Atil Kutoglu has been a high-end couturier for more than ten years. Having been born and raised in Turkey, Atil is now based in Austria where he moved to attend school, receiving a degree in business administration in 1990. He dresses European aristocracy and New York socialites in his eclectic designs inspired by the modern, cosmopolitan woman.
Marking a radical departure from the style of his earlier works, his latest collection for Spring 2004 is more heavily accentuated by a Middle Eastern sartorial paradigm: the clothing of ancient Turkey.
Previous collections were based more on a modern, retro look with an Asian influence and a dash of disco. The eighties were represented with smock dresses and tunics gathered with thick belts; leather pants, paneled skirts, big shouldered jackets with tight silver pants: Wall Street meets Studio 54.
However, next spring will see a revised Kutoglu, which teams a mix of lighter and softer fabrics with thicker brocades in light pinks, blues, grays and shades of caramel. Signature pieces in the collection are a floor length, flowing dress held around the neck with an embroidered panel and a knee length, diaphanous dress punctuated by a embroidered sash.
Naomi Campbell opened his show at New York Fashion Week looking serene and comfortable in an embroidered, halter-neck style open waistcoat and diaphanous black baggy pants.
Cynthia H. Fareed and Jennifer Neal spoke to Atil at the New York office of his fabric manufacturer, Bossa.
SWAY: What was the inspiration behind your latest work?
AK: The inspiration came from Zeugma, an ancient city in southeastern Turkey. I went there by coincidence a couple of months ago and was impressed by the mosaics. Actually, it has been in the news in the past couple of years, as they are going to build a big dam there and the ancient city is going to stay underwater. So a few big companies sponsored a project to get the antiquities out of there and to place them in a museum in Gaziantep. The city of Zeugma was founded in 300 BC and it was huge and very wealthy.I thought it would bring a different take on fashion because it has been so much about vintage recently: very grandma and lady-like. I was a little bit fed up with all the tweed and pencil skirts and I thought this might be a bit of fresh wind, for example: ďlooking a bit further backĒ. I think people really like it. Itís a soft silhouette, with a lot of flowing lines. I also stayed loyal to my Turkish roots. Here and there, I emphasized big stripes or beads, a little drapery and embroidery. I think people find that is my strength: how I bring that into my clothes. I didnít want it to be overloaded or too Oriental or Middle Eastern; thereís just a little hint of it.
SWAY: Where is your work sold beyond Europe and the US?
Austria and Germany are my strongest markets, but I also sell in Beirut, Kuwait and Dubai.
SWAY:For what sort of woman do you design?
AK: Well, I more or less imagine a cosmopolitan girl: being rooted; being a mix of different backgrounds; living in a place where she is not born and being open to different arts and cultural influences. I imagine at the same time that she is also modern, well traveled and intellectually interested.
I feel like I have succeeded in a way as I dress many modern princesses. Princess Michael of Kent has ordered from my new collection. In Vienna, where I am based, I am very good friends with Francesca Von Hapsburg who also wears my clothing. Other clients are Rena Sindi, Arianna Von Hohenlohe and Mika Ertegun, wife of music mogul Ahmed Ertegun.
SWAY:Do you have a muse?
AK: I had a muse but she died: Countess Pilar Goyes. She was also an Austrian Countess, more of a rebel aristo-girl. When I started she helped me a lot and she was a big name in the international world, a strong fashion personality. She used to live in Paris and she was the girlfriend of Aga Khan for more than 8 years, I think. And we exchanged ideas and she was always wearing my stuff to important events, but she passed away suddenly three years ago.
My new muse? Mischa Barton. Sheís so fresh and so lovely I would love to dress her. I mean I donít know if it will happen or not, but sheís one of the freshest. Sheís so cute.
SWAY:There were many Turkish people at your show. You must be a great source of pride to other Turkish people.
AK: That makes me also proud in a way because I think Turkey is a very interesting country and culture, because it has this bridge position Ė on one side is Europe and on the other is Asia Ė and Turkey has characteristics of both sides.
But itís also very modern and it is ruled in a modern way. It has been a democracy since 1923 and the women have their rights as in Europe. It has been a little neglected by the west and now people are discovering it and they are seeing how western the people are and how rich the culture and the background is: the Ottoman influence and the Roman influence. This gives, of course, a lot of power and inspiration.
I feel that today not many of us are very nationalistic: you feel at home everywhere and close to everyone. The main thing is that you like each other or you are on the same level and you meet friends in New York, London or Vienna. Being Turkish, you can feel like the real Europeans and you can feel like the real Middle Eastern: you are not 100% Arab and not 100% European, which gives it a deeper feeling.
I donít know if my children will be like that. Maybe they will lose it and be totally modern, living in Vienna or NY. I was raised in Istanbul by a very modern family. My mother is an architect and my father has a chemical fiber business. I feel at home in Istanbul when I walk by the mosques and other old places. It gives me a lot of inspiration still.
SWAY:Do you think that the feeling Ė that Turkey has been a neglected place Ė comes out in your clothes?
AK: I donít force it so much. I donít aim to make Turkey beloved or something. It happens automatically that I get my inspiration from Turkish references. I have a different way of mixing fabrics: maybe in the cuts, in the mix of colors and shapes, my Turkish side comes through. Itís not intentional - it comes naturally. It flows into my clothes.
SWAY: Your style seems to have changed a little bit from your previous collections.
AK: My last collection was only eighties and I find it too retro. The eighties had this energy and craziness, which you can adjust to more today in a different way. When you look at the era as it is, it looks tasteless. But a little bit Ė Iím talking now about the fall collection I did that was the previous one to this one Ė I thought more of a Jerry Hall in the eighties: a strong woman, glamorous but not tacky glamorous. Everybody had a touch of tackiness back then, but Iím not talking about Joan Collins in Dynasty. Iím talking about Jerry Hall and maybe an early Ivana Trump, when she just became famous.
Going back to your past: was your family supportive of your decision to become a designer?
Yes, they were. I was very much influenced by my mother because she was the artist in the family and she was also strong in drawing and painting. And I started as a child. I was very interested in fashion. I was into the arts and then during my high school studies it became fashion. And fashion was very fresh at that time. It was the early eighties and it was the first time designers were so popular. It was the early times of Dolce & Gabbana and Armani was big, along with other Italian labels. Fashion was not so much mass consumed back then. It was a very special thing back then. I was very much inspired by those people. And my parents have been supportive. I mean they tried, like any parent, to push me into other directions. They said, if you are so much into aesthetics, then become an aesthetic surgeon Ė become a doctor, which was quite funny.
SWAY:Is that why you did a business degree?
AK: I did a business degree because I thought that to make your dreams a reality you shouldnít stay as a dreamer totally Ė or an artist only. And I went to a very good high school in Turkey: the German high school. Usually the people who go there become scientists or doctors, you know, it was a strong high school. So I thought I could study business administration and use the knowledge for fashion. It helped me to form my own company and my own label.
Iím still wondering if I have enough of a clue! But I think if you are strong as an artist you really miss that other side. Although I studied business I am sometimes not a money person. And of course, you have to get organized and you have to take on board people you can trust and that is how the successful designers work, I think.
SWAY:What makes your clothing stand out? Itís definitely very unique.
AK: I think itís the mix of everything; the style, the cut, the feeling and the fabric. I have been getting compliments for the choice of my fabrics like the leather, the silk, the special blends of Bossa, the major Turkish fabric giant. They do cotton, rayon and wool blends and I develop the textiles with them. Iím in the procedure from the beginning and I get exclusively made fabrics for my collection. It is an advantage to find someone to weave the fabrics that Iím dreaming of!
Bossa has big mills in southeastern Turkey and are big in denims. They also collaborate with other Italian designers: they sell to Calvin Klein and Diesel. I also have leather, which is strong in my collections, and I have younger evening styles, which makes the collection really special.
SWAY:What can we expect from you in the near future?
AK: Iíll definitely be showing further collections in New York and I am also planning to make a secondary line, which will be less expensive and more accessible. I want to do jeans and sweaters, but in a chic way. Thereís a demand for more affordable pieces and its detrimental to stay too expensive. I have all these people adoring my fashion and I want to do something about it.
SWAY:Are you planning to open a store in New York?
AK: Itís not concrete, but I would love to open my first freestanding store here in New York. Competition is strong and the market is so crowded that you can only get your message or idea across with your own store, where you can present the concept from A-Z. And I think New York is the place at the moment. Itís the capital of the world in many matters. Modern, forward-looking people in any business come to New York. In the eighties, it was maybe London and possibly Paris. But now everything is happening in New York and itís a place where fashion, media and show business are connected very closely and you donít get that anywhere else. Iím trying to expand my label here, because I think when you have succeeded here, you can succeed anywhere.
I want to have a little modern window on Turkey over here!
By Cynthia H. Fareed and Jennifer Neal