Born in Turkey and now based in London, Bora Aksu has shown on-schedule at London Fashion Week for an impressive 30 collections. We sat down with him in his east London studio, ahead of his autumn/winter 2018/19 catwalk show, to get the low-down on his inspirations and design process
Bora Aksu was born in İzmir, an ancient city on Turkey’s Agean coast that is distinguished for its mass of archeological sites. It was here that the designer spent his early years, in the cocoon of his close-knit family. Professionally speaking the Aksus were doctors rather than designers, but his mother often made clothes for herself, and other family members enjoyed creative pursuits. ‘I was surrounded by handicrafts such as needlework, crochet and embroidery,’ the designer tells us at his studio in east London. ‘My grandmother and my aunt were constantly working on creating something beautiful.’
'Draping, texture and colour are all helpful in moulding my ideas. Through layering feather-light fabrics such as silk tulles and silk organzas with velvets and wools, a reflection of light through texture is created.'
Fast-forward a few decades and today Bora Aksu is a London brand that is synonymous with exceptional craftsmanship. The designer’s delicately textured fabrics in translucent colours are layered and fused with an exquisite level of detail. ‘Fabric choice ultimately influences my design’ he explains. ‘Draping, texture and colour are all helpful in moulding my ideas. Through layering feather-light fabrics such as silk tulles and silk organzas with velvets and wools, a reflection of light through texture is created.’
Aksu moved to London in 1996 to study for a BA and then an MA in fashion design at Central Saint Martins, and has shown on-schedule at London Fashion Week every year since, amassing an impressive 30 collections.
It was during his early years in London that the designer built a reputation for a very specific kind of high-impact dressing; ‘demi-couture’ as he describes it. This refers to decorative and ornate statement pieces that are ready-to-wear yet have been produced with a similar level of care and attention as couture.
‘We hand-finish garments, which is very time consuming but it means you can achieve looks that you would never be able to achieve using machines alone. The reason I call my style demi-couture is because it is a mix of handmade and machine-made.’ Aksu’s signature aesthetic has been further enhanced by the styling skills of Leith Clark, while celebrities including Sienna Miller, Marion Cotillard, Erin O’Connor, Rita Ora and Ellie Goulding have worn his dresses on the red carpet.
Aksu is one of a handful of fashion designers whose creations transcend the current mood yet still manage to be modern and relevant. ‘My aim as a designer is to create my own definition of beauty,’ he says. What, practically speaking, does this involve? ‘I create three-dimensional structures; I have numerous drape trials based on body, cloth and the space between and around them. The ability to cut the cloth to produce feminine shapes through experimentation and imagination is what my design language is based on.’
Aksu’s spring/summer 2018 collection was inspired by Mihri Müşfik Hanım, a Turkish aristocrat and pioneering female artist who helped forward the cause of women in the arts in Turkey. The collection shows strong influences from the Victorian era in which Müşfik Hanım lived, updated for the modern woman with youthful polka dot and gingham prints, and finished with sporty slip-on sneakers or schoolgirl flats and ankle socks. Aksu’s signature flair for fabric manipulation and layering is evident throughout, from feminine ruffles and pleating that add fullness to skirts, to billowing overlays of tulle.
For autumn/winter 2018/19, Aksu was inspired by the life of Margaret Ann Bulkley, a woman who went against societal traditions in Britain to become one of the most respected doctors of the 19th century, choosing to live as Dr James Barry, a man. At the heart of Bulkley’s story are fundamental conflicts of identity.
‘Margaret Ann’s life and the contrasts in her life inspired the whole collection,’ Aksu explains. ‘I did not try to create a unisex or androgynous look. The way I see both Margaret and James is as a feature of the collection, and I have tried to create contrasts without changing her identity. So there are very feminine looks in the collection as well as masculine looks, but the aim is not to merge them.’
The collection also represents a small departure for Aksu, with a heightened emphasis on tailoring. ‘I have really pushed the tailoring techniques in this collection. It was a challenge, as I am known for my dresses, but my inspiration was 19th-century men’s tailoring. I explored tailored looks, jackets and capes, examined the patterns and applied them through my design language.’
Of course, this tailoring occurs against a backdrop of dedicated craftsmanship. ‘Each season a different collaboration takes place in terms of handicrafts. Sometimes it is head pieces, hand-knitted crowns, handmade roses, hand-woven fabrics or hand embellishments. But every season there is a craftsman with amazing skills, creating something beautiful.’
Most recently, Aksu has enjoyed considerable expansion and success in Asia, with 19 stores opening in China (including Hong Kong) in the past three years. It is a development that has enhanced the production line to great effect as Aksu now benefits from the highly evolved design, manufacturing and production systems in place in the region. In 2017 he also had the highest positive financial result to date: a turnover of £20m globally.
Ultimately for Aksu, the autumn/winter 2018-19 collection explores and celebrates an uncommon approach to female beauty, from which it is difficult not to draw reference to current events. ‘I believe the whole concept of my muse is about equal rights and how women could not achieve the simplest things, such as studying, because of their gender. Through this collection I am celebrating femininity and also the freedom of being who you really want to be.’