You are in a garden.
It’s filled with flowers, flowers that have bloomed in all the colors of the rainbow – pink azaleas, yellow tulips, orange marigolds, white orchids, blue hydrangeas and even a crimson rose. You can smell their perfumed aromas wafting through the air with every breeze.
Evergreen trees are towering over you, offering the perfect amount of shade. The sun is pouring through tree branches to warm your bones, its rays kissing your skin. The grass beneath is as soft as a pillowy carpet on your bare feet.
It’s enchanting, peaceful and unspoilt. You feel as if you have discovered the Garden of Eden. It is paradise on earth.
Then you wake up. It was all a dream.
That’s the very dream Zemra Acarlı had after hitting a new low during the second week of lockdown last year.
The Turkish-German fashion designer was in Miami in the early months of 2020 to show off her collection at the Four Seasons. Life was good. Come March, she flew back to Zurich to get some last-minute jobs done before she set off for Istanbul to deliver her spring/summer 2020 collection after eight months of hard work. But then all hell broke loose: Cue the COVID-19 pandemic.
"The first two weeks, I was very frightened. I just sat in my atelier and had all the pieces of my collection out. I was just sitting there and asking myself ‘what now?’ I was in a (state of) existential anxiety and panic I cannot describe," she said over Zoom.
Our plans to meet in person are, once again, complicated by this pandemic, so we make do with a virtual meet-up. She is sitting in front of a bright window with big, green leafy plants in front that offer the perfect backdrop. My eye catches the gorgeous white marble fireplace to her right.
"Oh, do you like it?" she asks. "I lit it just for us, to make it cozier." I can already tell this will be a long, enjoyable chat.
Acarlı is a vision in a blue velvet dress, long-sleeved with a boat neck cut, luxurious and regal, with a line of embroidery tracing down the middle. Her sleek topknot shows off her silver drop earrings which bring light to her face and compliment her glowy skin and minimal makeup.
Back to the pandemic.
"I wasn't really aware of what was going on out there but my clients just started to cancel, one by one. And I couldn't accept that reality at first. 'No, no we are ready, we are going to deliver,' I kept telling myself. But they were like 'we have to cancel,'" Acarlı said.
"I'm done for, I thought. From a business perspective, I don't have a partner or investor, so I use my own resources and capacity. Even before the pandemic, it was a challenge for me," she said.
Everywhere was shut down and all events were suddenly canceled, she recalled. "I really had to sit and think about how I could continue. Without liquidity, it is quite impossible. That was very frightening. It took me two weeks to come to pull myself together."
And then one morning, she woke up after having this powerful dream.
"It was paradise, I believed that. I swear, Yasemin, I said to myself: You came this far, you did so much and this is not how it is going to end. There was so much love, passion, intention and purpose involved," she said. She got goosebumps thinking about it.
Discipline, planning, long-term goals – These are all elements and traits the German-educated have.
"I told myself to just breathe. Give it and yourself space. (The German work ethic) is nice but sometimes you have to let go and trust in the process," she said.
But life has funny ways of working out.
Rediscovering your passion
Having stepped into the fashion world after a remarkable career in economics can have its perks and helps with the financial planning side of things.
Acarlı, too, was once an immigrant kid who had a different path in mind. But as with many immigrant families from Asian or Turkish cultures, “my parents had different plans for me.”
She said she had three likely career choices at the time: a doctor, lawyer or an executive/manager. She chose the latter. "(Being) a designer was certainly not on that list," Acarlı said.
"After university, I became a corporate consultant for mergers and acquisitions. I was the lady in a suit, running from meeting to meeting with her briefcase," she said. But something was missing; her insides ached with longing for happiness and fulfillment.
That's because long before she was in the corporate world, she was a girl with a passion to be creative and nothing else.
"I have wanted to be creative ever since 11, I think," she recalled. "I remember getting accepted into the academy of arts in Stuttgart. I was so excited to tell my dad the good news and was thinking now you have to give me the green light. I remember him asking: do you want to become a model? For him going to the world's best universities and academies in fashion and being creative was ... ," she trailed off.
"I do not blame them now, of course, because that's what they thought was best for us, to give us the proper education. But I was heartbroken," she said.
By the time she reached her 30s, the questions she had about life, which had been gnawing at her bit by bit, had grown overwhelming.
"I was Turkish but knew nothing about my roots. There was this passion inside of me, this temper but that wasn't a trait really encouraged in German society," she said.
"My parents had only been able to provide the educational aspect for me when growing up, not so much the cultural or emotional side. I am not blaming them but they neglected that side and needed to balance it more with our Turkish background. It just took me reaching my 30s, having a job, money and a life that looked perfect from the outside, but realizing I was not happy," Acarlı said.
The embodiment of self
Acarlı says her brand was ultimately the accumulation of all her unanswered questions, her repressed passion and a drive to change what is wrong with the world. But to do that, she had to start with herself.
Acarlı was adamant on slow fashion and appreciating the work behind each item and design.
"I had always appreciated handcraft work, to read about the story behind an item and appreciate it, know how it was made," she said. So, she went shopping one day in one of those fast-fashion chains, which she did not want to name, and there were women in front of a pile of clothes. As soon as one garment was put down, it was gone.
"It was madness, I tell you. Do they know where these items are coming from or how they are produced? It was sad to see how crazed they were with consuming," she said.
Sustainability was the first ingredient. Then came the next two.
"I was born in Germany and grew up there. So, I saw how big of a gap there was between two cultures (Turks and Germans) and seeing the media constantly talking about immigration and how we can bridge divides and come closer, just sparked something inside of me. There would be panel discussions on headscarves and for years these continued," she said.
It hit her when she was watching the news one day in the late 2000s. She couldn't believe people were still talking about wearing headscarves and debating it.
"The way I had seen headscarves wasn't solely for religious purposes. I just thought why can't we all accept each other?" Acarlı recalled.
The assumptions were aplenty. Headscarf wearers are less educated and oppressed, some commentators would say. Could it not be their own choice or a lifestyle?
Although there was a lot of talk on integration and tolerance, there was a huge gap between talk and action, discourse and practice. That marked two of the pillars for Zemzem Atelier: learning one's own roots while empowering women.
"Having grown up in Germany, I didn't know whether these headscarved women were all like they were made out to be, sad and oppressed, so I wanted to see for myself," she said.
She realized she could not influence others while sitting there worrying about their consumption habits or enmity with other cultures. She had to actively do something.
With her sights set on Istanbul, "the only city bridging the West and the East," she threw herself into a new adventure.
When she broke the news that she was quitting corporate life to pursue her passion and connect with her past, everyone was, expectedly, shocked.
"'But you have no network or education in fashion, there are so many brands anyway,' they would tell me. But I knew I just had to take that first step and be bold," Acarlı explained.
A leap of faith
Starting from scratch in a new city, let alone a new country, is nerve-wracking but it is a thrill, indeed.
"Oh, it was so exciting. I had come to Istanbul with this idea. I didn't know what to expect because I hadn't been to Turkey before. I dove into the depths of the city with my camera in hand and then when I heard the adhan, I got goosebumps. It was very spiritual, I couldn't understand why (Turkish) people turned their noses up at this. I was experiencing all of this in a city full of passion and melancholy. I was filled with emotion," she said.
But she was under pressure; she had come to find herself and answer "her calling" while showing others that this wasn't some midlife crisis. "My every move was being watched to see if I could deliver," she said.
She wanted to start by erasing misconceptions and stereotypes about headscarves.
"I wanted to promote the traditional Turkish headscarf as a fashion item and show western people that the scarves they were wearing around their necks or heads were actually a traditional garment," Acarlı said.
She explained: "This sophisticated lady from Zurich would be buying five scarves and when you say they are traditional Turkish headscarves, the emotion and (the look of) shock was amazing. Wear it around your neck, on your head or even around your hips when wearing a bikini. Does it matter?" And that's how it went.
"People loved it, the stories, the ethos. We were very successful in Europe."
Even though she earned no money from her first collection, it still remains one of the proudest moments in her life. "It was just so soulful," she recalled.
But, of course, a story is great and it draws people in, but it also needs to sell. It's a business after all. That's where, Acarlı said, it needed to be modern, wearable and chic.
"I didn't want anyone to belittle it as a bit of crochet, some German lady employing housewives and turn it into a charity project." She wanted people to love and learn the heritage, the culture behind it all – how girls and women in Turkey would, traditionally in the old days, make their own tablecloths, embroidered towels and headscarves as part of their "çeyiz" (dowry).
The women were quite surprised to see Acarlı, a woman from Europe, so interested in their old suitcases full of handcrafts. But with time, she showed them her sincerity and with mutual trust, they grew. "They must have thought I was insane."
It wasn't until she saw those very designs in the windows of luxury Swiss department store Grieder and was asked to be featured on ARTE, the European culture TV channel, for "a day in the life of" segment. That's when she felt like she had earned the right to call herself a true designer.
"The day I saw my (brand's) name next to Louis Vuitton and Hermes in that store, I was overjoyed. I took a dozen photos and sent them to the ladies that did the work, saying we had made it," she said.
A sacred name
The naming of a brand is perhaps the hardest part of setting up a new business. Her brand, still not yet with a name, had created a collection of scarves featuring the intricate and traditional needlework of women from the old historic neighborhood of Samatya in suburban Istanbul.
A fashion editor from Zurich called Acarlı one day, shortly after she had finished her first-ever collection. She was impressed by the designs which combined a modern aesthetic with traditional elements, namely the needlework.
"I immediately called my mom and said I was invited to this venue with all of these big brands and that they wanted me to showcase my collection. I kept rambling to her, saying what am I going to do when she butted in said: 'Zemzem, my dear,'" in a sympathetic tone to comfort her," she said.
It was like lightning had struck.
"I just shouted 'thank you' and 'love you' and closed the phone," and that's how the name came to be.
Though at the time, she was unaware of the word's religious connotations, which means holy water, she soon realized its true nature when she had trouble with the domain.
At first, she was hesitant as she did not want to be seen as a religious brand or be disrespectful.
"But that was my nickname and I wanted to just go with my heart. You know what, I thought, it is just water, it is pure." ZemZem Atelier it became.
What's next? 202X?
Acarlı has been in the business for over a decade; she's seen many ups and downs but nothing quite like this pandemic.
While coming out of these lockdowns, Acarlı said she had more time to focus on the industry’s impact on the planet and on designers themselves. The industry may be talking about being sustainable and being slower but that is not the reality.
“But fashion editors are constantly asking me about the next collection and that’s not what I am all about,” she said.
“It’s always collection after collection. You need to think of the next of the next,” she said. It’s no secret that the fashion industry is very demanding.
“My ‘Blossom’ collection (named after her dream) wasn’t completely sold out because of the pandemic but it was beautiful and timeless. I did not want to get started on the next," she explained. So she came up with a novel idea: 202X – the slow movement in fashion.
That X, like in algebra, is a variable and you can make it anything you want.
"0, 1, 9 ... It can be for 10 years if I want. I'll be putting this on my labels from now on and focus more on seasonless collections," she added.
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