Just as the Ottoman Empire left its mark on Austrian culture in the form of coffee, so Atıl Kutoğlu’s Turkish roots influence the fashion he creates in his Vienna studio. Kutoğlu was born in Istanbul but moved to Vienna for his studies and it was there that his career as a fashion designer kicked off. He is now a regular at fashion shows from New York to Tokyo and top model Naomi Campbell and actress Jessica Alba are fans. His collections are sold around the world in department stores, including Neiman Marcus in New York.
Kutoğlu’s Turkish heritage is a pivotal part of his designs, visible in his floating trousers and dresses and colour combinations reminiscent of Istanbul’s spice market or ancient folk tales. But Kutoğlu also adds an Austrian understatement and elegance to his collections, thanks to inspiration from Austrian artists such as Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele.
‘My signature is being very modern and geometrical but with an ethnic touch,’ Kutoğlu says. ‘I love colours. Coming from the east, I was one of the first designers to mix red with purple or violet.’
The mixture of the two cultures that are both so dear to him is also evident in his choice of materials: silk, chiffon, organza, silk velvet and leather. Kutoğlu recalls how his mother, an architect, used to wear suede suits at their apartment in Istanbul when he was a child. ‘Turkey has a big leather industry and I love how leather is being used and treated as a fabric,’ he says.
As a child, Kutoğlu had two dreams. From the age of 10, he knew he wanted to become a fashion designer and to study abroad. So, after graduating from a prestigious German school in Turkey, Kutoğlu decided to move to Vienna, lured by the city’s famous architecture, history and art. But instead of studying design, he enrolled in a business course, ‘to understand the business side and be able to set up my own atelier’, he says.
It was not long before he celebrated his first success. His designs proved such a huge hit with his fellow female students and Vienna’s mayor that Kutoğlu was awarded a grant to stage his first fashion show. ‘It was the first fashion show ever at the Vienna business school,’ Kutoğlu says. ‘I showcased the history of Istanbul in modern clothing and it was a great success.’ He had found his trademark style: like the man himself, a blend of Austrian elegance and Turkish vivacity.
After his early success in Vienna, Kutoğlu then took his collection to New York Fashion Week in 1999, where his ‘ethnic touches worked very well’, as he puts it. He continued to draw inspiration from both the Austrian and the Turkish cultures. He used Swarovski crystals on evening gowns with patterns found in Byzantine architecture. He used fabrics inspired by the Wiener Werkstätte and combined them with smooth leather from Turkey. As Claudio Nardi, the Italian architect who designed Kutoglu’s store in Istanbul, comments, ‘Atıl understands and tells the story of the boundary between the cultures he belongs to – west and east – as a never ending cross-fertilisation of two worlds.’
Kutoğlu mainly designs for women, at prices between €4,000 for an evening gown to €180 for a silk scarf, although he recently started work on his first menswear collection. His customers are strong, working women who travel the globe and appreciate the arts and culture, he says. ‘Usually my clients tell me they feel like a princess in Tales of 1,001 Nights.’
‘Atıl is a very special person,’ says Claudia Schmied, Austria’s minister for education, art and culture and a Kutoğlu client. ‘With his fashion he really focuses on the character of his customers. His designs show strength and underline your personality.’
Kutoğlu continues to divide his time between Vienna, where he has his main atelier, and Istanbul, the location of his flagship store. He is proud of the way that Istanbul’s designer scene has started to blossom, attracting young talent and big brands. ‘It makes me happy that my home town finally gets the respect and interest it deserves,’ he says.
At the same time, Kutoğlu still finds inspiration in Vienna, most recently at an exhibition of expressionist art. The city returns the compliment by requesting his presence as the main attraction of fashion shows and art events. Kutoğlu says he is happy with the mix. ‘I’m totally committed to both.’