By: ELIZABETH PATON
In 2015, Sama Danesh, a former computer engineer in London with long-held dreams of setting up a luxury swimwear line, finally found her ideal manufacturing partner after searching fruitlessly from Italy to Portugal, Morocco to France: a factory in Istanbul.
“I knew that Turkey was a major manufacturing base for big fashion brands, but I hadn’t thought it could work for a small start-up,” she said in a telephone interview last week. “Fairly quickly, I found a factory on the outskirts of the city that seemed perfect. I put my life into storage and moved to Istanbul straight away.”
During her early months in Turkey, Ms. Danesh said, she was “blown away” by the workers’ craftsmanship and focus on detail, particularly when it came to pattern-cutting and the construction — using sculptured fabric, wiring and boning — needed to create the silhouettes for her swimsuits, which sell for about $385. She explored the vibrant fashion and arts scene, finding inspiration among Istanbul’s famed bazaars and young, homegrown labels. In the summer of 2016, as her collection moved into the production stage and she began to receive orders, she returned to London. She was on the verge of success. Then, she said, “the climate totally changed.
“In the back of my mind, I was always aware of the precarious state of the country’s political climate, although I never imagined what then happened taking place,” Ms. Danesh said. “Things ramped up so fast. Suddenly everything felt like it was tumbling down.”
In recent years, homegrown and foreign brands have flocked to establish themselves in Istanbul, lending it a reputation as Europe’s fourth fashion city. But Turkey, a country that physically and culturally straddles East and West, is in the midst of one of the most volatile periods in its recent history. The country has been grappling with a spate of terror attacks targeting both Turks and tourists, the fallout from the ongoing war in Syria, just over the border, a shuddering economic slowdown and a failed military coup last July that resulted in the government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declaring a state of emergency. The state of emergency has since stifled most forms of legitimate opposition, triggering a wave of protests and mass rallies like that organized by the opposition Republican People’s Party, attended by a million people in Istanbul last month.
Day-to-day life goes on for millions of Turks. Still, tourist numbers are down, the Turkish lira has slumped and local consumer confidence has declined, putting considerable pressure on Istanbul’s blossoming creative scene and its many small fashion brands.
Although Turkey’s textile, leather and clothing production has been in place for centuries, designing has not. Long a manufacturing center for mass-market retailers like Marks & Spencer and Inditex, as well as luxury labels like Burberry and Hugo Boss, the city has become a hub for the fast-growing Modest Fashion Movement geared to style-conscious Islamic women. It is also home to a slew of designers with a Western aesthetic, many of whom have expanded their businesses internationally. And for fledgling foreign brands operating or manufacturing in Turkey, the new status quo in the country has been more than unsettling.
“It has been a nightmare,” Ms. Danesh said. After the coup, everything from Dropbox to PayPal ceased to function efficiently. There were delivery delays. “The factory kept telling me that everything was fine on the phone, but I could tell it was not,” she said. By this time, she had signed deals to sell her stock at Harvey Nichols in London and to boutiques Dubai and the Spanish island of Ibiza.
Many pieces in Ms. Danesh’s initial 2017 summer collection were so delayed they had to be released as part of her subsequent cruise collection. “I still use the Istanbul factory because of the product quality,” she said. “But I have moved shipping to Britain, which eats into margins but has also reduced the risk that I don’t deliver orders in time.”
Despite the troubles, some fledgling brands with design studios in Istanbul remain upbeat. Manu Atelier is a small, family-run accessories label housed in an 18th-century building on a cobbled street in the Beyoglu district, an ancient quarter known for its leatherwork trade. Founded in 2014 by Merve and Beste Manastir, daughters of a leather craftsman who personally signs off on every piece, the company has grown rapidly in the last three years thanks to savvy use of social media, competitive prices and glowing endorsements by Vogue and Eva Chen of Instagram. The label is stocked at Selfridges and Saks and now has an office staff of 16 and a workshop of 30 artisans.
“It has been a chaotic time,” Merve Manastir said. “Locally, people have been less keen to go out and spend money, and visitor numbers are down. But honestly, we don’t think about borders that much. Our business has grown so much internationally that we are less exposed in our home market.
“While we are very proud of our Turkish manufacturing roots, in terms of our identity, we consider ourselves a global luxury lifestyle brand,” she said.
That sentiment is shared by Ece and Ayse Ege, also sisters, who set up their couture and ready-to-wear label Dice Kayek in 1992, and celebrated their 25th anniversary in business this year. Although they split their time between Paris and Istanbul, their atelier has always been in the heart of their home city.
“Emotionally, Dice Kayek feels Parisian, but our craftsmanship is entirely rooted here,” Ece Ege said. “That has actually helped us in the last two years. Since we’re in Turkey and can supply all of the raw materials and produce everything here, we’ve been able to keep the costs down despite the devaluation of the lira,” she said. “It has actually become cheaper to make our garments, which we can then sell on in euros.”
She added that the company was more vulnerable to the volatility within the broader fashion industry than that of the Turkish political situation. Whatever happened, she said, they will never take their manufacturing operations elsewhere.
Enis Karavil is the creative director of Sanayi 313, a concept boutique that opened in 2015 in an industrial estate in the northeastern part of Istanbul with the hope of creating a lifestyle destination for those with a passion for modern design, fashion, art and food. A shoes and accessories label of the same name is now sold in stores like Bergdorf Goodman in New York and at Net-a-Porter, and there are plans to open a boutique hotel near the Blue Mosque. An interior architect by training, Mr. Karavil remains optimistic about the future of luxury within Turkey, once a bright spot for growth in the industry.
“Five years ago Istanbul was in the midst of a real moment,” he said. “Some of that appetite has since died away, although the rapid growth of Sanayi 313 would suggest that shoppers are interested in what is emerging from the local scene. I have no doubt that the situation will improve.
“As Turks, we get used to uncertainty very easily, and we adapt very easily. People are worried, but they are just as worried about what is going on in the wider world. There are problems everywhere, not just here,” Mr. Karavil said.
For Ms. Danesh, a Swede of Iranian descent, apprehension about what could come next remains.
“I think about leaving every day,” she said, drawing parallels with her parents’ experiences in the days before the Iranian revolution of 1979. “But Istanbul now feels like my second home. There is a lot up against this city and those who live in it. But because of all that it is, more than anything, I want to stay.”