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How Turkish Designers Make an Impact On and Offline

With runway shows and exhibitions interspersed with digital engagement strategies this Fashion Week Istanbul, BoF meets emerging and established designers to learn how they are engaging domestic and international audiences during continued market disruption.
Models at the New Gen by IMA show during Fashion Week Istanbul
Models at a show during Fashion Week Istanbul (Ferda Demir)
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This season, the Turkish fashion scene has faced a myriad of challenges, from the ongoing Covid-19 crisis and geopolitical conflicts in nearby countries, to continued supply chain disruption, an unseasonably cold weather front halting production, and a national economic crisis, as Turkish inflation hit a 20-year high of 54 percent this March, according to the Financial Times.

Despite such obstacles, established and emerging Turkish design talent displayed with resilience and optimism at Fashion Week Istanbul this season, quickly adopting hybrid events and presentation strategies to expand upon and future-proof their global reach this season.

The return of physical shows to the schedule, held in historic venues like an Ottoman Palace and a 160-year old Crimean church, were interspersed with an interactive digital offering, as well as exhibitions, panel discussions and pop-up events at the newly opened Galataport on the Bosphorus.

Event organisers — Istanbul Apparel Exporters Association, or İHKİB, Turkish Fashion Designers’ Association (MTD) and Istanbul Fashion Academy (IMA) — partnered with Soho House Istanbul, where events were live-streamed in an intimate, in-person screening experience for local and visiting industry members. International audiences could then connect online via FWI’s digital events hub.

In Istanbul, there was a palpable sense of renewed energy at the physical event activations and screenings, as attendees navigated inclimate conditions to join their community in person once again. While some remained more tentative, the sense of enthusiasm prevailed.

“[We] missed being together,” says menswear designer Niyazi Erdoğan. “The energy is high, and everybody wants to attend the shows.”

Below, BoF meets with 10 emerging and established designers at their fashion week events and activations to understand how their events and branding strategies are evolving this season in Istanbul.

Sudi Etuz

Şansım Adalı studied in Brussels before launching Sudi Etuz. The designer champions a digital-first approach, focusing more today on her digital business and downsizing the textiles business. She uses virtual reality models, digital artists and AI engineers, with an NFT capsule collection and limited runs of physical garments.

Hosting her show in the Crimean Memorial Church in the Galata neighbourhood of Istanbul, Şansım Adalı's digital designs were modelled by digital avatars and displayed on 8ft-high screens. Having lost her father to Covid, she explained it still “doesn’t feel right” to have many people together for a runway show. Instead, she leveraged her digital models in a smaller show space.

“It’s a really different experience, to get a digital exhibition in an old building site,” she told BoF. “I like the contrast of it. Everybody knows this church, but no one entered inside. The new generation doesn’t even know these places exist. So, I just wanted to see the younger generation inside, to remember that we have this beautiful architecture.”

The digital display was accompanied by a live opera performance, with the singer wearing one of a select few physical garments Adalı is making today — but predominantly, Sudi Etuz intends to stay digitally focused.

“My future plan is just keeping this textile side of my brand really small because I don’t think the world needs another brand doing mass production. I’m focusing on digital projects. I have a team of computer engineers, digital artists, and garment artists. My design team is all Gen-Z, and I try to just understand them, to observe them, and to listen to them.”

TAGG

Gökay Gündoğdu moved to New York to study Brand Management before attending Milan’s Domus Academy in 2007. Gündoğdu worked in Italy before launching his womenswear brand TAGG — The Attitude by Gökay Gündoğdu — in 2014. Stockists include Luisa Via Roma and his e-commerce site, launched during the pandemic.

TAGG presented this season’s collection as a digitally augmented museum exhibition: “We used a QR code and augmented reality technology to see live motion pictures coming out of a wall hanging — a video version of a still picture, like a runway show,” Gündoğdu told BoF.

“I’m not a digital person at all,” he says, yet during the pandemic, “we did everything digitally. We made our website more reachable, more understandable. We presented collections on [wholesale management platform] Joor, and reached new clients and accounts in America, Israel, Qatar, Kuwait.”

Despite his success, landing international accounts has still proven challenging for TAGG this season. “International press and buyers always want to see something Turkish from us. I don’t really use cultural elements — my aesthetic is more minimalist,” he says. But to appeal to an international audience, Gündoğdu took inspiration from the Turkish Palaces, imitating their architecture and interiors in the same colours, textures and silhouettes.

The economic crisis has also played a role in shaping his collection this season: “The Turkish lira is losing its power, so everything is very expensive. To import fabrics from abroad is hectic. The government says you shouldn’t be driving competition between the foreign fabric manufacturers and the domestic market. You have to pay extra taxes to import.” As a result, the designer mixed locally sourced fabrics and those imported from Italy and France.

Y Plus

The creative director Yakup Bicer launched his label Y Plus in 2019 as a unisex brand after 30 years working in the Turkish design industry. Y Plus received its international debut at London Fashion Week in February 2020.

Yakup Bicer’s digital collection for his Autumn/Winter ‘22-23 collection was inspired by the “anonymous keyboard heroes of the crypto anarchism ideology and its defenders,” with a message to protect political freedom on social media platforms.

“I want to continue [presenting] digitally for a while,” he tells BoF. “It was a great waste of time and financially tiring to get buyers together during fashion weeks as we did in the past. Now, we can reach every part of the world at the same time with the push of a button with digital presentations.”

Outside of technology, Bicer is leveraging local productions to overcome supply chain disruption — and in doing so, hoping to offer more sustainable practices too. “We have faced travel restrictions and now war in our [region of the world], so the cargo problems it creates affects our whole trade. [...] By working with local production, we ensure that our [work] is [more] sustainable, and [we] reduce our carbon footprint.”

Dice Kayek

Ece and Ayse Ege launched their brand Dice Kayek in 1992. Previously with its production in Paris, the label joined the Fédération Française de la Couture in 1994 and won the Jameel Prize III, an international award for contemporary art and design inspired by Islamic traditions, in 2013. The label recently relocated its atelier to Istanbul and has 90 global stockists.

Sisters Ece and Ayse Ege of Dice Kayek presented their collection this season in a fashion video — a now familiar digital format for them, having started creating fashion films in 2013. “Films are more like a book on your shelf — you can always re-open it and come back to it. It has more value. In 10 or 12 years, you can watch it again. We prefer the variety of it,” Ece told BoF.

Today, Dice Kayek is selling internationally in Europe, the US, the Middle East and China. Through their store in Paris, they weave in Turkish hosting customs as an experiential retail strategy to differentiate their consumers’ experience in-store. “You can’t compete anywhere with these big maisons and there is no use in doing so,” says Ayse, who says the brand has plans to open another store in London this year.

Having previously run their operations from Paris, the sisters relocated to Istanbul, with their atelier attached to their showroom in Bomonti. Bringing their operations fully in-house, Dice Kayek has seen production become more profitable, “which we weren’t able to have when we were producing in another factory.” In bringing production in-house, the sisters also hope to support and sustain Turkish craftsmanship within their collections.

Niyazi Erdoğan

A founding designer of Fashion Week Istanbul in 2009, and deputy chair of the Turkish Fashion Designers association, Niyazi Erdoğan is also a lecturer at the Istanbul Fashion Academy. Alongside his menswear line, he established an accessories brand NIYO in 2014, which won a European Museum award that same year.

Niyazi Erdoğan presented his menswear line through a digital showcase this season: “We all create digitally now — we are doing shows in the Metaverse or as an NFT. We are selling that collection at the same time digitally and physically, going in two directions. We want to be ready for the future in both,” he told BoF.

For next season, however, he says, “I think we have to do a physical show. Fashion is connected with society and feeling, people like to be together. For creative people, we need this.”

During the pandemic, the brand created its online shop and changed their collections to become “more sellable” online, and to account for the change in consumer demand during the pandemic. He is noticing a shift in this consumer base too: “I see my menswear clothing is selling to women as well, so there are no boundaries.”

As a lecturer at IMA, Erdoğan is continuously learning from the next generation. “With generations like Alpha, if you’re in the fashion business, you have to understand them. My vision is to understand their needs, to be strategic in sustainability, in digital, in colours, in cuts, in shapes — we have to be engaging with them.”

Nihan Peker

An MA graduate from Istituto Marangoni, Nihan Peker worked for the likes of Frankie Morello, Colmar and Furla before launching her eponymous label in 2012, designing ready-to-wear, bridal and couture collections. She has exhibited at London, Paris and Milan fashion week.

Celebrating the 10th anniversary of her brand this season, Nihan Peker staged a runway show in the Çırağan Palace, a former Ottoman Imperial Palace turned hotel looking onto the Bosphorus. “It was important for me to present the collection in a place I dreamed of,” Peker told BoF. “After ten years, I feel that I can fly more freely and exceed my limits.”

“It took me a while to prove myself in my country,” adds Peker, whose front row this season seated Turkish celebrities wearing designs from her previous collections. Internationally, “things are getting to the right places,” she says, with a growing presence in the Middle East.

“All Turkish designers, from time to time, have to consider the challenge of our location. Frankly, as a country, we have to deal with bigger social and political problems, so all of us can lose our motivation as well. My focus is now on creating a new wearable, manufacturable elegance with both my ready-to-wear and couture collections.”

Selen Akyuz

After graduating from Istanbul Fashion Academy in 2014, Akyuz studied a masters in menswear design at Istituto Marangoni in Milan. She worked for Ermenegildo Zegna and Costume National before returning to Turkey in 2016 and launching her menswear brand in 2018.

For her sixth show this season, Selen Akyuz produced a film screened at Soho House Istanbul and online: “It’s a movie, so it’s not a real runway show, but I think it’s still effective. It’s emotional at the same time.”

As a small-scale, made-to-measure business, Akyuz is slowly building out a small customer base internationally, with clients now in the US, Romania and Albania. “I don’t want to be jumping in all the time, but take it slowly, step-by-step, to take a measured approach,” she says. “We produce everything at my table. There’s no huge mass production. Practically everything is done by my hand” — including creating T-shirts, hats, accessories and bags of “patchwork, leftover fabrics” to promote more sustainable design practices.

This scaled down approach extends to her production partners. “Instead of working with the big manufacturers, I’m always looking for smaller and local tailors to support my brand, but it’s really hard to find qualified candidates.” Craftspeople using traditional techniques are hard to find — with limited uptake from the next generation of workers.

Gökhan Yavaş

Gökhan Yavaş graduated from DEU Fine Arts Textile and Fashion Design in 2012 and studied at IMA, before launching his own streetwear-inspired menswear brand in 2017. The brand is currently collaborating with the likes of DHL.

This season, Gökhan Yavaş showcased a short video and runway show — his first in three years. “We really missed it — it’s time to talk to people again. We hope to continue with physical runway shows because on Instagram, communication is getting harder. It’s more important to see each other, to hear others’ opinions face to face,” the designer said.

The brand is updating its production philosophy. “We have stopped using real leather and real fur,” he explains, with the first three looks of the collection a patchwork of offcuts from scarves made in an earlier collection. Yavaş also has an upcoming collaboration with DHL, designing a raincoat with sales going to an environmental charity.

A sustainable focus has proven challenging for the label, with the first hurdle in locating smaller metres of fabrics from suppliers. “You have to order a minimum of 15 metres for one fabric from the suppliers, which is our biggest challenge.” Their second challenge is locating stores in Turkey to sell menswear products, with local buyers focusing on Turkish womenswear designers. Still, while the brand sells through their website and in international stores in Canada and London, their focus is next on Asia — specifically South Korea and China.

Bashaques

The wearable art brand Bashaques was founded in 2014 by Başak Cankeş. The brand sells swimwear and kimonos in the motifs of its artwork.

“Normally, I do performance arts collaborations with wearable arts pieces,” the creative director Başak Cankeş told BoF shortly after presenting her latest collection in a 45-minute documentary screened at Soho House Istanbul.

The showcase tells the story of her journey to Peru and Colombia to work with their artisans, taking Anatolian motifs and symbols, and “asking them how they feel about Anatolian [prints].” With a shared cultural heritage of Shamanism, the collection explores the shared craft practices between Anatolia in Asian Turkey, and in the South American countries.

“Approximately 60 percent of the collection is just one piece, all hand-woven by the women in Peru and Anatolia,” she says.

Selling to art collectors in Turkey, with interest in some customers to make a museum collection from her pieces, Cankeş explains she is “not interested in being a global brand because it’s very hard to be global and sustainable. I don’t want to do even 10 pieces from any collection, except swimwear or kimonos. This is a whole conceptual, variable art collection, and we will also put this to NFT. I see myself more as an artist, not a fashion designer.”

Karma by İMA

The Karma collective represents emerging talent from the Istanbul Moda Academy — a fashion school established in 2007 that offers degrees in Fashion Design, Technology and Product Development, Fashion Management and Fashion Communication and Media.

This season, the Karma designers are Ezgi Yıldırım, Beyza Eyüboğlu and Aycan Hakalmaz.

“The main issue I have had is with the weather conditions, as it has been so snowy these last two weeks, so we have had lots of problems with the supply chain and sourcing fabrics too,” Hakalmaz told BoF. She created the collection for her brand Alter Ego, shown as part of the Karma collective, in just two weeks while also designing for fashion house Nocturne.

Hakalmaz is also turning away from technological solutions to support her production process, saying, “I don’t like using technology, and stay as far away from it as possible, as I would rather do hand-crafting to stay connected to the past.”

Disclosure: Sophie Soar travelled to Istanbul as a guest of Fashion Week Istanbul.

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