Meet the three Turkish designers making a mark on the international fashion scene
Fashion-savvy consumers are often presented with offerings from Arab designers who hail from the UAE and other GCC countries – but brands from another nation are quickly emerging on the regional fashion scene. In addition to its dramatic soap operas that are uber-popular during Ramadan, Turkey has a crop of home-grown fashion talent of its own. These brands are on the path to making a global mark with labels, ranging across casual streetwear, haute couture and bridal wear. We speak to three Turkish designers about their influences, career highs and regional retail plans.
Previously inspired by punk music, and now influenced more by a hip-hop culture, streetwear has lost its cultlike connotations to now appeal to the masses. “Millennials – the digital generation, are now really close to streetwear – it’s a whole community,” explains Bünyamin Aydin, the designer behind Les Benjamins.
Having lived in Istanbul, Germany and Switzerland, Aydin says that his work is more of a cultural movement than a fashion brand. When we meet during his recent visit to Dubai, he wears a design from his current spring/summer collection – a top printed with men veiled in blue – nomads from the Tuareg tribe in Africa. Each season, he highlights a different Eastern culture. “My mission as a designer is to educate people around the world, because they don’t know the East. They think they do, but they categorise everything under one roof,” he says. “My DNA is storytelling of the East – it’s about opening the untold stories of the regional cultures, and I add Western aesthetics to it. Streetwear derived from the punk movement – that’s how I see it.” Even though Les Benjamins was launched as a menswear brand, the designer reveals that many of his clients are female, who have no qualms wearing the designs oversized. For his spring/summer collection next year, Aydin plans to debut a womenswear range.
These days, it’s common for fashion designers to tout their designs as “haute couture” without having any credentials from Paris. But, 14 years after launching her brand, Dilek Hanif was officially admitted to showing her collection at Paris Haute Couture Week in 2004 – a first, for a Turkish designer. Today, she has boutiques in Turkey, Germany, France, Egypt, Australia, Saudi Arabia and more. Hanif describes her brand as “an emblem of modern Turkey,” and admits that gaining worldwide recognition wasn’t an easy feat. “It was definitely difficult to enter such a well-established market, especially as a Turkish fashion designer,” she says.
Hanif’s designs, which range from sleek ready-to-wear dresses to decadently draped couture gowns, have been worn by celebrities like Miranda Kerr, Katherine Heigl, Nicole Richie, Jane Fonda and more.
Middle Eastern consumers are notorious for splurging on decadent, dramatic designs for wedding wear. Growing up in a family that has been working with fabrics for more than 60 years in Turkey, Rasit Bagzibagli, known today for his bridal wear and evening wear, started designing clothing at the young age of 12, and produced his first runway show at the age of 21. “My outfits feature intricately embellished patterns, asymmetric hems and floors-sweeping designs of cascading tulle and chiffon,” says Bagzibagli. His flagship boutique is located in Istanbul’s Levent district, and orders must be placed at least six months in advance. He has clients from all over the Arab world, including the UAE, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. His evening wear is often sported by Turkish celebrities and socialites for prestigious occasions. Popular Turkish-German actress and beauty entrepreneur Meryem Uzerli recently donned some of Bagzibagli’s gowns at the Cannes Film Festival.
For a fashion designer of any origin, being invited to partner with a bigger, international brand can be a huge turning point for a budding label – not only will it help increase brand awareness, but it can also launch a label onto the global map. Earlier this year, Aydin was invited to collaborate with one of his favourite all-time companies: Nike, marking the brand’s first time working with a Middle Eastern designer. Aydin was among the 12 designers selected worldwide to design a Nike Air Max shoe for the brand’s “Vote Forward” project in March. “Being approached by Nike opened a door for other Middle Eastern designers too,” he says, adding that future partnerships with Nike are also on the cards. “Les Benjamins just got the Nike account as a shop, so I will be doing selections and selling special additions as well in our stores,” he reveals.
In 2005, Hanif collaborated with jewellery brand Chopard, and provided the clothing for the brand’s first high jewellery collection launch in Istanbul. “The preparations were intense; a famous art director from France was involved, and many famous models showcased the collection, including Czech model Eva Herzigova,” she says. In 2013, she partnered with L’Oreal Professional, to redesign the brand’s signature product, Mythic Oil. “I decided to reinterpret the Mythic Oil pack in a more ‘Ottoman Empire’ way, with the aesthetic coming from the world of couture. I chose the black colour to make it more elegant and mysterious and decided to add a bracelet of Ottoman inspiration for the product to look more luxurious,” she recalls. Hanif has also collaborated with Turkish Airlines, Walt Disney and high street brand Koton.
Because of the innately diverse make-up of Turkey, it’s both easy to get inspired, and at the same time, difficult to pinpoint particular influences for designers. “In Istanbul, you can literally cross the bridge and you’re in Asia, go back again and you’re in Europe. It’s such a melting pot of cultures; so vibrant; so colourful – the city inspires you,” says Aydin. Les Benjamins, he emphasises, is not particularly inspired by Turkey itself, but rather, by the country’s bigger, east-meets-west element. He adds that there is tremendous support from fellow residents, who are happy to see local labels achieving success. “Turks are very proud of their country and when someone is making a difference, they’re really supportive and they see it as a national brand,” he says.
Bagzibagli and Hanif both name the historical Ottoman Empire as a source of inspiration. “When walking through Turkey, you will find a mix of universal fashion trends, cultural attire and a combination of the two; it is very diverse,” says Hanif. “I combine the Orient and Occident by using Ottoman inspired embroidery work interpreted for the modern fashion world, such as Ottoman vests with our cultural embroidery work interpreted for the modern fashion world.”
All three designers recognise that venturing outside of Turkey, and building brand awareness internationally, is crucial to their labels’ success.
Hanif already has stand-alone stores in the Middle East, as well as a list of luxury stockists internationally, including Bergdorf Goodman and Harvey Nichols. “Becoming more prominent in London is next on the plans, she says. “It is a long-awaited and much needed step for the brand in affirming its position in the international fashion scene,” she says.
Aydin recognises that the UAE is uniquely situated as an emerging fashion and culture capital in the region. “Dubai was one of my first clients,” reveals Aydin, who says that Al Tayer Group, the company behind Harvey Nichols and Bloomingdale’s in Dubai, started ordering from his collections in 2012. And, while he initially had his eye on expansion in Paris, he has since changed his focus to the Middle East and Asia. His current retail plan in China for instance, includes opening 20 stand-alone retail stores. “The streetwear scene in China is the biggest in the world. I always say if you make it in China you make it everywhere,” he says.
Finally, Bagzibagli is aware that the Middle East holds a lot of spending power, and that a traditional bridal wear and couture wear approach may need adjusting to thrive here. “The Gulf clothing market is getting increasingly demanding,” says Bagzibagli. “People like their couture wear ready, and accessible to their convenience, due to the easy availability of designer wear in the mall. Since my strategy is to appeal to the masses, I would undoubtedly want to expand.”