2003, and the early 2000s as a whole, were interesting times in fashion. Washboard abs were in and so was anything low-rise. It was the era of halter tops, bedazzling, chokers and studded belts. Nothing was too much, and experimenting was welcomed. One of the most iconic looks in the Turkish music scene was also born in 2003. May 24 of that very year went down in history as the blessed day of Turkey's first and only Eurovision win, by none other than the brilliant Sertab Erener, and if, somehow, you can't remember her hit, "Every Way That I Can," it's likely you remember her elaborate choreography that involved a dramatic costume change.
The name behind that unforgettable costume was Belma Özdemir, a Turkish fashion designer based in Istanbul. Having been in the industry for over 30 years, Özdemir has witnessed many turning points; from wars to the turn of the millennium and the switch from manual to digital. She's confidently earned the right to be called a veteran in the industry.
Özdemir recalls the 2000s and Turkey's Eurovision win with these words: "It was such an exciting time in my life, and it was lovely to have been a part of such a momentous occasion." But it was certainly not smooth sailing.
"There were some changes to the dance routine which complicated the fitting. I was very busy at the time and could not leave Turkey, and Sertab had been in Austria to learn the choreography. The problem was that we had not yet finished the costume, and she had to leave before the fitting. We had no WhatsApp or even sending photos via email; without technology, they were challenging times," she explained.
The costume was one of the most intricate designs in the competition to date, at least for Turkey, and Özdemir would have to configure the mathematics of it because in some part in the song, Erener would have to get rid of the ribbons.
Özdemir said she envisioned Erener as a rebellious woman who would set herself free of her constraints by the end of the song. She would need to make sure it was easy for the dancers to operate as no one would want mishaps on live TV during such a high-stakes competition.
"I was trying to instruct her from afar; it was tough. In the end, I had to work on a friend of similar sizing (as Sertab) and send it to her, hoping it would fit," she said.
On the day of the competition, everyone was nervously waiting, but there was so much hope, Özdemir said.
"I remember being on the phone with Sertab, and remember how she screamed when they got 12 points. Even though I wasn't there in person, this success and sharing these emotions over the phone stirred very strong emotions inside of me," she said.
But she said that both she and Erener were even happier for a certain person. "I don't know who we were more excited for, for Sertab and her team or Bülend Özveren, the commentator at the time," she said.
Özveren had been presenting the musical competition for Turkish public broadcaster TRT since 1975 and was desperate for a win.
"For Turks, it had turned into a national matter, not going home with a win," said Özdemir. "Everyone was over the moon."
The excitement and pride didn't end there though.
"I remember heading to Mykonos after the competition to take some time off. I was pleasantly surprised when I heard Sertab's song being played at restaurants and bars, and seeing people dancing to the song by fashioning table cloths into long ribbons to imitate her costume was quite surreal," she recalled.
Özdemir was also the name behind the costumes in the debut of Erener's Eurovision song. For the official video, Erener and the rest of the harem were dressed in Ottoman-style, embellished clothes.
Özdemir also designed a similar set of costumes for "Zenne Dancer," which tells the story of a gay honor killing in Istanbul, inspired by the tragic murder of Ahmet Yıldız in 2008.
Özdemir says her primary inspirations in her designs are shapes and creating intrigue.
“There are geometric values I assign to certain forms, and they always take hold of me. I also like to invite the wearer to discover the garment, and I call this a fun puzzle to solve. Sertab would always say: ‘Can I have the instruction manual too’ after I’d design a piece for her. I like it when people are surprised by unexpected ways of wearing something," she said.
Fashion, for Özdemir, should not be that straightforward and, instead, push envelopes a bit.
“I like creating designs in which women can discover themselves, designs that are smart and make you ponder. They contain a sort of mathematical analysis that makes people go, ‘Ohh, that is interesting. Where do I insert my arm?’” she explained.
Özdemir mixes different materials and plays with forms to create new dimensions. The end product is something that needs to be examined with careful eyes and explored between your fingers.
“That does make it harder to sell from a commercial view, but that’s my personal preference,” she said. At the end of the day, that’s the biggest dilemma a designer faces: Do you want to go commercial or stay true to yourself, even if it means it doesn’t sell as well as you’d hoped?
For Özdemir, fashion is also more of a personal matter than it is global.
She said that what’s important to her about fashion is that what you wear reflects your own stance in life and your style within an era.
“Fashion should be a reflection of your character and personality and be updated as a personal consciousness," she explained.
If you’ve found that your social media feeds are full of near-identical brands and knock-offs of luxury brands, you aren’t the only one. Özdemir said the biggest problem in the industry at present is “standardization.”
“There are so many imitators and copycats, so much of the same," she said. To break this uniformness, according to Özdemir, we need everyone to embrace unique designs that can help people update themselves and find their own identity and personality.
When you know, you know
But how and when did Özdemir realize she had a passion for fashion?
"Perhaps it’s a very cliché thing to say but I’ve known since I was a child. Especially in my high school years, all of my books and notebooks were covered in drawings. I’d particularly like drawing women and their clothes. I was just passionate (about being creative), consciously or unconsciously, it’s hard to tell," she said.
At the ripe age of 18, when Turkish students must lay out their career paths, it is hard to know exactly what you want in life. For Özdemir, it was also a time of discovery and learning.
As is with many creatives in Turkey, she first thought about studying interior design but then realized her true passion lay in fashion and textiles. She won a spot at Marmara University’s Faculty of Fine Arts, and nowadays she is back at her alma mater as an instructor.
“(Design) was not that popular of a profession in my time. But I chose textiles and soon I found myself in fashion," she said.
"We (designers) are doing one of the most enjoyable jobs in the world. But now, as an instructor, I act as a bridge between art theory, data and the industrial world. I love helping them out as I’m a giver at heart," she added.
The coronavirus has made it harder for her to connect with her students, as she describes herself as a "very tactile person. I'm a hugger and a kisser," she said, in true Turkish fashion.
Now, she said, she hopes they can soon return to normal in light of the promising developments with vaccines.
"It's hard to get emotions across a screen. It's not the same as when you are there and then," Özdemir explained.
Forced changes in routine
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Özdemir was in a village near Dusseldorf, Germany. She was stranded – in a peaceful way that allows you to go on mile-long walks among evergreen roads, a perk of living in continental Europe – for 3 1/2 months before flights finally resumed in June and she returned to Turkey.
She spent her summer in the Turkish coastal resort town of Bodrum, as many Istanbulites did to destress after months of lockdowns, and made sure to swim every day for an hour or so every morning to make the most of it. Özdemir said she used to swim at her neighborhood pool in Istanbul before work early in the morning but the COVID-19 pandemic has forced her to make necessary changes to her daily routine.
"I have always been a morning person. I have my coffee and then do some exercise if I can," she said, adding that she has had to swap out swimming for yoga.
My eye catches the range of clear jars on the top shelf of her bookshelf, containing what looks like seashells and pretty stones from my grainy Zoom screen.
"Yes, they are," she said, pulling one down to bring it closer and show me its treasured contents.
"Santiago de Cuba," it reads, containing memories from her travels to the Caribbean. "I miss traveling," she said.
"Don't we all," I chime in, and we both sigh.
It's already an established fact that Özdemir is a woman who likes to move, always on the go, and she likes to be free. Her warm ginger locks remind you of beach holidays and salty hair, and her designs are a clear reflection of that.
"I'd describe my personal style as sporty chic. Because I have a busy life, on a day-to-day basis, I like to wear clothes that are comfortable. I like walking to anywhere I can so I always have my sneakers on," she said. For someone so free-spirited and energetic, I wouldn't have expected otherwise.
She is also a fan of layering and geometric forms, which she incorporates both into her daily attire as well as her runway shows. She also likes to do the unexpected and find innovative ways to present or use something.
"You could see my wearing a sports jacket as a pair of shalwars (baggy trousers) or layer basic pieces with many accessories to create different shapes. I like to create alternative systems," she said.
But what about special occasions? "When I'm designing for an event, I try to create dresses with materials and shapes that will not restrict my movement, as I love dancing," Özdemir said.
A word on sustainability
Özdemir said she can't deny that fashion is one of the biggest offenders when it comes to consuming our resources but believes collective steps could help transform the industry into a greener one to lessen the burden on the planet.
"In the old days, brands and designers used to present a summer collection and a winter collection. Then it was two for both. Soon it became four, and nowadays, when you enter a store, you ask the clerk: 'what's new in?' which essentially erases the concept of seasons. It has turned into a never-ending cycle of designing, which has lead to fast turnout and excessive consumption," she explained.
Besides taking individual steps to make more eco-conscious choices when shopping, the industry needs a more long-lasting solution. Özdemir said she believes transformation will follow if the sector, as a whole, joins forces.
"The supplier, manufacturer, accessory designer, every single part of the chain has to embrace this before it is accepted by the public. They need to be creating fabrics from recycled materials so that designers can create designs specifically for them. Also, the buyer needs to actively seek such designs and favor those (over fast fashion)," she said.
H&M's global garment collection scheme is one of the best-known initiatives in this regard. The program invites people to donate their old clothes, no matter the condition, to collection points scattered across the world. After being categorized into secondhand resellables and non-wearables, the garments either end up at charity shops or their fibers are used to create recycled collections. The fibers of those not suitable for these purposes are utilized as damping or insulating materials.
Özdemir now wants to find ways to update her past collections and contribute to reuse.