The world is taking notice of Turkey’s talented, energetic young fashion designers
It’s a rainy Monday evening in Istanbul, and Antrepo, the former warehouse next to Istanbul Modern, is buzzing with red-lipsticked girls wearing oversized coats, ankle boots and on-trend fringes. One figure stands out from the crowd: draped in bronze-coloured tulle, he is wearing a tall cooking pot topped with an Arab-style coffee jug, both of which have been spray-painted gold. Nobody seems to pay this home-made costume much attention; the sponsor wall, where fashionistas flock for the obligatory selfie, is proving more of an attraction.
I am at Mercedes-Benz Istanbul Fashion Week to watch 25-year-old designer Ece Gözen present her bright collection of “sport-couture” : joyful candy-coloured bomber jackets and mini dresses. In contrast to its mature, established and enormous textile and manufacturing industry, Turkey’s fashion scene feels startlingly young and ambitious. Even the audience feels like a mix of fashion students and friends of the designer. Indeed, Istanbul Fashion Week is now only in its sixth year, and Vogue Türkiye has just celebrated its fifth birthday.
Ask anyone in Europe for names of Turkish designers, and Rıfat Özbek (now making cushions), Hüssein Chalayan (who is Cypriot) and Erdem (only half Turkish, and who can’t come to Turkey for military service reasons) roll off their tongues. However, these designers have long been established in London, where they studied, and where they show – or used to show – at London Fashion Week. Another clutch of designers, while not quite household names, have been familiar, at least to Western buyers and customers, for a few years: they include Arzu Kaprol whose creations graced the windows of Bergdorf Goodman during New York Fashion Week in February 2013, Dice Kayek, the multi-award-winning sister duo based in Paris and Istanbul — the first Turkish name to do Paris couture – fashion bad boy Ümit Benan, who was Creative Director at Trussardi for two years until February 2013 and Hakaan Yildirim, who has dressed Madonna, Emma Watson and Jennifer Lopez and who was the first Turk to win fashion’s prestigious ANDAM award.
In contrast to its mature, established and enormous textile and manufacturing industry, Turkey’s fashion scene feels startlingly young and ambitious
Now the stage seems set for a third wave of homegrown talent, that isn’t being educated at Central Saint Martins, but rather at home. But there is still a long road ahead. “We only invented fashion in Turkey five years ago,” exclaims 35-year-old designer and economics graduate Aslı Filinta, whose wearable collections riff wittily on Ottoman heritage and Turkish themes: one was based on the architect Mimar Sinan, while her Autumn/Winter 2016 is directly inspired by a poem by Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet.
“Couture has been around for a lot longer, because we have what is known as ‘duğun, sünnet and nişan’ [weddings, circumcision parties and engagement parties] which we need big dresses for. And Turkish designers who don’t have the courage or money to go to London or Paris to launch themselves go into couture instead. It’s easier to make a big splash with couture here, and that’s why ready-to-wear is still relatively new. Fashion designers in Turkey had until now been synonymous with couture.”
Surprisingly for a name so well known at home, Filinta is hardly stocked in Turkey. Her main customer base is in China, Japan, Hong Kong and the Middle East. Instead of showing at Istanbul Fashion Week, she is going to Shenzhen Fashion Week next week, and she has showrooms in London and Guangzhou.
Turkey has long had a reputation as a major exporter of cotton, and is home to a massive textile industry. Many global fast-fashion brands such as Zara, Massimo Dutti and H&M manufacture their clothes in Turkey on a huge scale. The new wave of Turkish accessory and jewellery designers in particular come from large textile families, and benefit from the infrastructure, the contacts and ready access to raw materials that the family business offers. In the past few years, Turkey’s established reputation as a solid manufacturing base conforming to EU working practices has been enhanced by its growth as a major shopping destination for the region, which attracts visitors from the Middle East – their appetite for Turkey’s products whetted by the success of Turkish television series – and Russia. Where once they came to shop in its Grand Bazaar, the world’s first shopping mall, now shoppers flock to Istanbul’s mega-malls, served by a brand new metro system that sometimes feels purpose-built specifically to bring the customers to the shops.
Where once they came to shop in its Grand Bazaar, the world’s first shopping mall, now shoppers flock to Istanbul’s mega-malls
At the same time, big fashion players such as Turkish Vogue, which has for the past five years dedicated an entire issue to Turkish designers each summer, dressing international celebrities in Turkish names, and Harvey Nichols, which showcases young Turkish designers in its stores, are slowly starting to turn Turkish customers’ eyes away from foreign designer labels to ready-to-wear designers on their doorstep. The middle market for Turkish high-street brands is in great shape: labels such as Mavi, Koton, Mudo, Twist, Machka, Yargıcı, Hotiç and Ipekyol are credible local and global fast-fashion players, the proof being that many emerging or established designers collaborate on their collections. Hüssein Chalayan, for example, worked with Mavi (jeans) for a season, Hakaan Yildirim designed for Koton, Machka is Dice Kayek’s high street outlet, and Gamze Saraçoğlu has just taken over the design at Mudo.
“We have the manufacturing here, and the quality of the raw materials. But the problem I see is consistency and sustainability, or following through,” says Konca Aykan,Vogue’s Fashion Director. “Young designers need to do what the successful brands have done. Mavi, for example, is a success story because they have had a strategy, a vision and a design structure, and that has meant longevity.”
However, at the high end of the market, progress is slow. The Nişantaşı flagship store of Beymen, Turkey’s equivalent of Barneys, has nothing in its window this week to signal that Istanbul Fashion Week is taking place; nor could I find a single Turkish name on its five storeys, bar their own label Academia, headed by young Parsons School of Design graduate Aslı Abbasoğlu. I put this to Polat Uyal, Chief Merchandising Officer at Beymen. “For brands and designers, maturity is super important. Until then, there is just talent. You need to get into a commercial mindset, and you need experience. Design is nothing without execution. Here in Istanbul, these young designers don’t have the pros to guide them. Nobody has much experience, the fashion industry here is too young.”
For brands and designers, maturity is super important. Until then, there is just talent. You need to get into a commercial mindset, and you need experience
While it stocks numerous Turkish accessories and jewellery labels such as Bee Goddess, Crystal and Marble, Yazbukey, Milka, Mehry Mu, Beymen has just cautiously taken on three new Turkish clothes designers – Balatt, Mehtap Elaidi and Liana Kesenci – “but not for the sake of taking on Turkish design. They really need to be good. Because these names are now stocked in Beymen, Turkish customers will sit up and take notice. I want to do it in the right way, preferring quality over quantity.”
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