For decades, international luxury brands have turned to Turkey for its stock of diverse fine leather and its seemingly endless pool of artisans who work with the material. Now a new wave of Turkish creatives are making their own chic handbags and accessories using the country’s famous leather.
One of the leading lights is Manu Atelier, launched by sisters Beste and Merve Manastır in early 2014. Designed by the sisters and produced by their father Adnan, a leather craftsman with more than 50 years of experience, the family’s handbags and backpacks unite traditional skills with contemporary style.
Luxurious but never ostentatious, Manu Atelier’s on-trend creations retain warmth and soul, a reflection of the fact that the sisters’ father and uncle still lead the workshop, which is located in Beyoğlu, a neighbourhood with a long association with leather. ‘When you build a team, they literally become your family and you can see the effects of this bond between your artisans and the work you do,’ Merve Manastır says. ‘We hope this passes through to the final customer.’
The design process starts with the sisters working on sketches, creating mood boards and then comparing what they’ve come up with. They share these ideas with their father who, drawing on decades of experience, plays with their sketches and explores the possibilities.
For their latest collection those sketches took inspiration from their mother’s fond memories of holidays on the Prince Islands, off the coast of Istanbul, in the 1970s. ‘We wanted to revive those times, when the only sounds would be bicycle bells and clattering horse hooves, as no cars were allowed on the island,’ explains Beste Manastır.
Created with passion
Kia Ora Design is another Istanbul-based fashion house well on its way to becoming a global brand. Friends and businesswomen Ceylan Toplamaoğlu and Melis Erdoğan founded their company in 2014, borrowing the name from the Maori greeting that expresses wellness and best wishes and which, they say, symbolises the bond and energy between them and their artisans. ‘The people we work with have been in the handbag business since their youth and have learned from the area’s most valued craftsmen,’ says Erdoğan. ‘They create every single bag with passion.’
When it comes to design, Toplamaoğlu and Erdoğan hope to unite form and function, creating pieces which are functional and chic. ‘We always think about today's super woman, who has to be in several places during the day to complete multiple tasks,’ says Toplamaoğlu. ‘For that reason, we aim to provide handbags that make their lives easier while completing their looks beautifully.’ A great example of this is the sleek and spacious Karla bag, whose double adjustable handles allow it to be worn either as a shoulder bag or a rucksack. Then there's Luna, a rounded crossbody bag that can carry essentials during a night out on the town or be worn on a belt and used during a day of sightseeing.
Serra Türker, the Istanbul-born creative director of accessories label Misela, studied art and textiles at the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design in the US before setting up her label. ‘It all started with painting,’ she says. ‘I learnt to express myself with colours and that is how I created my brand.’ For her statement handbags she uses a unique and clearly defined palette of colours – including grape jam, dark sapphire and coconut – and gives each a strong sense of texture. Sometimes that means using a quilted raffia fabric, as on the Tina at Mardin bag, or deploying intricate stitch work, as in the Olivia at Anatolia drawstring bag.
All of the bags are named after women, some of whom she knows and others she has imagined. ‘Misela is a journey and I dream that these characters are visiting inspirational locations and aim to create a story,’ she explains.
Fonfique has earned a loyal following for its bright and cheery printed bags and wallets. Each piece carries a hand-drawn pattern created by the label’s founder and designer Ceylan Kolat who studied fashion design and illustration in Milan and textile printing in London. She imbues each print with life and personality, as seen in her wallets which are decorated with everything from peach- and lavender-coloured butterflies to burgundy and lime-green birds.
Her Beliz bag, for example, was inspired by the flamingos at Lake Bafa near Bodrum, and features a detailed print of one of these pink birds. The bag is sold with a matching Talitha make-up pouch and a stunning Dalida clutch with a green flora motif; both items have a leather trim. The Laila backpack is her first larger sized all-leather item, available in navy, pink, platinum, red and off-white. The embroidery on its pocket, a motif of leaves from a willow tree, represents serenity and strength.
‘When we first established the brand, I only wanted to design products that made me feel enthusiastic,’ explains Kolat. ‘When I’m designing the collections, I always try to maintain that emotion.’
No consideration of contemporary Turkish handbags would be complete without mentioning Mehry Mu. The brand arose from designer Güneş Mutlu’s passion for the ikat fabrics sold in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar, which she used to line her first collection of bags. Her label has developed and now encompasses a wide range of handbags in simple forms which are enriched by Eastern-inspired design elements. Handmade in Istanbul, Mehry Mu products possess a timeless quality, and have become a favourite among fashion insiders across the world.
For Manu Atelier, Kia Ora Design, Serra Türker, Fonfique and Mehry Mu, creating leather accessories is clearly a labour of love and it is well worth seeking out their charming designs while in Istanbul.