Turkish delights: Istanbul is a shopping mecca for fashionistas

Turkey’s biggest city is home to new brands, museums, boutiques and hip neighbourhoods

It may not have the same international fashion clout as London or Paris, but few cities can beat Istanbul when it comes to the sheer breadth of creativity, diversity and craftsmanship in this great cosmopolitan metropolis. Home-grown designers, established and upcoming, are reinvigorating an already powerful Turkish clothing industry, and the most successful sell all over the world. Current rates of exchange at about 16 Turkish lira to the euro mean it can be a shopper’s mecca.

On a recent visit during fashion week to this huge, chaotic city overlooking the Bosphorus, the weather unusually snowy, it was hard not to be overwhelmed by its vibrant arts and fashion scene, its many new brands, museums, concept boutiques and hip new neighbourhoods. Though I have been before, this time new development is noticeable everywhere, particularly at the gigantic airport itself which is more like a vast city (distances to departure gates are long, beware). On March 18th, the biggest suspension bridge in the world was opened in the Dardanelles.

From a fashion show staged in the historic Crimean Memorial Church (whose chaplain, Canon Ian Sherwood, is from Dublin) by a young designer called Sudi Etuz, known for her use of recycled denim and exuberant tulle skirts, to an elegant 19th-century pasha’s mansion housing the couture maison of the country’s best-known wedding designer, Ozlem Suer, the schedule unveiled a broad range of what the city has to offer in different neighbourhoods. Getting around in Istanbul’s gridlocked traffic was a challenge, however.

New development

Our first stop was Galataport in Karakoy, a pioneering new development said to be the world's biggest coastal project, with an innovative underground cruise terminal, a new promenade overlooking the sea, restaurants, art galleries and hotels that have revitalised a formerly run-down area of the city. The restored 1905 post office, a wonderful space with slated dome and roof, hosts a fashion galleria of shops that includes Opscool (opschool.com.tr) with its colourful quilted coats, Panizsima (panizsima.com) – exquisite hand-embroidered jackets and Sevan Bicakci (sevanbicakci.com), a famous Turkish jeweller known for intaglio work with many Hollywood fans. A museum of modern art  (Istanbul Modern) designed by Renzo Piano is due to open shortly.

Not far away is Bey (beykarakoy.com), a men's "concept store" with classic shapes, good colour-co-ordinated separates and accessories which has benefitted from Karakoy's development. In menswear, designer Emre Erdemoglu (with 115,000 followers on Instagram) is known for innovative streetwear and dynamic accessories, while in Nisantasi, the main shopping area Giziagate (gizia.com) is a spacious one-stop shop of up-and-coming Turkish designers alongside well-known players such as Dice Kayek, the brand founded by two sisters who operate between Paris and Istanbul.

The emphasis tends to be loaded on party and occasion wear – Istanbulites are said to be fond of hen parties and dressing up, as was obvious from the elaborate frocks and accessories, gold shoes, hair decor and jewellery.

Not far away at Hiva (hivaatelier.com), a small corner shop with colourful calf leather bags, owner Dilara Ertan explained that her business started in 2019 selling online with Wolf & Badger; now 70 per cent of her customers come from the Middle East. One thing you notice immediately in the city is the local love of cats (there are more than 100,000 of them) and at Hiva, a toothless feline called Liza slept peacefully and undisturbed beside an expensive crossbody.

In the same district, Beauty Omelette (beautyomelette.com) is the catch-all title of a clothing and skincare brand with a lovely shop furnished with glass tables and mirrors by Canadian visual artist Jordan Soderberg Mills. Dressed in a stylish grey pinstripe trouser suit, owner Nur Bilen Yavuzer (who is married to a famous plastic surgeon) was demonstrably the best advertisement for her brand, embodying the store's masculine, minimalist aesthetic with a controlled colour palette reminiscent of Jil Sander. The company's Korean-made skincare products sell all over the world with one, according to her, being particularly effective after surgery.

Affordable luxury

On another day we drove to Bebek, an affluent neighbourhood along the European shores of the Bosphorus, to meet mother-and-daughter team Esin and Benan Terzioglu, a lawyer and architect respectively, twin forces behind Qimu bags (qimubags.com), an "affordable luxury brand" made from calfskin, vegan leather, satin and velvet. The bags are deliberately designed to be superlight and multipurpose, so a strap doubles as a belt, turns a handbag into a shoulder or crossbody style. "The only weight is what you put into it," says Benan.

In the city’s famous Grand Bazaar with its 4,000 shops, visitors may not want to see any more bags or jewellery, fake or real, after the experience of wandering through its massive, labyrinthine interior. Several places did stand out, however. Dr Suleyman Ertas is one of the country’s foremost textile specialists, who has furnished fabrics for films including Noah, Hobbit and Troy. Syrian-owned La Maison Dalep has the most breathtakingly beautiful embroidered scarves along with silver and jade jewellery. Allahverdi supplies every kind of gemstone to other makers, while in his small shop Nick’s calligraphy and intricate paintings on dried leaves have a worldwide following.

The final destination was the massive Zorlu Centre, a new, upscale shopping mall in Besikas, an important historic and business area, which houses a five-star Raffles hotel, offices and apartments and the biggest department store for international and Turkish brands, called Beymen (beymen.com). Its shoe display was the best I have ever seen, mostly international brands, with a few Turkish and their own Academia line.

The first store at the entrance, however, is Nu (nu.com.tr), a sophisticated Turkish label founded in 2002 with international appeal, monochrome, Japanese references alongside bold prints and Issey Miyake-style pleating (it has a store in London's Marylebone).

Wedding dresses

The last stop was to visit the country's premier designer, Ozlem Suer (ozlemsuer.com), in business for more than 20 years and known for her fairy-tale wedding and party dresses, as well as everyday wear, in a beautiful historic building. The fabrics were luxurious – laces, silk tulles, micro taffetas, satin, gold and silver brocades, and the styles either romantic and detailed or simple sheaths of outstanding workmanship.

Wedding tourism is big in Istanbul, and brides often order up to four dresses for their matrimonial events including hen parties. Everything is hand-made and each dress can take up to 15 days to complete, with prices starting from €600 up to €6,000 in sizes up to 44. Brides come from the UK, Italy and elsewhere.

Even more impressive was the newly-revamped Ataturk Cultural Centre in Taksim Square, where a huge new opera house, a sphere with 15,000 hand-painted red ceramic tiles (all made by women) will open this month. The centre also houses a wonderful musical instruments museum, a library with 20,000 books, a children’s centre, a theatre and art gallery. Just further examples of how in this multilayered city of 17 million people, civic culture from food to fashion, music and art is enjoying a spectacular revival, further enhancing its reputation as an exciting global destination.

My tour guide (with more than 20 years’ experience) whom I can recommend was Gonul Gudu Demirkol – gonulgudu@yahoo.com.