Following President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s decision in March 2021 to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, a pact designed to protect women from domestic violence, women gathered in protest across Turkey’s major cities. These demonstrations posed a unique challenge for the country’s designers and Istanbul Fashion Week transformed before our eyes, offering a platform to address urgent socio-political issues. 

Against the backdrop of the pandemic, Fashion Week Istanbul closed on a poignant note last week. A rich historical record of our times, its designers wove dialogues between Turkey’s intricacies as a nation with the beauty of its traditional craftsmanship techniques. Caught between presenting reality and delving into fantasy, navigating the two worlds became an act fraught with tension.

Looking inwards, a growing number of Turkish brands are taking a regional approach with creative projects launched in collaboration with local women. Providing a framework that welcomes learning, imagination and practicality, uniting traditional craftsmanship with modern practices enables sustainable growth, both from an economic and cultural perspective. By connecting artisans and designers together, this multidisciplinary practice is a glowing symbol of innovation and rebirth during a period marked by profound global uncertainties.

Below, Gökay Gündoğdu (founder of TAGG), Zeynep Tosun and Hatice Gökçe discuss their responses to Turkey’s recent political events as designers, the importance of community-building and the excitement of moving towards a new future.

Zeynep Tosun

Aïsha Diomandé: Across the latest collection, the use of sumptuous fabrics is striking – what is the importance of retaining traditional embroidery techniques, and what narrative would you like this to communicate today?
Zeynep Tosun: We are in a period of constant consumption. İn our world today everything is so easily consumed that we, the designers, must be in charge of slowing down the industry. Personally, İ rarely shop and mostly buy things that are unique, handmade and produced in low quantities. This is something that I wanted to reflect within my own brand. Our first aim is to be a part of Anatolia’s women economic development by creating handmade products with unique embroideries which reflect traditional techniques with a modern twist.

AD: How has the evolution of Southeastern Anatolian craftsmanship influenced your approach to design?
ZT: The most disadvantaged women are in that region. During the development of the collections we often go there and spend time with them, also I spend lots of time visiting the old cultural sites and little villages around. The heritage is so huge, so mixed and so impressive that we are deeply influenced by many components. 

AD: From concept to completion, how does conscious sustainability influence the relationship between design and production?
ZT: İt affects a lot actually, it really tightens the designer in creativity but opens up a new way of thinking conceptually. Design is not just a way of thinking, it’s a way of expressing and it should challenge you a lot in order to produce not just new designs but new ideas. A lot of designers were not focusing on production before but now they have to, so we will see new concepts about sustainability, it excites me.

AD: Regarding education and development, how have the UNDP-backed courses helped local women develop production skills, increase productivity and brand-building?
ZT: So normally the women in Southeastern Anatolia are the most disadvantaged women in Turkey. The education level and employment level is really low and the women we are working with are all housewives. 

They are very good at basic hand embroideries but not at design and development. The aim of giving them online courses is to develop their vision and way of thinking so they can develop skills. We are preparing them for a basis so they can work easily with a designer, we are trying to make sure that they can speak at the same level. 

As a result of our trips there, we noticed that these women have teenage children who are very good with technologies and aware of the new world dynamics, but because of the lack of employment and education, they end up with the same destiny. We are mostly focusing young groups on brand-building processes so they can come up with local brand ideas for their moms. Hopefully we are aiming to have future designers from the region.

AD: With your latest project in Sinop, Northern Turkey, it’s exciting to see that this localised strategy has highlighted distinctive talent – how do you envision the local women creating their own brands while working in collaboration with designers of that area?
ZT: So basically they have the resources but don’t know what to do with them. UNDP [United Nations Development Programme] have a local tourism project in that area, which is known for flax fields. These fields look very similar to lavender fields and also linen yarn is highly produced using very old techniques. They can come up with a very wide scale of products using linen, so there is a big opportunity there in terms of production, tourism and brand-building. The linen is mostly produced by local women and also most of them are capable of doing local unique hand embroideries. We are developing a home brand which we can mix this heritage with a modern taste. We’re also helping them build their own brand identity, website, and we are educating them about social media, marketing. But most important, after long research, we assigned to the project young and new graduates from that region so that this project can be sustainable, and the brand can continue for many years. 

“We are tired of seeing selfish collections, it is time to stand up for change.”

AD: On a wider scale, how do you want your brand to address and respond to current events happening in Turkey?
ZT: As a citizen of this country, every day we struggle with many things. We have very big issues about women rights, the economy, equality, poverty, and more. İn business they say that being political is never good for positioning a brand, but I personally own this brand and I have something to say to the world and to this country. So I never shut up. İn every collection we do, we are trying to focus on real things that matter about the current situation of this country, otherwise, even if I do the best-designed collection of the world, it doesn’t give me any satisfaction at all. İ never consider collections in terms of creativity of the design, I look at them as a whole, from a perspective of what it is trying to say and trying to change. 

The world is so fucked up, messed up, that everybody should work for the progress of others, not for self-progress. We are tired of seeing selfish collections, it is time to stand up for change.

Hatice Gökçe

Aïsha Diomandé: Talk us through how your brand Argande began, and how it engages with the women within the local economy?
Hatice Gökçe: The GAP Regional Development Administration [GAP RDA] has been running the Innovations for Empowerment of Women in GAP Project since May 2008. It empowers Southeastern Anatolian women both socially and economically thanks to technical support from the UNDP alongside financial support from SIDA [Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency]. It collects its products under Argande, which is a social responsibility project that encourages women to participate in the labour market. It also brands Southeastern Anatolia and creates new sales and marketing opportunities.

We came up with the idea of uniting local products under a new brand and my job as the design consultant of the brand began. We’ve consulted many professional names to come up with both an urban womenswear brand and a corporate identity. We brought together everything we could ever need to create a brand – and then gathered that under Argande.

First, we approached local women to design and sew special clothes, then we sold their work at some of Turkey’s biggest clothing chains. The income generated from that went to employing more women.

The name Argande comes from the only goddess of the Kingdom of Commagene that ruled over Mesopotamia. Some of Turkey’s leading fashion designers have worked closely with our women to create various products, and then they sell them to big stores. Our project has made the region’s cultural heritage and diversity visible. It has elevated the status of women. Moreover, it has changed how people perceive the region – for the better.

The project has also had a branding effect by emphasises strong regional characteristics, for example, ethnic diversity. It also underscores women’s efforts to combine their cultural and spiritual values with global knowledge and trade. We’ve set up a visibility program to market their work and to allow the creativity of Southeastern women to reach fashion designers in Istanbul and beyond. Thanks to what we’ve accomplished, many a prominent Turkish designer and ready-to-wear brand have started to work with and employ our women (and more women in general).

AD: How has the rebranding process of Southeast Anatolia affected the region, and what further developments do you hope to see?
HG: We opened up a workshop and atelier there, which has led to the opening of more workshops. Upon hearing about Argande and how it works, many ready-to-wear brands have launched their own projects that do wonders for women’s employment in the region and that reach out to more women. One development I would like to see is more local women entrepreneurs.

AD: What are the values and skills that define the women who work in the atelier, and why are they so unique?
HG: Local women are able to preserve Southeastern Anatolia’s cultural heritage through region-specific handicrafts using traditional techniques. That is then where tradition meets design.

Serious collaboration, pre-planning every step, and transforming energy into synergy have all strengthened our project. It has allowed us to reconsider the region’s products – which have been made, sold, and consumed within a very traditional framework. That, in turn, has helped us understand modern consumption habits. Likewise, people have kindled a new-found interest in Kutnu and Şel-Sapik weaving from Gaziantep and Şırnak thanks to our project. Both nearly died due to a lack of interest. Again, we’d launched Argande as a social responsibility project and therefore we all feel that we are closer to fulfilling our social responsibility in that sense. It also emerged as a powerful symbol that solves women’s unemployment in the GAP Region. It holds a place within the poverty alleviation portfolio, and I believe there are very few examples like it either in Turkey or anywhere else. Several independent auditors predict that it will become “a new development model” and hopefully will inspire other projects that will do more.

AD: Why is it crucial to bring visibility to this regional cultural heritage, and what challenges have been faced and overcome during the process?
HG: The pandemic has given locals the chance to present themselves to the world on an equal platform – without intermediaries. Increasing the visibility of cultural heritage at a time when people are interested in buying is a fabulous opportunity. It’s also important when it comes to the relationship between design and craft. If you consider how the master, journeyman, and apprentice interact with one another, you might say that the biggest challenge they (hence and cultural heritage) face is digitalisation. This is both desirable yet challenging. When designers from different disciplines meet with craftsmen, then that ensures that this cultural heritage gets passed down to future generations. That said, it is important that you record all of that wisdom down and present it in a modern format.

AD: In your latest capsule collection for Baksı Museum, why was Ehram fabric chosen, and what was the thinking behind its re-contextualisation for a wider audience?
HG: Ehram is a very precious Eastern Anatolian fabric. Locals have woven and worn it for centuries. We wanted to take it out of that bubble and transform it into something that the whole world would get a chance to know and wear – as a cloth, a dress, etc. Ehram is made from 100 percent handpicked wool and it is eco-friendly. What more could you ask for?

AD: On a wider scale, how do you want your brand to address and respond to current events happening in Turkey?
HG: No matter how individualistic the creative process may seem to people, in the end, I am a social being that is open to being inspired and influenced. Therefore, my nation’s deep-rooted culture and problems both influence my work and me. They are consciously or unconsciously embroidered into the DNA of my designs – be it through the fabric I use, or the pattern, texture, name, or even sewing method. All I want is for others to pick up on that.

Gökay Gündoğdu – TAGG

Aïsha Diomandé: Having worked between New York, Milan and Istanbul, how have these experiences influenced your thinking?
Gökay Gündoğdu: They were all intense and positive experiences in my life. I studied Stategic Marketing and Brand Management in New York, then I did my masters degree in design in Domus Academy. I worked for Italia Independent, Armani, Bulgari and Valentino. I had so many valuable experiences in each. Living in such dynamic cities also made me see the world from different perspectives. 

AD: In what way does neo-feminism inform your approach when designing collections, bearing in mind that the balance of the masculine and feminine is one of the key themes explored?
GG: Neofeminism describes an emerging view of women as becoming empowered through the celebration of attributes perceived to be conventionally feminine, that is, it glorifies a womanly essence over claims to equality with men.

It is amazing to discover this truth the other way around to that we are taught socially or traditionally. These prejudgements are all about manufactured perceptions. In my journey with neo-feminism what I found out was: femininity is not a weakness; romance is not the enemy of strength; looking tough does not equal strength or power; masculine stereotypes are not superior to feminine ones; strength and power are equally manifest in both. 

AD: Interestingly, you also look at fashion through the lens of art and everyday life, such as René Magritte’s work on the representation of women, while the #NotYours SS19 collection explored the pressures women face, looking at the body as a project under constant development. By taking on such impactful ideas that have touched many generations before, how do you repurpose these for an international audience, while maintaining a Turkish identity?
GG: Titled #NotYours, the collection emphasises issues such as women constantly changing their appearances, making their bodies a project that requires continuous beautification, being encouraged towards plastic surgery that promotes generally accepted beauty standards. With plenty of sheer fabrics, the collection features bodysuits in nude tones, designed to cover the body without showing the skin directly, as a stand against the perception of the female body as a fantasy. The bikini tops in neon colours under the sheer jackets accompany this rebellion.

The collection also includes masculine influences that object to women’s bodies being highlighted by certain attributes, as well as boyfriend jackets, cigarette pants and boxer shorts. A colour palette of red, which is believed to give women more appeal and femininity, is combined with leopard prints and delicate laces to defy objectification.

The Barbie doll, which has, from the sixties to the present day, imposed impossible to attain beauty norms on women from a very young age, also finds its reflections in the collection. A shiny hot pink trenchcoat and bright yellow dress with knot details are references to a Barbie doll perspective while bronze-gold pantsuits dominated by sequins and midi skirts stand against the generally accepted beauty standards.

It’s a universal issue, that’s why I actually didn’t have any intention to underline my Turkish identity. I worked more on expressing the idea behind it and raise awareness about it in Turkey. All the guests stood up and clapped their hands for more than ten mins at the finale. It was a very touchy moment. There were many people in tears as well. I was so happy to have given the message strongly. The collection was screened across major TV channels, and I had so many interviews after the show. I like using runway shows as a mediator to give messages to our society. 

“…the collection features bodysuits in nude tones, designed to cover the body without showing the skin directly, as a stand against the perception of the female body as a fantasy.”

AD: With the disruptions of the pandemic, looking inwards has led to a sense of renewal, which can be seen in your latest collection that highlights simplicity, freedom and movement. In the collection you reference Baudelaire’s flâneurs, how do they transform in the context of today’s woman?
GG: We are on the brink of the third wave in the pandemic, a year ahead of our old ‘normal’. During the four seasons of gradual closing and opening around the world, life at home and on the streets has flowed differently than we used to. While watching the arrival of spring and the fall of the snow behind the window, caged within the four walls, we missed being outside to move freely and blend in with the crowd. The main heroes of the collection, fed by this longing, are the flâneuses that will wander the streets and avenues when the uncertainty ends and life begins to return to its old form.

Believing in the healing effect of walking, I built my multi-layered collection on pieces that will make it easier to move around the city. I pursued clear lines that do not drown in tiring and heavy details. The trench coats and windbreakers accompanying the pairs are transformed into the uniforms of the flâneuses walking the city. Black, white, beige and red dominating the collection allow TAGG women to blend in with the texture of the city. 

AD: You founded the project Hay Atölye to help single mums, can you tell us about how this enriches the lives of the women involved, and future plans for the initiative?
GG: Hay Atölye, sheds light on women whose husbands have passed away, women who separated from their husbands, or whose husbands are in prison, with children and in need of support. In the workshop established within the foundation, those who can come learn how to craft design products. Those who cannot come because they have many children or health issues can produce at home through manuals they are given, so the foundation provides them with the opportunity to make a living.

Hay Atölye aims to make women in need enjoy the happiness of winning, to have a profession thanks to the training they receive and to make their own livelihood with their own abilities and own power instead of asking from someone else. With new projects including partnerships with big corporate companies, more women are being helped and included in the workshops.

AD: On a wider scale, how do you want your brand to address and respond to current events happening in Turkey?
GG: I want to address all issues regarding women empowerment as much as I can. I believe fashion can also serve society for awareness. I will always use my stage to communicate about women’s issues. Economic justice, violence against women and constitutional equality topics should be top three topics on the list of not only national but also global women’s issues. 

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