With Istanbul quietly creeping onto the map of global fashion capitals, we chat with Turkish fashion designer Canan Cullu about the growing global trend for modest — yet powerful — clothing
ISTANBUL, Turkey — Are you aware there's a seismic shift happening in the global fashion industry? Two worlds that once existed on separate paths are slowly merging. Some of the biggest design houses are now borrowing from what is known as the modest fashion movement, and vice versa. Conservative clothing was once reserved for women who wanted to cover up for religious reasons, but now its style and shapes are subtly inspiring the West. And Istanbul is one of the best cities to explore this bold new world of combination, since it's literally the place where East meets West.
Until ten years ago, most Turkish manufacturers merely reproduced designs made in Europe. Now that's slowly changing. Young creative minds are being supported by organisations like the Turkish Fashion Designers Association, who are directly involved in The Istanbul Moda (Fashion) Academy, teaching around 350 students at a time.
I made a documentary about Turkey's fashion industry earlier this year. During the six months of reporting, I learned a lot. While Turkey's textile, leather and clothing production has been around for centuries, designing has not.
Milan, London, Paris and New York are still the biggest players when it comes to hosting fashion weeks, but Istanbul is quietly creeping onto the map, holding several Mercedes Benz Fashion Weeks over the past decade. While major global designers have yet to squeeze Istanbul into their busy calendars, organisers argue the event is more about giving young Turkish talent a chance to promote their work on the runway.
Another significant aspect that I came across was the link between fashion and politics. When the Turkish Republic was established in 1923, there was a forceful, state-imposed push to create a more secular society. This included laws banning women such as teachers, lawyers and politicians from wearing headscarves in government institutions. But this is changing under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who came to power in 2002. Hijabs were allowed on university campuses in 2011, in the civil service in 2013 and in the military in 2017. So it's no surprise that Turkey – with a population of 80 million – is a huge market when it comes to modest fashion.
But not everyone believes that conservative dressing is always for religious reasons. Canan Cullu is the Creative Director of RUH Collective. It's an online-only brand that produces what it says "killer clothes for women who believe modesty is empowering" and believes that "covering up isn't about quieting down."
The country's modest fashion industry is estimated to be worth anywhere between 300 to 450 million dollars by 2020.
"I guess people have realised that [modest clothing] is a growing market and that consumers are spending a lot of money for this purpose," Cullu tells me in April at her stylish apartment in Istanbul. "It's not that we don't want to be associated with other modest fashion companies, but the word modesty to me is not only about religion."
So instead of using the word modesty, Cullu describes it as "the new cool."
"It's about being more confident and not about what you are wearing. It's about your style, your attitude. It's more about having your own vision and your own language, style-wise. It can also be interpreted in many different ways, for example I could give you a very different explanation about what ‘the new cool' means, compared to someone else," she says.
Cullu definitely imbues ‘the new cool.' She's dressed top-to-toe in black, looking effortlessly chic. Her lightly highlighted hair is perfectly messy, yet tidy enough for camera. Her face has been left natural. As she potters around the kitchen making Turkish chai (tea) to accompany the Turkish breakfast of olives, simit, tomatoes and cucumber, she tells me about the woman she's designing for.
"She's quite minimal and quite pure as a soul. She cares about the environment, and she cares about people, but she's quite fun at the same time. A lot of our clients are creative types like film producers, architects, producers who own their own career and are aged between 25 to 35. Most of them live in the US, the UK, the United Arab Emirates and Australia."
So why turn to conservative designs now?
"I'm guessing it's because women are trying to describe themselves in a different way," Cullu says. "Instead of wearing clingy Bodycon dresses, it's more about their intellectual vision or their artistic talents. They want to have these kind of conversations with people now, it's not about the male gaze. Women are gaining their power. I mean throughout the years they have already been gaining it, but now it's a little different."
Since my conversation with Cullu, I see ‘the new cool' everywhere. It's in the music videos of people like French singer Heloise Letissier, otherwise known by her stage name Christine and the Queens. And fashion journalists say we can expect lengthy skirts and gowns to be everywhere in the Fall/Winter Collections of 2017, thanks to major players such as Alexander McQueen, Marc Jacobs and Tory Burch.
"If you look at international luxury brands such as Celine and The Row, they are all creating these kind of modest styles which have looser and longer silhouettes," Cullu adds. "It's a bit more of a masculine look for women, it's a bit more slouchy, but it's also tidy, for example wearing a pair of stilettos with a jogger and a big denim jacket."
As Cullu gives me a profile of her customer, I think about the word masculine. At 38, I'm old enough to remember the 1980s, when power suits were having their moment in the limelight. Actors Melanie Griffith and Sigourney Weaver donned big shoulder pads and even bigger hair in the American movie Working Girl. If you haven't seen the film, it's about a secretary who rises through the ranks of her New York advertising agency by convincing her bosses that she's capable of doing a "man's job." And while "the new cool" can be described as masculine, it seems it's no longer about copying men to get ahead – something Cullu understands after sixteen years as a designer.
"My style has always been kind of modest," she says.
"I never was the Bodycon dress fanatic, but of course I had to design those as well for commercial reasons at some point in my career. But I feel a lot closer to the modest style – or ‘the new cool'. It's been in my blood since I was a student."
It was during that time at university that Cullu won an award from ItKib or Istanbul's Textile and Ready-made Garment Exporters' Association in 2004. After working for several Turkish brands she was introduced to her now business partner Sonia Trehan.
"We casually met through our fathers, but we just clicked and started working together. It's always about dividing up the tasks. She does great with the business part of it which I don't really feel, while I'm involved in the production, the design, and the creative side of it. But at certain points we always ask for each other's opinions and that's what makes it more complete."
RUH Collective was founded in August 2014. It has offices in the US and the UK, but gets its clothes made in Turkey by the same people who list Kanye West, Karl Lagerfeld and rag & bone as clients. While they currently only sell their clothes online, they have huge plans to expand their business and their message.
"In the future we want to grow bigger and have a bigger team. We want to work in a big beautiful building and be able to work together and have fun, as well as meet our clients."
To me, they sound just like the women I grew up watching in Working Girl, except that in this real-life movie, they are the bosses.