Since Istanbul’s first modern mall opened in 1988, Turkey’s largest city has been on a building spree. To date, the city boasts over 100 shopping centres, many of them showcasing landmark architecture, innovative restaurants and major entertainment draws such as state-of-the-art cinemas. These days, however, some of the hottest retail real estate in town is not in a glittering new pavilion but in a 550-year-old warren of small stores, crowded workspaces and bustling tea shops – a place that is often referred to as the world’s first shopping mall. The historical Grand Bazaar is, once again, bustling.
The popular Turkish fashion brands Vakko and Silk & Cashmere started the trend, opening new stores last year in Istanbul’s popular shopping enclave, Europe’s most-visited tourist attraction. They were subsequently joined by a MAC Cosmetics outlet, the first non-Turkish retailer to find a place among the bazaar’s long-time tradespeople and craftsmen.
‘In addition to being an attractive shopping destination for visitors, the Grand Bazaar has always been a source of inspiration for designers, stylists, fashion journalists and students,’ says Çağla Bingöl, MAC’s communications manager in Turkey. ‘MAC is also a destination where creative people get inspired. The fusion of the two creates an exciting, unmistakable vibe.’
The Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı, ‘covered market’) has gone through many transformations since trading began there in 1461. From the original stone-walled İç Bedesten (inner bazaar), it has expanded in every direction, creating a colourful labyrinth, where dozens of winding streets house nearly 4,000 shops. Amidst all the changes, the rich history of the bazaar lives on in the names of many of its avenues. Kalpakçılar Caddesi, which translates into English as sheepskin-cap-makers’ street, is one of the broadest and most distinctive in the bazaar, its high domes painted with traditional geometric motifs.
Inside the arched doorways neatly lined up on either side, the modern shopper will mostly find sellers of fine gold jewellery, and tucked in amongst them, the MAC, Vakko and Silk & Cashmere stores. For Vakko, it is a kind of homecoming: the family-owned fashion empire began as Şen Şapka (Merry Hats), a small hat shop established by patriarch Vitali Hakko in 1934 in the Sultanahmet area. Şen Şapka’s second branch was in the Grand Bazaar. ‘Vakko brings heritage along with its name,’ says public relations representative Carolin Almozlino. ‘We are one of the oldest and leading fashion brands in Turkey and we bring the best quality that we offer in our products to the Grand Bazaar.’
Because of the small size of the spaces for rent in the bazaar, each of these top retailers has curated a special selection for their branches in the historic venue. The Butik Vakko store focuses on the brand’s signature scarves, shirts, ties, bags and chocolate, while MAC employs a concept-store approach that, says Bingöl, reflects the company’s desire to harmonise with the bazaar’s ‘magical atmosphere’.
A number of Turkish companies have reportedly expressed interest in establishing a presence in the Grand Bazaar. The housewares brand Paşabahçe, known for its glass and ceramic designs, recently set up shop just outside the Bazaar’s gates, on the stylish pedestrian thoroughfare Nuruosmaniye Caddesi. This influx is welcomed by a host of names under the Bazaar’s colourful umbrella; it acts as a testament to the quality and excellence of the wares of the market as a whole. ‘The Grand Bazaar could become an elite shopping area like Nişantaşı,’ says Osman, a high-end textile dealer with a rooftop shop full of colourful tapestries and kaftans that he often sells to interior decorators.
The fusion of modern retail with traditional products is sure to boost the prestige of the newcomers as well. As Vakko’s Almozlino says, ‘The Grand Bazaar is a worldwide brand and a gateway to the world.’ With plans announced this year for a renovation, initiated by Istanbul’s municipal government, which aims to enhance the atmosphere by restoring key parts of the much-altered bazaar to their original state, this marriage of history and innovation will continue to guarantee a rich and evocative shopping experience.