Your designs carry traces of the Roman, Byzantine, Selçuk and Ottoman empires. To which of these cultures do you feel closest?
I guess I could say all, since we are the inheritors of all the civilizations that passed through Anatolia. As you know, I studied costume history in Paris. One day, a French art history professor of mine showed us the interior design of the Rüstem Paşa Mosque in class. He characterized the beauty of the tiles in the interior of the mosque as being an unparalleled treasure. In the next lesson, he talked about the İshak Paşa Külliyesi, and said “Who knows just what you’ll take away from this as designers!” At the time, I was just 18 years old. I thought for awhile about what it was he meant to say.
Had you ever visited that spot?
No. In fact, I was hearing about the İshak Paşa Külliyesi for the first time in my life. As for the Rüstem Paşa Mosque, I also couldn’t recall it for a moment. But the moment I arrived in Turkey, my first piece of business was to go to these places.
The Ottomans did not used to be in such fashion. Nowadays, it is very popular to say your designs are inspired by the Ottomans.
Yeah, I know! Everyone is just making things up that they say were inspired by the Ottomans. Designers stick a small bit of embroidery on the chest part, or perhaps the seal of a sultan somewhere on the piece, and suddenly, it becomes Ottoman. But those things do not make something Ottoman! The recent series we see on TV are the same way. For example, the clothing worn by legendary actress Türkan Şoray is incredibly bad. The “bindallı” (garment made from purple velvet and decorated with silver thread) and the head décor she wears have no connection to the Ottomans. Whoever it is that is dressing her for the series is not doing her any favors. Or, just take a look at the “Muhteşem Yüzyıl” series; the outfits worn by the Valide Sultan character look like stuff designed for Snow White.
Designers defend themselves, saying “These are fictional, of course. They don’t have to be the same as reality.”
Unfortunately… But even when I am preparing a show inspired by the Ottomans, I pay attention to the smallest details. The other designers need to show the same level of sensitivity.
What did you think of the movie “Fetih 1453”?
I did not watch it. I do not wish to watch it. One of the greatest people of whom I am most enamored is Fatih Sultan Mehmet. So even the smallest mistake made in connection with him saddens me.
What sort of mistakes are made in films and series in connection with the Ottomans?
In many of the designs, motifs not even found in Ottoman things are used.
Can you give us an example of something people believe comes from the Ottomans, but which really does not?
Well, the seal, for example; it is used in outfits too frequently, and in mistaken ways. But the truth is, our culture is just so rich. … In my latest fashion show, I took advantage of some kilim [tapestry-woven rug] designs. We put out coats and jackets using these designs. Each piece was woven individually.
You used kilim designs in 77…
Yes. One day I had gone to the home of teacher Bedri Rahmi (Eyüboğlu). He was explaining things about kilims to his students. He said: “Just look at the balance between the designs, and the harmony between the geometric designs. The story of Anatolian women is hidden in this kilim.” After saying this, he showed his students a painting done by painter [Victor] Vasarely. The designs and colors were very nearly the same as the ones in the kilim. He then asked, “Now tell me, who copied whom here?” That question really got stuck in my mind, and I started working with kilims. Later, I showed off my jackets bearing kilim designs in Brussels.
In other words, there were times when Europe also took inspiration from the Ottomans?
Of course; take the turban for example. The French Revolution occurred, and after Louis XVI, during the Napoleonic period, French fashion designers began to use the turban. One can see the turban in French fashion all the way until the mid-19th century.
In one interview, you mentioned that you were made uncomfortable by people who went around all wrapped up like packages. Do you think a woman can only be chic with a low-cut neckline?
That is not exactly what I am saying. You can be chic and be covered. For example, the wife of the emir of Qatar, she is incredibly chic. She dresses so well. But parts of her neck and hair show. She could completely cover her hair with that way of tying her headscarf. And she could use high collars to cover her neck. Those sorts of things rescue women from a single sort of look.
What do you think about fashion icons?
Oh, those fashion icons you see in the press are all absurd; they make me laugh. The press rushes to your side the more you show yourself. There are those women who never ever wear the same thing twice to events. But I have had some very well-born customers, who would just have three-four pieces per season made for themselves. It is simply bad manners to wear something different to every different event. What is it they are trying to prove? What’s more, each one is more ridiculously dressed than the other; each one is the worst sort of example of ready-to-wear fashion. There is no need for names here; these are all women held up in the press as fashion icons. If you ask me, they are all incredibly annoying types.
What do you think about İstanbul Fashion Week?
What is being done at İstanbul Fashion Week is not haute couture, but bad copies of ready-to-wear. All sorts of European designers are brought in. Personally, I will work on haute couture for as long as I am still standing, for as long as God does not tell me to stop.
Sometimes I think there is no place for me in this business
Do you ever get sick of fashion?
That does happen, but it is because sometimes I look around me and say: “This cannot be… There is really no place for me in this business. I should just finish everything off and go on my way.” And seeing this business done badly is really tiring, and saddening. I did kilim designs for the first time in 1977. But now a designer emerges, and does a show in America. The designer is able to say, “I was the first one to use these designs; no one else has used them.”
Is this some odd sort of courage, or just ignorance?
It must be both. But it really makes me angry. Nowadays, everyone says, “I am a fashion designer.” Some people copy things done 25-30 years ago by Yves Saint Laurent, or maybe pieces created by Pierre Cardin during his most resplendent period; then they claim these designs for themselves. And yet, the fashion history books are full of photographs which contradict these claims. What they do really is shameful.
If my father had notpassed away, I would not have become a designer
From the very start, you were determined to be a fashion designer, right?
Yes, but I most likely would not have become one had my father not passed away. Even two uncles tried their hardest to prevent me from becoming one.
How old were you when your father died?
I was only 3 years old. When the Russians were trying to invade Ardahan and Kars, a shipment of ammunition was being transferred to the region. My father was a commander in charge of this transfer. He was riding together with a lieutenant in a jeep. Before passing Kop Mountain, the lieutenant lost control of the steering wheel. The jeep rolled all the way down and into the water; my father and the lieutenant drowned in that water. The stirrups from the boots he was wearing that day as he helped transport ammunition to the front still sit on the desk in my home.
So who helped your family out after this?
My mother was a very wealthy woman. She helped me out later in life. When I decided to study fashion, my paternal uncle wrote me a letter which said, “If you are heading off to Paris to study such a parvenu sort of thing, I don’t have a nephew in you!” But when I returned, he boasted about my accomplishments.