ISTANBUL — Could this Turkish city become “the London of the Middle East” for its neighbors?

This story first appeared in the October 30, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Absolutely, said Carla Damario, president of Vivienne Westwood, one of five international designers who participated in “Fashionable Istanbul,” a three-day event that wound up here Sunday.

Damario said he sees no economic crisis in this part of the world to match the one in Europe and the U.S., citing strong sales of Anglomania accessories in particular thanks to the under-25-year-olds who make up 60 percent of Turkey’s 72 million population. Westwood is planning its first Istanbul store, after opening one in Beirut. “The market is not anymore in America, but here,” Damario said.

Harvey Nichols and retail chain Beymen, two of the biggest buyers of designer collections in Turkey, agreed the Istanbul fashion world has left the crisis behind: Both said budgets are back to pre-crisis levels.

“The crisis here was mostly psychological. Demand and confidence returned as fast as it disappeared, since April,” said Beymen chief executive officer Elif Capli. Sales were up 20 percent in October from a year earlier, she noted.

Simge Telman, brand development director at Harvey Nichols, said the lowest point was the current fall season, when budgets were cut by 20 percent. Orders for spring, though, are back to normal and the crisis “created opportunities for new brands like Alexander Wang and Phillip Lim. When others disappeared or went backwards, they stepped up, found a place in the stores and increased their sales.”

Roberto Cavalli, who already has a boutique in Istanbul, said moments of crisis compel designers to reach out to new markets. He said he loves the feeling of Istanbul — “both Occidental and Oriental” — and vowed to return to get inspiration for a future collection. Meanwhile, he’s angling for a bigger share of the Turkish market by adding men’s wear and accessories here.

While no Turkish designers were included at the inaugural event at the opulent Dolmabahce Palace, their time will come, said Maia Guarnaccia, vice president of IMG Fashion.

A consultant to Fashionable Istanbul, which followed August’s fashion week, IMG advised organizers to shine the spotlight on Istanbul, creating a high-profile platform that will give Turkish designers the confidence to express themselves globally. “If up and coming Turkish designers want to become international, they have to showcase here,” Guarnaccia said. “Vakko, Beymen are incredibly good brands, but they’re not known outside Turkey. This could be the bridge they keep talking about,” the classic image of Turkey as a link between Europe and Asia, East and West.

Turkey has manufacturing, quality and creativity, according to organizer Hakan Baykam, and it’s only the promotion and marketing that’s missing.

Some Turkish designers and other locals lamented that all the spring collections, except Westwood’s Anglomania, had already been shown elsewhere. “Providing that the collections and the shows are weightier, this event will help branding Istanbul and we will consider taking part,” said Turkish designer Dilek Hanif.

Guarnaccia said international designers wanted to build brand confidence by promoting lines that are already available in-store. “The aim is not yet to reach out to the world from Istanbul with a new collection, but to enter this world first,” he said.

As established designers seek new markets and inspiration in the East, young Turkish designers dream of opportunities in the West. Ebru Ozkan, a 26-year-old student at the Lasalle Academy in Istanbul, said she was “overwhelmed” entering Fashionable Istanbul’s young designer competition, which offers apprenticeships at five European fashion houses. “I can’t wait to go West, to push my limits,” she said. The winners are to be revealed in about a week.

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