The fashion business is a tough one – whether you are a multimillion-dollar corporation or an independent designer, you constantly have to be on your toes, thinking of the next thing, the next of the next and the next after that. The vicious cycle of coming up with collection after collection and sewing and producing new garments to put something new on show every season – or every week as is the case with fast fashion – is not only physically demanding but also mentally draining.
"You constantly have deadlines to meet. If it's not a seasonal collection you are working on, you may be doing couture and have a client that needs a dress for an occasion at a specific date ... It's fast-paced and never boring but it is tiring," said Turkish fashion designer and lecturer Özlem Kaya from her apartment in Istanbul.
With her enviable curls and short, angled bob that requires the wearer to have serious style and unshaken confidence, she smiles warmly as if she were sitting across from me. Her dark hair is tousled, with face-framing pieces hanging freely and just about hovering above her soft, black turtleneck, a true winter essential.
I bring up the pandemic, and her expression changes, now deep in thought.
"It's been hard," she says. "But it's also been a blessing."
The COVID-19 pandemic has made many sectors rethink their ways of business and take a few steps back to evaluate their progress and projects.
"I wasn't the only one impacted by this, and I believe I can speak on behalf of the sector I'm in; it has affected us all. Especially considering that we are always racing against time, working from deadline to deadline. But then everything stopped," she said.
When one is forced to abandon routines and slow down, it is natural to go through a self-questioning period. Kaya said she, as well as the industry as a whole, went through one too.
"What am I trying to get done in time, and for what? I started asking myself. It made us ask 'Do we actually need these things we were so caught up in?'" she asked.
The fashion industry is, in essence, an ungrateful one. If you do not have anything new in line, you are kicked to the curb.
Companies are working to meet skyrocketing demands and producing far more than needed.
"Of course, on the fast fashion side of things, it's much worse. There is a consumerist craze; people are constantly searching for something new in stores, and this feeling is tiring, for the people that design and create it. You may just touch and look past an item of clothing but behind that single garment is hours of work and effort," she said.
She acknowledged that although her line of work is not as wasteful as fast fashion, it still adds to the existing problem.
"Fashion needed to slow down, and I think the timing was right. I enjoyed this slowdown. Many of my colleagues around the world must have thought the same because soon followed luxury labels and independent designers scrapping collections and downsizing. It used to be like this actually; we just lost track over time," she said.
One of the other lessons the pandemic taught the industry has been the power of all things digital, especially when it comes to sales and marketing.
"We also saw how powerful online selling platforms and social media were in this sense, it made us redirect our investments there. It's been a lot of self-questioning. But in the end, I think what was meant to be happened, and we are learning from our mistakes," she said.
Baby steps for sustainability
Being more eco-friendly and following sustainable business plans are prerequisites nowadays for any brand to survive in the 21st century.
Kaya says, as important as this is, big transformations aren't possible unless everyone consciously joins in – though there are always steps you can take individually or as a business to set a precedent.
"We are one of the sectors that pollute the world we live in the most. Naturally, no one wants to stand idle, and (everyone) wants to take action, in one way or another," she said.
But she added: "Of course, we need to create better awareness and get people to join this cause. But I've devised myself a step-by-step plan to start from somewhere."
Kaya says she has started thinking about ways to reuse and upcycle scrap fabrics left over in her atelier, how she can reduce her new purchases and instead use what she has, and how she can reduce her overall waste.
"I prefer natural fabrics, and in the past have used natural and recycled fabrics in some of my collections. Now I'll think of ways to do this more," she said.
Digital beats physical
This year witnessed many firsts in fashion, including the digitalization of runways. The 15th Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Istanbul (MBFWI), held Oct. 12-16, went completely digital with 30 runway shows and live talks by leading names that included Olivia Palermo and Leonie Hanne streamed online. The event showed it was possible to provide a creative platform not tied to locations or physical venues to showcase a "season-free" season and reach broader audiences.
The operational side of things, the logistics, the planning and management were a different experience for sure, said Kaya.
We worked really long and hard for this but the circumstances called for that. The next one will be like this too," she said.
"Everyone had to make some sacrifices. We were stuck at home and had to do our meeting from home, agree on ideas. Designers created their collections and then had to come together for the filming (according to all the rules and regulations related to COVID-19). We had to be careful. But in the end, we were all happy, very proud," she added.
The most significant result of this effort, however, was in terms of reach.
"We created quite an impression. We saw its power abroad. At the end of the day, it's not purely for show, this is also a business and you need to sell. Foreign influencers got to promote the designs, and an international selling platform amassed all the collections in one place for convenience. I believe the next show will have an even greater impact," Kaya said.
Going with the flow
Kaya comes from an interesting background. For someone who describes fashion as "it has never been just a job for me; it is a journey with many paths, one that you constantly have innovations to," she didn't grow up dreaming of dresses.
"I actually studied math and sciences in a specialized high school. I was thinking of studying psychology. It was also around that age that I suddenly discovered my passion. I had always liked drawing when I was young so I did have an artsy side but at the end of high school is when I got serious about it," she said.
She had a great tutor to get her ready for the talent exams to be admitted to Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University.
"(Turkish artist, painter and author) Memet Güreli and his help were vital in my career. I still see him, and (the times I spent at his atelier) are some of the happiest moments in my life," she said.
Kaya now also lectures at the university, shaping the future of fashion design.
"I love having students. I see the same mental blur and indecisiveness I had back when I was their age. But if there is one thing I have learned from all my experiences is that sometimes you need life to run its course, let it flow," she said.
She said she didn't plan on working with fashion elite Hakan Yıldırım, who has dressed Hollywood stars like Jennifer Lopez, Madonna and Rihanna, fresh out of college either.
"I started working with him freelance while still studying and then became his assistant after graduation. At school, you learn the theory and practice, but the business world is something else," she said. Having a mentor and learning on the job is the best advice I can give to students, she added, especially if they want to establish their own brand.
Making your style your own
When you look at the way Kaya dresses or examine her designs, it's not difficult to see she favors a minimalistic, classic elegance. Though you'll notice that she likes her pops of color, patterns and elements of the unexpected.
"I can never do something that I can't be or won't feel 'me' in. I like elegance and monochromaticity. You can always elevate that with an accessory or shoes in a different color," she said.
"I do actually enjoy color, but it changes according to the seasons. I just like sticking to solid basics and building from there. I always have classics in my wardrobe but then I add a trendy piece to the mix. I mix and match chic pieces with sporty, casual articles of clothing. I combine masculine cuts with feminine shapes, that's my style. Restricting clothing is not for me, either," Kaya explained.
That's the recipe for authentic style: Combine classics with something out of the ordinary to make it your own. That philosophy could also be a good way to get Turkish designers to stand out in the world, Kaya said.
"I wish more of us (designers) would incorporate Turkish culture, our moral values into our collections. Getting inspiration from the stories of Anatolia is one way we could do this. If we could add these elements to our designs and highlight them more, it could be better," she said.
"I try to do this, by drawing inspiration from these stories and motifs. But as I favor minimalistic design, they are not easy to spot," she said, adding, however, that they are there for those who look.
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