Murad Sezer/AP
The 13th International Fashion Fair in Istanbul, Turkey.

Emerging Cities of Fashion: Istanbul

June 19, 2009
by Anne Szustek
Ottoman-inspired styles are popping up on runways in established fashion capitals around the globe. Istanbul has long been a source of textiles for the fashion world, but now the bi-continental city is becoming a hub of culture and design in its own right.

New Niches for Turkish Textiles

In the international fashion sphere, Istanbul used to be largely synonymous with textiles—and arguably, little beyond that. The expiration of the Multi-Fibre Agreement on Jan. 1, 2005, posed a threat to this key industry for Turkey, as it opened up many of its chief export destinations to cheaper fabric sourced from China and India.

But the textile factories of Istanbul, straddling Europe and Asia, and by extension Turkey, have stepped up to the challenge by putting out higher-end materials. “The way to go has to be to up the quality and hit the more designer-conscious market,” Suzanne Simon, owner of an Istanbul-based clothing business, said in a 2006 International Herald Tribune piece.

According to Oxford Business Group, major clothing labels like Banana Republic and Tommy Hilfiger have produced their apparel in the region. But Istanbul’s own sense of style is also getting air and wear time, undoubtedly playing a part in Newsweek’s calling it “Europe’s coolest city in 2006.”

Elements of traditional Turkish dress have been hitting the racks outside of the country. Harem pants are an obvious Ottoman nod, while the billowing sleeves and the reds and purples making numerous appearances during Fall 2009 Paris Fashion Week this past March are a somewhat more nuanced reference to Istanbul motifs.

Tradition and Bustle Gives Birth to Style

A city with a population of 10 million (or 18 million, depending on whom you ask), is naturally going to have some bustle to it. Layer on top of the crowds a Mediterranean sense of organized disorder, a rekindled appreciation among longtime Istanbullus for Ottoman style elements such as draping sleeves and pants—meanwhile, emigrants from Turkey’s countryside have been sporting such a look all along—and you can get a sense of the elements playing into the Istanbul fashion vibe. To see it in composite, check out Istanbul Street Style, an online collage of clothing worn by passersby in the city’s Taksim and Nisantasi districts, the functional equivalents of New York’s Lower and Upper East Sides, respectively. The site also organizes several fashion and culture-oriented parties in Istanbul, some of which have featured the work of Istanbul’s growing expat community.

Istanbul Street Style has previously featured the work of Alexandra Ivanoff, the New York designer behind Ottoman-themed label Historical Vogue. A former professional soprano, she first was drawn to fashion after noticing detail in stage costumes. Several bolts of fabric, encouragement from a Turkish friend and a number of fashion courses later, she set up shop in Istanbul, where she finds her muse in local history. In an October 2007 interview with Istanbul English-language paper Today’s Zaman, she cites “the beautiful paintings of the harem ladies and the sultans’ courts in the paintings (circa 1750) of Levni and Buhara in Topkapi Sarayi (Palace)” as among her biggest influences.

At the same time, the seeds of homegrown Turkish fashion are being sown in the world’s established fashion capitals. Hussein Chalayan, a Turkish Cypriot designer whose work was recently exhibited at London’s Design Museum, says that Istanbul, “sitting between Europe and Asia and the birthplace of the Byzantine and Ottoman empires … is a completely unpredictable city, spontaneous, energizing.” In addition to Chalayan, London is home to Rifat Özbek, who for decades has left his Ottoman-inspired imprint on the U.K. style scene.

Over in Paris, fashion house Dice Kayek has lent its own brand of “alaturca” to the runways, with summer dresses based on Ottoman staples such as the caftan. Dice Kayek founder Ece Ege is a native of Bursa, a city east of Istanbul that has been a center of textile production and trade since Ottoman times.

Bursa’s silks—as well as Turkish style, caftans included—are the very basis of the collections of Atil Kutoglu, an Istanbul native working out of Vienna who’s shown at New York’s Fashion week. His works have been seen on exhibit at the Smithsonian as well as on the world’s socialites such as Naomi Campbell, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Britain’s Princess Michael of Kent.

His collections sport a modern look devoid of fussiness—which, in a sense, encapsulates the Istanbul of today. In a spring 2007 interview with financial publication Oxford Business Group, Kutoglu said, “Istanbul and Turkey will be a hub for retail, fashion, finance and technology in South-eastern Europe. I’m just proud … that Istanbul is finally getting recognized.”

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