Gözde Karatekin was working a typically "corporate" job when one day, a manager from the human resources department called her in for a performance review. They waxed lyrical about her work ethic, how she hit every target given and completed all her tasks way before deadline. She was told she was fast and adaptable. But what they said next made the blood drain from her face. "It would be better if you wore more dresses and skirts at the office and were a bit more 'groomed'. Your managers and the vice president (all of which were male) would like it more too. You'd climb up that career ladder much faster that way."
When you are in a more corporate or office-type job and are not in a very creative field, there are dress codes you have to adhere to. But dressing feminine, putting on heels and more make-up should not be a requirement, most would agree –especially when men aren't held to the same standard. Is getting the job done not the most important thing?
Left speechless, Karatekin put on a forced smile and left the room. She marched up to the office of her direct line manager and said she would not be changing the way she dresses and expressed her discontentment with the way the matter was handled.
But from that point onwards, nothing was the same. Each day she spent there felt like torture, she found it impossible to muster the motivation to do her job. She thought she could persevere for another year or two but after she came back from her marriage leave, she handed in her resignation. That was the catalyst for her to create her own fashion brand – or in her words, "a space and tool that would motivate me, that would make me feel like I belong and let me express myself freely as I am."
It's an unusually calm, sunny Monday in COVID-19 lockdown as Karatekin chats to me from across my computer screen. As much as I miss in-person communication, the depth of our conversation offsets the miles between us.
Referring back to the incident, Karatekin tells me that although dressing is first and foremost a basic need for her, it is also her means of self-expression in the quickest and most comfortable way possible.
"I used to express myself with my clothing and then that was taken away from me. Being bound by (unnecessary) rules was limiting."
"I felt like a guest (at work) when I found myself in the middle of a complex network of relationships that I could not imagine in a high-rise or multi-story plazas. I was in a place where I did not belong, yet I was alienated from myself because of the clothes I had to wear in order to look like I belong, and I was not enough," she explained.
"I wanted to do a job where I could be more compassionate, more real, more productive and creative towards the environment I lived in and all living things with whom I shared the same space, something I could not find in my work experiences until then."
Having graduated from one of Turkey's top schools, Boğaziçi University, with a degree in Political Science and International Relations to be exact, Karatekin was instilled with values such as taking responsibility for your actions, respecting diversity and working toward collective well-being. "I decided to draw a new path for myself with these values that I saw greatly lacking in the corporate working environment," she said.
It wasn't all rainbows and unicorns when she left her cushy corporate job with a steady wage though.
"You are no longer earning the same amount every month and your salary drops drastically in the first months. You need to simplify your life to accommodate this shift."
Little did Karatekin realize that this would start to alleviate the weight on her shoulders – a burden that clouded her mind, too. She emptied her closet and got rid of anything that cluttered her home or she didn't need.
"You don't really realize how much extra time and space making choices takes up in your life and mind. In fact, now I have more time for myself," she says.
What she says rings true from a psychological perspective. Being forced to make dozens of choices each day keeps your mind busy; it is like having a program running in the background on your computer that causes everything to slow. You can easily channel that energy, which you would be spending by making choices, into something more productive.
Take Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs, as an example. There is a reason why these tech gurus have a daily uniform that they stick to. For Zuckerberg, it's a gray t-shirt and for Jobs, it was a black turtleneck and jeans. Or ask anyone that has recently done a big closet clearout and has discovered the ease of having a minimalist or capsule wardrobe. Eliminating these seemingly small everyday decisions from your routine helps you conserve your mental energy. You are effectively saved from decision fatigue.
"Everyone kept telling me to buy a car or a house, that I needed one to survive. But I kept telling them I already had a home I rented and I could walk if I wanted, take public transport or rent a car as well. I did not 'need' these things. ... I did the same thing mentally," she said.
"I am normally a very anxious person, especially about the future and my (financial) security. The more I got rid of stuff the clearer my mind got. I freed my mind from unnecessary thoughts and fears. I realized what ı was going through now the anxiety I was experiencing (due to the COVID-19 pandemic) was not special to me, we were all having the same experience."
The biggest misconception people have about her new simplified, less-is-more philosophy is that she leads a boring life devoid of color.
"They think my life and wardrobe is just gray, black, white and navy. But nature is pure and simple in its own way. When you look at flowers, you can see the beautiful colors of nature. You can be simple but still be full of life, that’s what I tried to communicate with my brand.”
That's one of the reasons why Karatekin admires the Scandinavian way of living: ordered, minimal, safe. She draws inspiration from the understated ways they dress.
"I came across the word 'ren' while searching for a name for my brand. It was three letters, just like I wanted, and it symbolized clarity and purity."
She wanted a clean and pure life too, free from all negativity and distractions. And she decided to practice what she preached.
The biggest problems with fast fashion today have to do with its speed, scale and complexity of the supply chain. Karatekin says brands we all know and (most) love produce 52 collections a year. That means the clothes you buy are considered old after a week.
"This speed in production and consumption is not healthy. Approximately 80 billion clothes are produced each year," she stresses.
"On the other hand, only in Europe and America, 20 million tons of textile waste end up at waste collection sites each year to be buried or incinerated. To me, this points to the scale problem in the industry. Production of this scale cannot show a curative effect even if it takes place with sustainable materials or under fair conditions," she says.
From an origin and sustainability perspective, you only need to look at a simple T-shirt to understand the madness of fast fashion.
"The cotton fibers (for a T-shirt) are made into yarn in China, woven in Turkey, dyed in India, sewn in Vietnam, and labeled in America. One single T-shirt travels such long distances that it is impossible to know who touched it. Apart from its impact on the climate, this chaos also renders major violations of humans rights invisible. For this reason, I believe the remedy is to slow down, reduce the scale of production and simplify the supply chain by localizing if possible."
In stark contrast to fast fashion's destructive and exploitative approaches, Karatekin set out on this journey to bring an equitable, non-hurtful and compassionate approach to the realm of fashion. And that's the foundation she built Atölye Ren on.
At Atölye Ren, each product is individually cut and sewn to order; traditional sewing techniques are favored over mass production. Clothes are designed from deadstock fabrics to reuse and recycle surplus fabrics from major manufacturers. And instead of 52, they release one capsule collection every year around March.
For Karatekin, her brand's intention is not to grow the scale of its operations; she has qualitative goals rather than a set of quantitative ones.
She defines growth as increasing the quality of the work she does do, increasing the value she brings to the environment and the community she's in and expanding the community to which she wants to convey her message. Therefore, I can say that our strategic goals consist of qualitative rather than quantitative goals.
And last but not least, she strives to create a positive experience for everyone, taking into account all differences – the main reason behind the brand's existence.
"We position fashion not as a means of segregation, exclusion or discipline, but as a means of expression that includes all and liberates."
Before the advent of the internet and the rise of social media, communication between humans, especially between the masses, used to be largely one-sided: think of TVs and magazines. They would broadcast or publish their content, they would propagate their ideas but as the audience, you weren’t given the opportunity to reach out or promptly answer back. Nowadays, not only can you communicate with the source, but you can also engage with others who have seen the same post or video thanks to social media.
From a body image perspective, we were bombarded with photos of picture-perfect models. When we’d buy an article of clothing with hopes of imitating the look, we would soon face the harsh reality. Although our instinct is to think we are not good enough, the reality is that it was just not made for our body.
Karatekin says she came across some accounts on social media where women share photos comparing how clothing looks on them versus the model.
"When people do this, they are showing that this is not something to be embarrassed about but proof that brands need to do better. ... And after all, if there is demand and a market, brands should do more sizes to make more money."
When it comes to size inclusivity, Karatekins says there is a lot of hypocrisy going on.
How many designers or independent brands do you know that cater to “non-standard" sizes? A quick review of their websites will paint you a clear picture. Two, maybe a maximum of three, cater to the large demographic in a sea of hundreds or retailers. Then there are brands that scatter a few photos of body-positive models on their Instagram grids, using diversity and inclusion as the new greenwashing.
"You see some (brands) using models of different ethnicities, body shapes and sizes in a single campaign but then only use size 34 models (size 2-3 US) in their e-commerce material. Again, I'm robbed of the chance to see how that dress will look like me. You are not following anyone like that," she says.
To have your brand come off as sincere, you need to show your audience what these clothes will look like on somebody just like them, she stresses. For that, she drew inspiration from her own experiences.
Karatekin says her size fluctuates between 40 to 42 while her mother has been a size 50 for years.
"I saw firsthand (my mother's) struggle with clothing, how she couldn't find clothing in her size. So, I embarked on this journey to solve a more personal problem," she says. But adds: "this equipped me with the creativity and empathy needed to succeed."
But is being inclusive as a brand difficult? Karatekin says it's not if you have values like equality, pluralism and diversity. When there is a design problem, you can always come up with a creative and functional solution if you care enough.
Atölye Ren for example currently caters to sizes 32 to 50. While Karatekin does admit that producing this wide range of sizes costs twice as much as that of the range of sizes 34-42, she says one way to compensate for that is their make-to-order model.
"By manufacturing to order, we offer much more product options in a wide range of sizes, and we do not waste resources and energy to produce products that are not in demand."
Karatekin acknowledges that offering a range of sizes up to 50 is not enough to be inclusive.
Sewing patterns for larger sizes, or plus sizes as the industry has termed, is another possible obstacle. Knowing how clothes will fit others needs a lot of research, expertise and experimenting. There is one system of sizing and patterns for sizes between 34 and 42 but for those larger than 50, you need to work with different patterns.
To make sure these sizes offer true fits, Karatekin carries out long-term experiments on her inner social circle and asks for genuine feedback.
"I want to know whether these styles (of clothing) offer the same comfort and pleasure in sizes 34, 40 and 46. We continue with designs that offer a positive experience for everyone."
"I want to fight the notion that 'fat' people cannot be sexy. You shouldn't be told to stick to dark, safe colors. Wearing a larger size shouldn't mean wearing boring, tasteless, shapeless clothing," she adds.
And now, she is working on expanding her size range but says she need to be educated first.
"I have already enrolled in some programs to learn more about it. I hope to become an expert in pattern making."