Since the days of the Silk Route when Istanbul served as a major transit point for goods traded between Europe and Asia, the city has held allure for shoppers. The Grand Bazaar and Egyptian Bazaar, with their narrow streets and myriad colourful shops, are considered visitor destinations in their own right, an experience steeped in history and tradition. Yet Turkey’s largest city is being increasingly recognised not only as a place to find traditional handicrafts sold in venues that are centuries old, but also for its other diverse shopping possibilities – from ultramodern malls to upscale boutiques. True to its heritage as a crossroads between East and West, Istanbul has become a nexus where sophisticated local brands compete for pride of place alongside prestigious international labels.
For a city that did not build its first modern shopping centre until just under a quarter of a century ago, Istanbul has developed its luxury retail world at a dizzying pace, thanks to the recent growth of the Turkish economy. With around 100 malls now open and more being planned, it is estimated that by the end of 2013 there will be 275 square metres of shopping space per thousand residents, 15% higher than the European average.
Among Istanbul’s newest crop of shopping centres is the popular İstinye Park, which offers a variety of different shopping experiences: a conventional indoor mall, an outdoor square lined with the chic boutiques of luxury brands, and a ‘marketplace’ offering traditional food items and local produce. Other noteworthy shopping venues include Forum Istanbul, home to Turkuazoo, one of the largest aquariums in Europe, and Sapphire Çarşı, housed in the lower floors of Turkey’s tallest skyscraper, Istanbul Sapphire, where visitors can visit the 236-metre-high observation deck with its spectacular views of the city.
But the dynamism of Istanbul’s shopping scene comes not only from new retail venues. Turkey’s vibrant textile sector includes numerous domestic brands that are able to hold their own against global labels; many have expanded internationally. Istanbul Fashion Week was launched in 2009 and in the Nişantaşı and Galata neighbourhoods, visitors can find independent local designers’ boutiques and cutting-edge concept stores. ‘We see a lot of brands coming out of Istanbul; the city is becoming a design centre,’ says Hakan Kodal, chairman of Turkey’s Council of Shopping Centers (AYD). ‘We have a lot of the elements to become a big destination.’
Capitalising on these trends, business groups, with support from local government agencies, joined forces in 2011 to organise the first Istanbul Shopping Fest, modelled after similar events held in other cities. Over a 40-day period in March and April 2011, the event attracted five million domestic and international shoppers, coinciding with a 15% upsurge in international visitors compared to the same period the previous year. Total credit card spending in Istanbul during the first ISF was 26% higher than during the equivalent period in 2010.
‘These numbers encouraged us to repeat the festival. We were very enthusiastic; the energy was very high,’ says Mehmet Nane, head of the Trade Council of Shopping Centres & Retailers (AMPD) and, along with the AYD’s Kodal, one of three co-chairs of ISF. ‘There is huge potential in the area of shopping.’
The second Istanbul Shopping Fest, which takes place this year from 9 to 29 June, promises to bring fashion fever to the city once more. Markdowns of up to 50% at major retail brands are the biggest boon to shoppers, with popular shopping centres and high streets staying open until late. Not to be left behind, the city’s more traditional bazaars also promise unique offers and events, while some restaurants offer special deals as well.
And when fashion fatigue sets in? The weary can seek respite from the rigours of retail: concerts, street performances and other events are also organised. In 2011, ISF’s entertainment line-up included performances by Burhan Öçal and the Trakya All Stars, world music star Mercan Dede, Turkish pop singer Candan Erçetin and rapper Ceza. The 2012 festival features a similar mix of local and internationally known acts, along with DJ parties and children’s entertainment.
Though still in its infancy, ISF is conceived as an annual happening that will raise Istanbul’s profile as a destination, much as the city’s burgeoning arts and cultural scene has earned it greater prominence in recent years.
‘Istanbul is one of the oldest cities in the world, and it has a natural beauty and aura. Until now, the city’s attraction points were touristic and historical sites. We are adding shopping, entertainment and gastronomy,’ says Nane. ‘We are bringing Istanbul to the position that it deserves. Istanbul should be ranked in the top three cities in the world.’ For a city with such a storied past, that dream is surely within reach.