Since the inception of Istanbul Fashion Week (IFW) in August 2009, a clear pattern has emerged: Istanbul’s fashion industry is becoming more and more a woman’s world. Each season, the majority of individual designers showing at IFW are female, and it is they who are setting trends and breaking new ground.
‘In Turkey, fashion design, like many sectors, used to be dominated by men. However, the scene started to change in the 2000s and the field became an “it” career to get into,’ says Zehra Elif Taş, a fashion consultant and the founding editor of Zelfist.com. ‘The more brightly the bulb of fashion design burned, the more women began to choose it as a career path.’
Developing the domestic fashion industry
Many of Turkey’s best-known male designers – including London-based Bora Aksu and Vienna-based Atıl Kutoğlu – have advanced their careers and made a name for themselves abroad. In comparison, with a few exceptions, female Turkish designers have tended to remain in the country and contribute to the development of the domestic fashion industry.
It’s no coincidence that the Fashion Designers Association of Turkey (MDT) was founded in 2006 by a woman – prominent long-time designer Bahar Korçan – and that its current president, Mehtap Elaidi, is also female. The MDT has been instrumental in promoting the work of Turkish designers, launching GalataModa, a fashion fair held regularly in Istanbul since 2007. GalataModa helped set the stage for IFW, which the MTD also helps organise.
An international following
‘We have a very strong industry and really good designers who can come together and build an alternative fashion spot in the region and in the world,’ says the MTD’s Elaidi. Yet far from being solely focused inwards, Istanbul’s leading female designers have shown collections in major fashion capitals such as Paris and Milan, dressed celebrities and cultivated an international following.
Elaidi herself is one of Turkey’s most highly regarded designers, with a distinctive style characterised by her use of intense colours like cobalt blue, olive green and fuchsia, eye-catching prints and atypical cuts. She started her brand in 2000 without any formal fashion training and now has sales points in Turkey and around the Middle East. ‘I don’t design very “trendy” collections. I design for women who are courageous, who don’t feel obliged to follow trends, because that’s not what I do,’ Elaidi says.
A hint of romance
Longstanding designer Özlem Süer is particularly well-known internationally; she has shown collections in Paris, Milan, New York and other cities and her designs are carried at some 150 boutiques and department stores in more than a dozen countries. Her elegant, feminine, Victorian-inspired collections – featuring delicate materials like silk, chiffon and lace in pastel tones that are draped in soft contours – offer a hint of romance.
‘We cater to style-conscious women from Turkey and around the world, whether celebrities, princesses, career women, housewives or those experiencing the excitement of a wedding or graduation – in short, women of all ages who have good taste and are interested in fashion design,’ says Süer, whose body of work includes ready-to-wear collections, a couture label and a fairy-tale-like line of bridal wear.
Recognised for her architectural, minimalist-influenced contemporary style, Arzu Kaprol has also blazed a trail. The designer won first place in premier Turkish retailer Beymen’s Academia New Talent Contest in 1995 and has steadily matured since, recently making her debut at Paris Fashion Week. With six Arzu Kaprol boutiques in four Turkish cities, she has more stores than any other domestic designer. Her items are also sold at prestigious locations abroad, including Harrods in London and the cutting-edge Spiga 2 in Milan. In addition, Kaprol also runs an initiative whereby she mentors a group of young designers; in recent seasons these emerging designers have shown at IFW, representing Studio Kaprol.
Another noteworthy designer, Hatice Gökçe, first made a mark with her avant-garde men’s clothing and later branched out into womenswear. She set out more than a decade ago to offer an alternative to what she saw as the ‘confined and restricted’ style of menswear that prevailed in Turkey, and discovered that women were also attracted to her experimental, often-androgynous collections for design-conscious men.
‘When we look at the work of designers in Turkey, the profile being drawn is that of a fantasy woman,’ says Gökçe. ‘But all women cannot want the same thing; there is a group of women who would prefer to dress differently, in a more masculine way. I produce the same designs for men and women but they look different on each.’ Gökçe now creates about one third of her pieces for women, and the joint men’s and women’s collections she has shown at IFW have been extremely well-received.
Making the wearer feel special
Although their styles vary greatly, these top female Turkish designers share the ability to create collections with sophisticated design elements and an appealing wearability. And their success has paved the way for an ever-expanding crop of emerging women designers in Istanbul including Gamze Saraçoğlu, Simay Bülbül and Özlem Kaya, to name but a few.
‘As a woman, you design for women like yourself or like the woman you dream of,’ comments Elaidi. ‘My customers want to feel special. And that’s what fashion is: it’s just another tool to make us feel special.’