Sometimes it’s not easy to achieve good things all at once,” he says.
“You might need to revisit concepts a few times before that good idea is a product on the table, and doing that takes courage and dedication. Anyone that can pour strong will and emotion into their work will end up with a strong brand, but you need to believe in that.”
With a well-known brand and tried-and-tested production methods beneath its wings, ISKO has grand plans to soar over the coming years. Despite the often lofty goals on the horizon, Konukoglu says the company will not lose its focus on providing innovative textile solutions for its customers.
“As I’ve mentioned, we have a big portfolio of customers to whom we deliver denim fabric, but in the future, as our fiber recycling capabilities increase, we’ll become more of a solution provider for them.”
The way Konukoglu sees it, ISKO’s area of expertise will become recycled fibers, particularly cotton.
“We’re talking and working with some big brands to supply them with recycled cotton fibers, and that will be our specialty area.”
This flexibility may come as a surprise to those who see ISKO as a conservative entity, Konukoglu included.
“In a way, we’re very conservative,” he acknowledges. “We tend to stick with our suppliers as well as our customers.”
But once ISKO and a customer start working together, he says, there begins a growth process.
“It’s very organic,” he says. “We tend to grow together, so as they grow their capacity or sales, we’ll grow with them.”
It’s a similar story for suppliers, with whom ISKO’s relationships are based on the key element of understanding.
“That helps a lot in long-term relationships,” Konukoglu admits. “We’ve always met regularly with our suppliers, but we’re doing even more of that now as the industry shifts.”
None of this comes at the expense of the denim industry in which ISKO has its foundations.
“Our job is still to help denim flourish,” he says. “Our biggest goal will be working with the industry to help it evolve, so we want to share our technologies with colleagues as well as customers. We need to collaborate to bring about a better world together.”
The shared know-how within the industry is already a powerful force, but as recycling technologies continue to optimize, Konukoglu says a greater conversation among colleagues and competitors has the potential to have a huge impact on the way denim is manufactured.
“New trends and new fashions are routine in this industry,” he says. “We’ll always bring something new to the table in that regard; it’s a given. What will be truly new is a deeper collaboration between all of us in the industry in terms of manufacturing. That’s when the new era really begins, and we’re ready to jump in. We feel good about that.”
It’s a feeling Konukoglu would like to spread throughout the world of textiles and clothing manufacturing.
“We’ve sent a clear message to the industry that we believe recycling is the way of the future, and we need to learn together how best to make it work not just for our sake, but for the world,” he says.
“And as a textile engineer, I’m excited and curious about the possibilities in terms of new ideas and new products. The more we work on this together, the more we’ll see this is possible.”