Rabia Gül was 8 years old when one afternoon after school she headed to her aunt's tailor shop as she always did. She would watch her aunt draw countless sketches and then hold up a piece of beautiful fabric, drape it over her body and start cutting, no patterns involved. Two or three hours later when that scrap of fabric would become the most effortless yet chic dress, shirt or pants, she'd catch herself with her mouth open, amazed, speechless.
Then one day, her aunt told her to sit beside her, gave her a pair of fabric shears and told her to "just cut." Gül sewed her first pair of pants that day. She still remembers how her aunt pinned that very garment on the black velvet embossed board on the wall of the shop and the pride she felt for accomplishing such a feat. Gül hasn't stopped cutting, sewing or designing since then.
Gül says she can't really remember when she first took an interest in fabrics and sewing.
"I was born with it," she said. "I was practically born touching fabrics, especially since my mom, aunt and the whole family were professional tailors. Even as young as 5 years old I was holding fabrics up against my body and trying to sew."
Surrounded by strong women with an artistic flair, for Gül, this career path was natural, but she says her family didn't want her to follow suit, at first.
"My mom didn't like where the industry was heading, and my brother would ways say a degree in arts and painting instead of fashion design might be a better choice. After all, all of my family had studied at Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University (MSGSÜ)," she said. Although she had set her sights on the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising (FIDM) in San Francisco, she chose to go to Istanbul University and study the Arabic language and literature to keep everyone happy. But when she got her diploma, she showed it to her family and said "and now I'll do what I love."
It's not like Gül had ever lost touch with her artistic side and passion for fashion during her degree. By her senior year, she was holding sewing workshops for fashion and textile design students in her living room. With three sewing machines spaced out on her long wooden dinner table, she taught fashion students the techniques they needed to survive in the real world.
Seeing that fashion students were none the wiser, and with her friends' support, she established her own brand: the Rabia Gül Collection.
"I always thought not having the proper educational background would be a hindrance but after seeing how some students didn't even know how to do a simple stitch, I decided to go for it. Interning with a great designer and learning on the job, for me, would be much more logical anyway."
Gül decided to skip the digital realm entirely, a decision that may seem like financial suicide for many. But for her, if you can't feel the fabric, the quality and scrutinize every detail in-person, why even bother buying?
Instead, she showcases her couture-style collections only a few times a year at a venue and turns it into a festive day. "I have a certain audience I cater to and this has proven to be the best way. I still do collaborate with other designers and magazines for fashion shoots," she added.
Incorporating quilting into fashion is nothing new. From Emily Adams Bode and Calvin Klein to Dior and Isabel Marant, almost every luxury and couture designer has dipped toes into it since last year, in particular. High street brands have cashed in on the trend, too.
While the trend so far with Western designers has been to use quilts as patchwork, based on an upcycling philosophy and buy-less-but-better ethos, Gül wanted to work with masters of Turkish quilt-making and learn the intricacies on the job.
Using quilts, especially if not old, has been criticized for negating the handcraft of quiltmaking and othering artisans of laborious tasks as less than "fashion" designers, Gül said she got to see how difficult, and at times, painful this craft is.
"What comes out is beautiful; the patterns are mesmerizing. But my fingers still have holes from those sharp, thick steel needles," she said, speaking of the hours she spent making and embossing quilts alongside her artisanal masters Ömer and Hikmet. Collaborating with the brand Ninemin Dolabı (My Grandmother's Closet), Gül created a winter 2021 collection of quilted jackets with what she learned from quiltmakers who have been in the business for over 50 years.
She handpicked the cotton and silk for the jackets and batting them with the padding before she embroidered Turkish motifs on them. She chose tulips, grapevines and sea waves as per tradition.
Gül believes the devil is in the details – the lining of these quilted jackets are made of a type of Turkish flannel called "pazen," most discernible by its flowery patterns and vibrant colors. The ends of the coats and jackets are weighed down with tiny sacks of lavender, which Gül says is an old tradition used to ward off bugs, bacteria and viruses – very befitting for the times we are in.
But why specifically quilting?
Gül spent most of her student years in the Fatih district of Istanbul, the streets of which are lined with quiltmakers. She also likes to explore the nostalgic neighborhoods of Istanbul, and most often Üsküdar right by the sea.
"I was walking along the streets of Üsküdar when I kept seeing all of these beautiful, handmade quilts laying by the bins, discarded, despite being in mint condition. So, I started photographing them ... I had also seen Ayça Sarc's 'Yorganlar Fora' (Unfurl the Quilts') exhibition in 2018 and wanted to learn about quilt making techniques."
"Seeing what I can produce with just a needle and thread gives me great strength. I try to use traditional hand sewing techniques in my designs. I also do everything I can to learn more about these (dying) techniques," she explained.
In the year before for winter 2020, she collected antique embossments and sewed them onto Russian folk-style shirts, inspired by Ilya Repin’s portraits.
Gül says works of art and artists' lives are one of her biggest sources of inspiration for her work.
"I have drawn a lot of inspiration from history lately, late artists. William Morris's view of art and craftsmanship with his patterns, Matisse's cut-outs, the meanings Pablo Picasso attributed to colors, and Ilya Repin's portraits are very inspiring to me," she said.
Gül explains that her 2021 Winter collection was largely influenced by the bright colors and cut-outs skillfully used by Henri Matisse, the greatest colorist of the 20th century. Coupled with the inarguable harmony between traditional and modern lines, what came about linked the worlds of fashion and art.
As much as she loves Matisse, Gül has a soft spot for Russian art, literature and handicrafts, she admits. "I love wearing scarves with imprints of (Russian realist Abram) Arkhipov's works. I love how clean the tailoring of the Russians are and how they channel their emotions in their art. I probably would have liked to live in Russia in the early 1900s to see these first-hand," she added.
In a world where everyone grows more uniform each day, especially when it comes to fashion as evident from Instagram, Gül believes turning to other fields and getting back in touch with our roots is one way to stand out as more authentic. The biggest problem with the industry today is not embracing a timeless aesthetic and design philosophy.
"Commercial concerns beget low-quality products and rampant copying," she said. "If fashion is to express ourselves without saying a single word then why should someone else dictate the color of my sweater or the style of my shoes?" she asked, adding that you should be the only one to determine your own sense of style, not a council of people or some catalog.
"We all need to be bolder and more genuine."
And that's where sustainability enters the scene. Gül says she feels buying trendy pieces and then discarding them a year later is very spoiled behavior.
"That's why I try to stick to timeless pieces that can serve you throughout decades and still fit your aesthetic, from the fabric right down to the buttons and the threads," she said.
One easy way people can realize the impact of their shopping habits is to actually take up a needle and thread and start sewing, she stressed.
"You can meet all of your textile needs (home decor, clothing) without a sewing machine. You also get to show off your own skills and craft when you hand sew. By allocating time and effort to produce that single product, you give it meaning and you won't be able to discard it so easily. This not only helps you pass on your tradition to future generations and meet your needs at the time but also makes the product sustainable in many ways."
"Although there are so few quilters today, most of us have quilts passed down from our grandmothers and mothers via dowries. It is not a coincidence that these quilts have survived until today and that they still can fit our aesthetic even after a century," Gül said, and the same goes for fashion.
Start young she advises, showing me a video of her 4-year-old son sewing.
"He started taking an interest in what I was doing when he was about 2 and now he even has a go (carefully) on the sewing machine. I believe everyone can sew and it's a necessary skill to have," she said.
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