Being a Turk isn't easy. You are always stuck between the East and the West, not enough of this, not enough of that, and you are often judged – until you do something great. As a Turk, you have to work harder to prove your worth, whatever sector you work in. You need to have the patience of a saint until you get your break, and being a fashion designer does not mean you have a free pass.
"Being a Turk in the fashion industry is not easy; it's a game of patience," said fashion designer Serdar Uzuntaş from his flat in Milan. Having been the only Turkish designer at Milan Digital Fashion Week in July to showcase his Spring/Summer 2021 collection, he knows firsthand what it is like.
"You need to have complete faith in yourself, above anything else," he said.
Uzuntaş's rise in the fashion world has been steady yet triumphant.
His first collection was also selected to be among the New Beats section by Pitti Uomo, and with his eighth collection, he earned a spot among Vogue Italy's 200 New Talents list. Trend forecasting company WGSN later declared him the best up-and-coming designer out of five designer brands.
Splitting his time between a triangle of Istanbul, Milan and London throughout his career, Uzuntaş has now closed his U.K. chapter, except for a British business partner, and spends equal time between Turkey and Italy.
Turkish fashion 'business'
But why is it hard to make it in the industry as a Turkish fashion designer? It's all down to business and the commercial mindset, Uzuntaş said. The problem with the Turkish fashion industry is that fashion is not seen as a serious business but instead a pastime or hobby.
"All the companies here (in Turkey) are so focused on doing commercial clothing collections and earning money, which is, of course, a valid concern, but that's not how Turkey and Turkish designers can make a name for themselves. Look at Italy. They bring out the most commercial collections but they balance that with fashion collections. They have collections dedicated to commercial purposes and making profit, yes, but they also give a platform for their designers by releasing fashion-focused collections. The designers use their creativity and innovation to come up with pieces that satisfy both the artist and the business owner. These designs sell as much as the commercial ones, he said.
However, to be able to influence future seasons and trends and make an innovative fashion collection, businesses need young, enthusiastic designers. That's the biggest shortcoming of Turkish fashion brands and companies, said Uzuntaş.
"They need fresh blood, new perspectives, not mass-produced look-alikes," he said. In a way, they are regurgitating what's already on the market to buyers who have similar collections at home, he stressed.
"They spend all of their budgets by opening up stores abroad and try to sell buyers what they already have in the dozens. How will we stand out? By bringing innovation and pushing the envelope a bit. Sometimes, the simplest of details is enough," he said, adding that Turkish clothing brands need to stop turning their noses up at young and up-and-coming designers.
How to build your brand
Uzuntaş speaks from experience. He, too, was once a young designer itching to learn everything he could.
His career started over two decades ago at Vakko, one of the oldest and most enduring fashion brands in Turkey. There he learned the nitty-gritty of sales, garment making and customer relations.
"I think that's one of my greatest advantages. I worked hard and did internships. Nowadays, many fashion students go around saying they are designers as soon as they graduate. They need to work their way up and do apprenticeships. To this day, I learn something new almost every day," Uzuntaş said.
He then started to design a women's wear collection for an export firm. After dedicating five years of his life to learning the ins and outs of the business and working his way to the top, Uzuntaş felt it was time to branch out. He also discovered his love for menswear.
With his sights set on becoming an international household name, Uzuntaş knew he had to speak the universal language of business, English. By receiving education at the world-renowned arts and design college Central St. Martins (CSM) in London, he would both do that and grow as a designer.
The experience, he said, was instrumental in his career and gave him the needed push to build his own brand, named after himself – a designer's lifelong dream.
"If you are getting into the business, you need to go global or go home, I told myself. I have never been the one to think small. I have always believed you have to chase your dreams," said Uzuntaş. For him, there was no point in going through all of the trouble if he couldn't influence next season's menswear designs in the slightest or stand out with his own style and defining details.
Of course, you can't build a brand overnight, and it can be quite a tumultuous process. He started by establishing his eponymous brand "Serdar Uzuntaş – London" in 2010. A few years later, he moved his operations to Turkey.
His brand underwent several name changes and rebrandings: Serdar London, SR London, SR Serdar Milano. However, for him, this is just part of the growing and learning process.
"Initially, a lot of people influence your branding decisions as you are new to the field. 'Oh, you should have your brand include your surname too,' one says, and the other says, 'No, a name is enough.' Then the more you learn the ropes, the more power and know-how you have to make these decisions for yourself and say 'no' to others," Uzuntaş said.
"You need to find what works for you, what feels right for you and your brand; you need to turn inward and shut out the outside voices from time to time. That’s why I felt these rebrandings were necessary," he added.
Let's get personal
Have you ever wondered how a creative mind works or when it does its best? It depends on the individual. Uzuntaş is a night owl.
Perhaps influenced by the Italian way of life and having lived there for many years, he said he is not an early bird unless deemed necessary.
"I don't prefer waking up really early as I already work quite late into the night. I always work on my designs in the evening and at night, I love the quiet and calm," Uzuntaş said.
Besides, he added, who would want to miss out on all the beautiful weather and soul-warming sunshine during the day by working away, cooped up in an atelier? He shows me the view out of his window through Zoom – bright, brilliant and blissful it is!
"I prefer to hold meetings during the day and be out and about. And I would not want to miss out on the beauty and magic of the night," he said.
During our interview, Uzuntaş pauses to hydrate. A simple mug he holds contains coffee, I presume.
"Yes," he smiles. "But noncaffeinated and with almond or coconut milk. My (only) breakfast." Another Italian quirk, I say, must be having no or a quick breakfast.
"I always take care of myself; my health is important. (As Atatürk said,) 'a healthy mind in a healthy body.' I always make sure to exercise every day," he said.
Cardio is an activity most people dread with every cell of their being, but for Uzuntaş, it is a necessary nuisance.
"Whenever I feel stuck and can't seem to find a solution, I do a bit of cardio and it just magically occurs to me. It also makes you feel well and energized afterward," he said.
I shifted my attention to the tattoos on his arms, not quite "sleeve" status yet.
"Those? They are from New Zealand," Uzuntaş said. On him, they look a part of him, not out of place. For a man of simplicity and class, they complement his plain but always-put-together style.
"My style is plain. I like dark colors. Though it may look as if a bomb has exploded on me from time to time, I am pretty uniform and like monochrome looks," he said.
Black and navy head-to-toe are his go-tos. He also enjoys white pants and white sneakers or a gray ensemble.
"But I always make sure the items I wear are complimentary to my proportions and fit well. You would never see me in something that doesn't fit well. If I am wearing a jacket, I should feel that it was made just for me, and me, only. The arms should not be too long, it should not be tight or baggy, I should feel that it was sewn for me before I put my second arm through. My clothes should skim my body," Uzuntaş said.
Having lived in London for five years, he has also caught the "vintage" bug. Whether they come from France or Belgium or any other country, many of the finest vintage pieces end up in London. It is the culture – wearing pre-loved items. Europeans also look after their clothes well, for decades to come.
"I love vintage. I like adding unique vintage pieces to my everyday wardrobe and mixing and matching," Uzuntaş said.
He recalled a few items he bought from stores there.
"One was a navy seaman's jacket, in perfect condition. I loved the color and style. And then, I bought an impeccable jacket and waistcoat once, reminiscent of the classic Coldstream Guard uniforms. Yet this one was black white with a shawl collar," he said.
There is something about the way uniforms and well-made clothes are constructed that gives them the power to transform one's posture, he added.
"As soon as I put it on, it made me stand taller and adjust my body. The way they are crafted and sewn, they just lift you up," Uzuntaş said.
Fashion faux pas
For Uzuntaş, fashion and trends are transient. Style is what is eternal. If you have a personal, established style, you will always have room to grow and update it. If you don't, that's when you become a fashion victim.
Style is more than just a combination of clothing items; it sends a message to others about your life.
"You can make educated guesses about one's lifestyle from the way they dress. What car they would like to drive, what restaurants they eat at, what sort of shoes they like wearing – you can learn all of that. You can also decipher their character. I can easily observe this in Italy," he said.
Who has the best style in Italy? It's the older ladies and gentlemen, without a doubt, said Uzuntaş.
"The way they dress is unbelievable, impeccable. They are forever well-kept, clean, sharp. Their clothes are always ironed. They have their convertible sports cars, they are dressed divinely – simple but elegant," he said. They show the youth that you need not have flashy clothes and accessories to be glamorous. Simple and understated is sometimes better.
Having said that, trying to imitate such a style without taking into account your lifestyle and occupation will only set you up for failure, according to Uzuntaş.
"The worst thing you can do is to copy-cat someone. Will that style of dressing suit me, will it go with my character, is it appropriate for my lifestyle? These are the questions you should be asking yourself," he said.
"Look in the mirror and evaluate. Do a bit of self-critiquing before you try to copy a new style," he advised.
When it comes to designing, Uzuntaş said he can draw inspiration from anywhere. His travels are always a considerable influence.
Traveling feeds creativity and breeds new ideas, he said.
"You can see the influence of Panerea (an Italian island off the Sicilian coast) on my past summer collections. The pareos and sandals, the sand and the sea ... you can see the way I have incorporated these elements."
London street style, Ottoman prints and the way Italian gentlemen dress also influence Uzuntaş's designs.
"I also love nostalgia and history. Anything from the past decades, the 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s ... and the icons of those eras are my muses for the season. It could be James Bond, it could be Mick Jagger, it could be David Bowie, but I love looking at icons for inspiration," he said.
Uzuntaş stopped a second to ponder, and his eyes lit up: "The Crown."
"I have also been watching that lately. I like drama. The fourth season. Seeing the way British royalty dresses and how distinct and established styles they have, it leaves me in awe. You can tell whether they are going to the countryside or having brunch at Buckingham Palace. Everything is perfectly curated; it's impossible not be impressed," he said.
To sum up, Uzuntaş is a man of the world, one who enjoys the beauty of everyday occurrences, understated elegance and unstinted creativity. As was evident when he graced the runway of Milan Digital Fashion Week as the only Turkish brand among famed international fashion houses, there's no stopping him.