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Rıfat Özbek: from couture to cushions

Rıfat Özbek has turned his attention from fashion design to focus on new ventures. Dalia Mortada finds out more

Dalia Mortada,

The stark contrast of bold colours and patterns against flawlessly white walls, accompanied by the soothing smell of lavender, makes stepping into a Yastık by Rıfat Özbek boutique simply breathtaking. The renowned Turkish fashion designer’s goal when he envisioned his latest venture was to display his signature cushions as if in a museum. ‘What I wanted to do is make the store like a gallery,’ he explains. ‘We wanted to place the pillows on the walls like an exhibit, so you walk in and see them like paintings.’

Works of art
The cushions themselves are works of art, showing how beautiful non-fashion-oriented designs with fabric can be. Each pillow-front daringly shows off its bright hues and bold motifs, while on the back more subtle designs make for a quieter statement. ‘Blank backs are an easy way out,’ Özbek comments. Instead, he decided to make each pillow special, with a pattern on the back that contrasts with and complements its more visible front half. This is not the first time Özbek has combined patterns in unique ways because during his years working as a fashion designer he was famous for mixing fabrics together in clothing, and he has extended that idea to his cushions.

The idea came about when Özbek and his partner Erdal Karaman set out to decorate their home in upscale Yalıkavak, on Turkey’s Bodrum peninsula. When they were unable to find suitable cushions to complete the décor of the house, Özbek and Karaman decided to design their own pillows, and Yastık, which means cushion in Turkish, was born.

Following a dream
Özbek’s interest in design goes back to when he was a young boy in Istanbul. ‘We used to design houses together when we weren’t listening to the teacher,’ he says, reminiscing about how he and a friend occupied themselves in class during high school. ‘That’s how it all started.’ Özbek went on to study architecture in London but later had an inkling that his heart was not in designing buildings – what he really wanted to do was create clothes. However, in the 1960s and 70s, ‘designing clothes was just not the sort of thing a man did’. After a while he did decide to follow his dream and was accepted on to a course at the prestigious Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design, and graduated with honours.

‘I grew up with beautiful clothes and well-dressed women all around me,’ says Özbek, describing the chic fashion sense of his mother and aunt. ‘I always loved women and, being exposed to fashion magazines, I was used to it.’ It was only natural that he would go on to design some of the most forward-looking women’s styles of the 1980s and 90s. Once he started his own line, Özbek, in 1984, ‘I just grew and grew and grew.’ He has won a number of awards and has twice been named Designer of the Year by the British Fashion Council. He also caught the attention of some very high-profile people, designing for the likes of Whitney Houston and Princess Diana, among other celebrities.

No regrets
After more than 30 years, Özbek grew tired of the fashion business and decided to step back. As the industry turned its focus from the art of design to generating profits, he felt pressured to design more accessories. ‘But I always thought of myself as a clothes designer,’ he says, noting that designing shoes and handbags for commercial purposes took him away from the work he loved. ‘Besides, there are a lot of young designers doing much more interesting things,’ Özbek confesses. ‘I don’t regret anything, but I can’t see why somebody can’t have another career.’ With Yastık boutiques in London and Istanbul, Özbek and Karaman split their time between the two locations and their home in Yalıkavak, mostly travelling between London and Yalıkavak.

Branching out
Besides creating his plush pillow collection, Özbek has also designed the interior of Loulou’s, the much-anticipated London nightclub launched by English business tycoon Robin Birley. Özbek found working with Birley easy as they have similar taste; he is willing to consider other interiors projects but stipulates, ‘I want to be choosy about whom I work with. I have to get an idea of what they like and if they would be open to my input.’

For now, however, Özbek is focused on expanding Yastık to department stores in the US and finalising his upcoming Ottomania line which is inspired by Turkish history. ‘Sometimes when I see a textile it will inspire me to do a whole collection around that fabric range. Sometimes it works the other way: I’ll have an idea and have fabrics printed or woven for it,’ he says.

While Özbek’s designs are not seasonal, when he is creating new collections the fabrics of the time can influence his designs. However, his goal with Yastık is to create pieces that last. ‘I want something that isn’t too complicated, that’s seasonless and timeless.’



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