The Belgian-born designer Şebnem Günay holidayed in Turkey as a child, but it wasn’t until she returned at 17, to enroll in a course in fashion design that everything soon began to click. “Belgium is really gray, but Turkey has sun, color, sea, palm trees,” she says now. “And on the street, it’s filled with people and colors.” Her brand, SBNM, which specializes in ‘90s-esque sportswear, draws from the personality of her new surroundings in Istanbul, and the cross-pollination of cultural inspirations that it represents.
The result is, in her words, “a really colorful sportswear brand, spreading a message of being comfortable and looking cool on the streets.” Her latest collection, “La Piscine,” was shown last week as part of Istanbul Fashion Week, and it expands on her signatures, while offering an ode to Günay’s past life as a professional swimmer. As she describes it, “Life with a pool is a lifestyle by itself,” and “La Piscine” is much of the same, itself a reflection on a more relaxed lifestyle and approach to sportswear.
Günay represents a newly emerging creative scene in the city, which although relatively unknown, is creating space for itself in the fashion industry as frontrunners in sustainability, material experimentation, and a distinct identity that distinguishes each brand from one another, yet simultaneously marks them as the children of Istanbul’s fashion culture.
But this is just one thread that runs through the streets of Istanbul, as others, like menswear designer Selen Akyüz, find influence in a more relatable place. Like many of us, the pandemic-induced lockdowns inspired her to create. “I was thinking [about] simple, easy, natural, and sustainable [fashion], she explains.
Her namesake brand has introduced womenswear for the first time this season, but it’s menswear in which she has made a name for herself. In many ways, her work is traditional — sarongs for men are common in Turkish Hammams (but haven’t yet been widely adopted in Europe and further West). The same goes for her use of silks, florals, and the overall air of softness in Akyüz’s work. In Turkey, her collections make perfect sense.
The city is giving a new emphasis to its designers, and making increased strides to raise their visibility. Though Fashion Week Istanbul has existed since 2008, it has, until now, occupied a relatively low-profile status, especially in relation to its globally-recognized counterparts in Paris, Milan, New York, and London.
What’s apparent, though, is a new push for encouraging emerging designers, particularly those with sustainable production methods. The new-gen collective KARMA by IMA — which showcased collections from Essin Barış, Ezgi Karaye, and Senem Kula — was one of the week’s showroom highlights. Each of the designers had a different style, but together they reimagined tradition.
Karaye, who studied at London’s Central Saint Martins, wanted to un-learn the product design and rigid Bauhaus ways of art education by creating fluid shapes in her genderless collection, while Kula’s motto of “waste is not waste” resulted in circularity and symbiosis, a zero-waste collection made from off-cuts of other collections.
Despite all the progress that has been made in Istanbul’s fashion scene, its creatives feel there is much further to go. As the designers from KARMA collectively explain, “a lot of people work in textiles, and there are a lot of designers here. It’s hard to have a place in Istanbul. The fashion audience is not reliable, they don’t commit themselves to one brand. It’s hard to have a well-known brand because of that.” To break through into the mainstream, Fashion Week Istanbul needs to be paid the same level of attention as Milan, Paris, London, Tbilisi even, because the talent is there.
As a city, Istanbul has a buzz, and it’s a city that’s proud of its fabric industry and eye for quality. From the showrooms to digital runways, and especially Fashion Week Istanbul’s exhibition “Istanbul State of Mind” which was decorated with a wide range of designers and their work, a few things were clear: masterful tailoring, a passion for colors, and a keen sense of expression run deep in the city’s fashion scene. But the wider world has been missing out on it all.
The city’s emerging designers and finest creatives are making a point to stand out among its fellow European counterparts — in a country as vibrant as Turkey, Istanbul is a melting pot of color and texture, and that’s not just the fabrics. As Günay puts it, “Istanbul Fashion Week needs more attention.”