by Emily Ullmann and Jason Toups
A belated reflection from our days in Istanbul last week…
On Monday morning, we found ourselves with a few hours to kill before going to an interview with Forbes Turkey. After having been in Istanbul for seven days, we realized that while we had explored vast swaths of the city, nobody in our group had yet explored a nearby neighborhood.
In our free morning, we ambled off in that direction, taking whatever alleyway seemed most quiet, and we quickly found ourselves away from the countless tour guides shepherding their flocks of tourists.
After wandering for a time, we found ourselves in front of a plain building with a striking sign. The sign read “Istanbul Design Center,” and we immediately declared our desire to investigate.
We walked through the open doorway and discovered a trove of pamphlets and brochures for a variety of artistic pursuits: art exhibitions, film festivals, music classes, and fashion shows.
After introducing ourselves to the secretary, we realized that he spoke very little English, but through rudimentary sign language, he suggested that we explore the building. With this license, we entered the garden and ascended the stairs to the terrace.
Much to our surprise, we interrupted a group of ten women and two men sitting around a large table covered in art supplies. We hesitated and almost returned down the stairs when one of the women waved, beckoning us over.
As we approached, a voice of English rose above the rest, and we soon found ourselves conversing with a young woman. She explained that this was a fashion design class taught by Tanju Babacan, a famous local fashion designer. She didn’t identify which of the men was the fashion designer, but we easily identified him as the one with the fire-engine red beard. We were so captivated by his unique facial hair that it took us a while to notice that all the women wore hijabs.
Our friend and translator told us that the day’s lesson dealt with shoe design, and the students eagerly submitted their creations to us for appraisal. We were especially enchanted by a pair of espadrilles one student had stylishly covered in swirls of peach-colored zippers. In fact, Emily’s immediate reaction was a desire to buy them, but the matching shoe hadn’t yet been made.
Our friend invited us to pick a pair of shoes and begin embellishing, but time was short, so instead we only had a few minutes to speak with her. We asked her where she thought Istanbul got its creative influence from: East or West, to which she responded, “Istanbul is between Asia and Europe. It’s not one or the other. It’s a mosaic of both.”
As we walked away, we couldn’t help but think about how right she was: Although we’ve found bits of Europe and pieces of Asia, the city has brought them together in a unique way to create its very own identity.