We can state with assurance that this last year has been a good one for Burc Akyol and his homonyms brand. Transparencies, pointy shoulders, fluidity… The firm that described as “sexy and austere” was established back in 2019 and it’s starting to reap its rewards after five years of hard work. Among his most recent achievements: the presentation of his latest collection, Palm Gardens, at Paris Fashion Week for the first time. The young man that once stole a Karl Lagerfeld DVD (read the interview for more info) has become shortlisted for the LVMH Prize 2023. Today, we talk with him about his career, his references, origins, and what it is like to start your own brand as an independent designer in Paris.
Hi Burc, thank you for giving us this interview. Congratulations on everything you’ve achieved this year! You’ve won the Fashion Trust Arabia Prize (FTA) as a Turkish designer for the Guest Country award, became one of the finalists for the prestigious LVMH Prize, and (for the first time) presented your latest collection during Paris Fashion Week. Wow, that’s impressive! How is the aftertaste of all this success? Does hard work pay off?
(Laughs) Hard work pays off, definitely! Hard work creates the base, and then something happens when it’s the right moment for everything. I think it’s more momentum than anything else, one good thing happens and has the right effect that then draws all the other attention. When it isn’t the right time, it doesn’t click.
In the team, we are like two people most of the time, but this season we were lucky. I usually have one intern for two months or so, but this time we had three amazing people who were very willing and invested. And yeah, we made it all happen! We were five people making it all happen in two months.
Only two months, that’s crazy! The show of your new collection, Palm Gardens was presented in a courtyard in Paris. The set seemed to be inspired by a desert with the sand-like rug and golden palms among the audience. The concept was related to your Turkish origins and inspired by the East-West duality. I really like how you described it: “The desert road finally hit an oasis.” Could you tell us a little bit more about the collection and its references?
The initial thought was (as always) to reference Pantelleria, which is an island in the south of Sicily. It’s the inspiration for my collections, and I have done that for the past five seasons. It was such a strong feeling that I wanted to pursue and it was part of the brand’s DNA. However, this time after the last show, I felt like there was a mutation in me. I wanted to bring my summer collection back to the city, back to other values and other interests that I have.
So, the idea of the set was: how do we take the desert reference and turn it into a more urban version of it? Thus the palm canes. They’re called Lamp Palm Trees, which are Maison Jansen’s palm trees. The idea of the sand became a rug carpet that you could have at home, and this was all a translation of the inspiration into a realistic environment.
The original idea for the set came from the Brouq desert in Qatar, a beautiful place where there are statues of Richard Serra that are called East-West/West-East. This just made so much sense to me. I went to Qatar for the Fashion Trust Arabia Prize, and I saw this installation that I was a fan of since I was like ten. It was my first time seeing it and it was so impressive. So I wanted to translate that, but I still wanted everything to feel urban, to feel like we are finally getting into, not just a holiday idea of Burc Akyol, but a real idea of sophistication for the city in the summer by Burc Akyol.
Let’s go back to your origins (and correct me if I’m wrong). As a child, you were introduced to fashion by your father, who was a tailor for Parisian haute couture houses. But then, you also had other interests such as painting, dancing, and acting. When did you realise that fashion was your calling?
Correction here. I always say I was introduced to making by my father, so more like in the technique, not fashion. Also, he would work from home, he didn’t work inside the houses. Actually, he worked from my childhood bedroom and he would receive production orders from all these houses.
Although I had other interests, it was always fashion first. But also, I think fashion kind of takes all of these (acting, painting, dancing) together. For example, if you do acting, you have to do acting. I mean, you can be a model but you’re never going to create your costumes. When you do fashion, it feels like you are a bit of the director, you know? Because when you do a fashion show, in the end, you choose the costumes, the actresses, the set, the lighting – you choose everything! So, I think it’s more complete. And it is also inspired by all these other arts. I think that’s where I felt more 360 degrees, the other types of expressions would give me only one side of what I have to say.
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What was studying fashion in Paris, the capital of la mode, like? Was it as competitive as we all imagine?
It was crazy! Arriving in Paris when you are almost still a teenager (between your teenage years and young-adult years) was, uff… I mean, it’s incredible to be in Paris at that age because everything is kind of easy. You suffer in many ways but you don’t care; you don’t eat but it doesn’t matter. You survive on cigarettes and Coca-Cola, literally! (Laughs).
It’s a common story among people who hit a big, important city where you just embrace all; it’s kind of chaotic. Everything is new but, at the same time, everything is super chic. I always say it’s like you have the life of someone who lives on the streets, but you try to make it look as chic as possible.
Do you want a funny story from those years? I’ve only stolen just once in my life. Listen, I stole a Karl Lagerfeld DVD. It’s a very funny story because I wanted to watch it so much but I didn’t have the ten euros it cost, so I decided to steal it and I got caught (laughs). After that, I thought, never again! I was alone. The only time I decided to do something actually bad is related to fashion (laughs). That’s how desperate for fashion I was!
After studying at L’École de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne, you worked in several fashion houses such as Dior, Balenciaga, Ungaro, and Esteban Cortázar. Then, you started your homonymous brand in 2019. What made you realise that it was the right time?
I was working with Esteban Cortázar, as you said, and I loved working with them, but I knew deep down that one day I would create my brand. Every experience that I got was so diverse: I went through Chevignon, I went to Barbara Bui, I worked in luxury, small houses, big houses, etc. And all of that together provided the kind of information that I needed to create my own brand.
When it was five years into Esteban, the time was super precise on one thing: everybody was into sportswear. So even in a brand like Esteban Cortázar, our commercial people were starting to ask us for sportswear and streetwear, and I was like, is that really the identity here? That got me very scared about my job and the actual reasons why I started in fashion. If that’s what people are asking me to do, you know what? I’ll do it myself but differently. And then, it was when I decided to create my brand, to define my identity. I didn’t want to do something else. For me, it was all about tailoring and super beautiful, exquisite high fashion. I didn’t want to do sweatpants and T-shirts and, if I had to do them, I wanted to do them my way.
Like you, many fashion design students aim to have their own brand after graduating. But it’s true that working in other houses helps you grow and perfect the craft. What are some of the most important learnings you took from working in other brands before founding your own?
Listen, from Dior, in its John Galliano era, one very important thing was quality first. We used to say ‘fait à Dieu,’ made at God’s place, and it’s so amazing because it’s literally that at Dior. John Galliano’s way of working, which is questions, questions, questions, was literally working with people asking questions, answering them and putting them together. That was very interesting because it was an open way of working.
At Balenciaga, it was all about experimentation; experimentation for hours and hours. One thing I learned from there is that if it’s not the time of the show, it’s not over yet. You can still change, you can still improve, you can still move forward. So, I guess that’s one energy idea: you can still improve until the last minute.
From Esteban Cortázar, I learned one thing, which is passion. If you show passion, people will show passion for you; if you show kindness, people will show kindness and follow you. Loving what you do takes you a long way. If you love what you do, people will also endure a lot with you. It may sound a little manipulative, but it’s not. You can’t make people love you, you need to actually be nice and kind and everything. And gathering! I think that’s what I’ve learned from Esteban, he is able to gather anyone to his cause, and I think I’m a little like that too.
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I feel like all your collections have a strong reminiscence of the minimalism of the mid-90s. Also, it seems that your brand is really guided by opposites. When I was reading about you and your brand, you often described your collections in sentences like “lovable and deadly” or “sexy and austere.” Do you agree? What about the force of opposition and dichotomy is interesting to you design-wise?
First of all, maybe you are right about the mid-90s and minimalism. I don’t know, but I grew up with that, so for sure it’s there. However, I don’t consider myself a minimalist, yet more like an editor. I like the sharpness of an idea, so when I look at something I’m like, how can we make it more precise and quickly understandable? But at the same time, I’m someone who loves layers. I love absolutisms, but I also love the idea that there are new answers. So, again, the opposites.
I guess that the opposites in design is just me. I can be super nice and I can be glacial, I can be super joyful and I can be very grave and dark. I am super French and I am super oriental and Turkish. All of that is what I am. So it’s very hard for me to pitch my brand in only four words when they ask me to do it. I’m like, I’m going to need a little more than that (laughs).
To be honest, I can do sexy and austere. It’s all about that, it’s from my childhood, from where I used to live. Do you know how in France there are those areas where they put all the immigrants together? Cement, slag, not very nice areas… but we made it nice thanks to the music that we would listen to, thanks to our origins and thanks to the warmth of our culture, the community that it creates around. So, those two opposites have always been around me, and I think that what I’m trying to do is merge them together. It’s also merging my two identities together.
I’m not going to do my psychological therapy here, but everything that moves me has an underline job of making my two identities come together at some point. I’m not the only one who feels that way. If you look at France, or immigrant communities in general, the work that we have to do as individuals is always trying to put our two identities together, and I think that I’m trying to speak for that sort of community. So we can understand that we have a place.
I know that it’s like asking who your favourite child is, but what is the piece you would say you are the proudest of so far?
As I said in the previous question, it’s like asking to choose one side. Thus, I’m going to give you two, One is the Kepenek blazer, and the other is one of the Cariatide dresses. From the first side is my tailoring with the pointy shoulders. It comes from a kepenek, which is a Turkish shepherd’s coat, and with the deconstruction of the cape and making it into a sleeve head, now all our tailoring has that pointy fold. Technically, it’s something that we still struggle with and that we have to make to perfection. I think it’s something that nobody else does.
Secondly, we have our Cariatide dresses, which are usually composed of a tight body (it’s actually a construction with the bodice, so you have the culotte inside) and then the draped skirt over it. That has been worn by Kendall Jenner and has become such a hit, it’s my favourite dress since the beginning. We’ve been making it since day one.
The reason why it’s called Cariatide is that it was inspired by the actual statues that hold the buildings from Turkey in ancient Greek times. They were women that would give offerings to the Gods and walk in the middle of the city streets to send men to work. Once they had done the procession, the men would give them the keys of the city and they would become the guardians. Women at that time had so much glamour and power simultaneously, and that just resonates with me. It’s like the Burc Akyol woman.
On the website, you stress the importance of quality and sustainability, as well as the made-to-order selling system. Is that the reason why you decided to have a non-seasonal approach? Or is it more related to the early stage of the brand?
It was both. When you start your brand as a young designer, you are sustainable no matter what because you try to make everything happen with as little as possible. My fabrics are either from dead stocks or from stocks of the supplier, which means that we never create a new fabric. We’ve never launched a fabric for us especially, we always use something that already exists. For that reason, we are only using colours that exist or materials that exist, and we try to lift our creativity from that.
You are saying that it’s non-seasonal, but in fact, it’s bigger than that. It’s seasonal because I have summer and winter within my collections, but at the same time, they are not yearly. I don’t say it’s like 2024 or 2023. I want my collection and the client who buys one piece this season to be like, next season I can wear it again, or the year after I can wear it again. It’s timeless. For me, it shouldn’t be seasonal, it should be something you can have in your wardrobe, maybe wear, then not wear for a few seasons and then wear it again!
That’s also why, for example, in the last show, there was a beautiful, long black kaftan on a beautiful Black boy. That kaftan is from the season right before, but people liked it so much that I decided to use it again. Why not? If I’m still wearing it… Let’s use it again in the show too! Otherwise, we are sitting there with pieces that don’t have an emotional attachment to us.
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Burc Akyol also has a genderless policy (love that!). When it comes to the construction of the garments, does it add another layer of difficulty? Would you say that it’s easier to design with or without gender roles?
Technically, it’s easier to design in genders. Why? Because, at the end of the day, body-wise, one person has boobs and the other hasn’t, one has a dick and the other doesn’t. That’s why the crotch and the positioning of the waist and the boobs are what usually make things different technically. But we can play around. Technique is something amazing because, once you’ve learned it, you can play around it. So we fake certain things – we contour certain areas and we achieve a ‘visualness’ that’s interesting for us.
This is why when we do the fittings at the beginning of the season, we’re like, let’s try this, let’s try that, the proportion would be nicer if we did this and then… We try it on men and women so we can understand which pieces need to be adapted. Then, we decide on the silhouette of the season: the volume on the pants, where the waist is going to be, etc. We try to do that with everyone. In the end, it’s more like you buy a certain size that fits you, it depends on who you are and how you want to dress.
For example, the tights, you know what’s so funny? In my shop, I sell those ones more to men than to women. I love googling my clients; I can’t see them (my shop is online), but I love googling them. I find it so interesting! My male clients have a little kinkiness (laughs). I love to fantasise about the life that they have, what kind of job they do, how come they know about us, how come they shop our brand, how come they are attracted to these pieces, etc. Sometimes they have those very normal jobs, and I’m like, wow! It opens your mind about who your client is and it also gives you a certain freedom of creativity. You realise that you can design whatever you want as long as the message is clear and the image is clear. It will be liked by whoever likes that image.
As you said before, your clothes have been worn by Kendall Jenner but also Cardi B or Zendaya, to name a few. And they’ve been featured in several magazines such as Vogue, Numéro or METAL, of course. Which would you say is the ultimate goal for you? Would it be to dress someone in particular or to appear somewhere like the MET gala, for example?
I’m like, mum, I made it!, every time something happens (laughs). Your magazine was one of the first to feature my clothes! To be honest, there’s no specific goal in terms of that. All this together is a goal, the fact that we are present. Listen, if you are worn by someone it means that they love your piece so much. Do you know how many clothes do they receive? Rags and rags of clothes. And among all of them, that person says, you know what? It’s this one that I love the most. That’s the goal. The goal is that somebody loved your piece more than all the other options and decided that, that night, it was going to be in yours. It’s not so much about you.
Kendall Jenner, Isabelle Huppert, Cate Blanchett, etc. I’m super happy that they wore my clothes. All of them together are incredible. One thing I’m really proud of is that, up until now, every single person that wore Burc Akyol was someone I already had fantasised about dressing. I wanted Isabelle Huppert, I wanted Cate Blanchett, I love Kendall Jenner (she is so beautiful…); all these people represent one facet of the brand. Cardi B is like the new Janet Jackson, and she wore my metal hands, which were inspired by Janet. That means that what I’m doing kind of attracts the right people. That’s what they project. Kendall wore one of the sexiest dresses that I’ve ever made, Cardi B recognised herself in a message, Cate Blanchett is an actress and she wore the metal headpiece and the transparent dress, she is playful. All these mean that you are doing something right.
And last but not least, what would you say to someone who is starting their own brand? The advice you wish you had known when you were starting Burc Akyol.
Mmm… Don’t listen too much to people around you. At some point, it’s good to have someone to resonate with, to ping pong with, but if you are convinced about something just go ahead and try to motivate everybody into doing that.
The other advice is perseverance, perseverance, perseverance. We only see people when they are successful or when something happens, but usually, behind that, there’s like three years, four years, ten years of making it there. But the momentum! That’s what we said at the beginning. You have to keep doing your thing and believing in it. If you don’t believe, nobody else will. So keep doing your thing and when it happens, it happens for the right reasons.
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