On the day that his first store opens on Mayfair’s South Audley street, we revisit a piece from the April 2015 issue in which Erdem Moralioglu talks to Alexandra Shulman about independence, why he never takes no for an answer and the “sphinx” that drives him.
IT is London’s first really wintry afternoon and Erdem Moralioglu is considering the design of the carrier bags for his first store. It might be bleak outside the Rich Mix cultural centre where his team work above the cinema and café (“I get 10 per cent discount,” he confides as he collects me from the lobby), but in the Erdem office all is colour and bustle.
The carrier bags pile up on the floor of the small office he has carved out for himself from the open-plan. Should there be a black trim on the bright white card? How high should the grosgrain handle be located? Would the lettering of Erdem be best placed top-centre or slightly lower? Should the address of the store be in a cursive script? The notion of including the shop’s Mayfair address on the bags is very Erdem. “I like the idea of it being my centre, like Chanel and Rue Cambon. Of course, the reality right now is 34 Bethnal Green Road, above the cinema,” he acknowledges. But nobody could doubt that he’s in for the long haul.
That afternoon he is meeting with a representative of Vanners, the silk mill, to look at fabrics. He shows me how a new technique developed for jacquard affects the depth of the float on the surface so that it is possible to have a lighter fabric carrying a greater degree of intricacy. He tenses and folds the swatches, strokes their surfaces, fingers the weight as they are laid out on a white table in the room where moodboards are stacked up for his pre-autumn collection. This afternoon he is sourcing for autumn/winter ’15. In the fabrics’ weft and warp he sees a world of potential. Even for his graduation collection in 2003, he would hop on the Eurostar to Paris and search out flawed furnishing toile de Jouy and old lace and defective scraps from Marché Saint-Pierre and mix them with waxed African cottons from Shepherd’s Bush Market in a nostalgic but modern textile mash-up.
Erdem is one of the British designers who have changed the perception of the British fashion industry in recent years. London Fashion Week – once thought of as home to a bunch of wildly creative visionaries who, through a combination of wilfulness, naivety and lack of any business strategy, would inevitably crash and burn – is now scrutinised not only for an enviable array of talent and imagination but also as the home of some flourishing twenty-first-century fashion brands. Christopher Kane, Nicholas Kirkwood, Mary Katrantzou and Jonathan Anderson join Erdem under the collective gaze, each with a distinctive and highly individual footprint.
Erdem’s designs – and this is still rare among London designers – are eminently wearable for women of all ages. “His client is not a young girl looking for the next big thing; they are for the woman who has self-confidence and wants to look good for a special occasion,” points out Joan Burstein, founder of Browns boutique and one of Erdem’s early supporters. His signature prints, while often rooted in the natural world – flowers, leaves, butterflies, birds – are never twee and his designs are womanly without being stodgy and exuberant without being garish. It is substantial testament to his work that, despite the march of androgyny and minimalism in the fashion of recent seasons, his business is growing in large increments. “His fabrics are outstanding and his clothes are never ‘bling’ or vulgar; they are something you want to keep and treasure, pieces you can bring out season after season,” adds Burstein.
If you want to make an impact in a sophisticated but feminine way, Erdem is your man. Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Gwyneth Paltrow and Kristin Scott Thomas have all been snapped on the red carpet in his designs. Benedict Cumberbatch’s fiancée Sophie Hunter chose Erdem for her first post-engagement appearance, and recently Keira Knightley, a long-time fan of his clothes, wore his tiered purple lace to the Screen Actors Guild awards. “The two evening dresses that he’s made me for red-carpet events have been among my favourites,” she says. “He always designs his evening dresses with pockets, which makes me so happy. I can be totally dressed up but have my hands in my pockets and feel really boyish.” And don’t forget the Duchess of Cambridge’s fondness for a bit of block-colour Erdem lace.
Erdem is a member of a generation of designers who are still referred to as “young designers”, but at 37 Erdem is not really young. His label may be celebrating its tenth anniversary but it’s taken a lot longer than a decade to reach the point of a store opening in South Audley Street and more than 200 stockists across the world. It’s taken, he would tell you, most of his life.
Erdem’s Turkish father was a chemical engineer and his mother came from Birmingham. They met in Geneva where she was working as a secretary at DuPont. They married and emigrated to Montreal where the twins were born – Erdem is 15 minutes older than Sara. “My sister and I are the only ones in the family born in Canada so we’re this anomaly – the freaky, weird twins,” Erdem says, as he hands me a faded black-and-white snapshot of his mother, who died in 2007. The small photograph shows an attractive young woman sitting on a grass slope. “She had this amazing bone structure. She had blonde, blonde, blonde hair with grey- blue eyes. My father was dark, dark, dark with black eyes and black hair. My sister is like me but she probably has greener eyes,” he concludes. Erdem’s eyes are a deep toffee colour, and when he removes his dark-rimmed glasses (which he usually only does for sport) you can see that one has an Asiatic almond cast while the other is more oval. Without the glasses he looks more Turkish. With them he looks like a healthier version of his hero Yves Saint Laurent – as you would expect from the product of an outdoorsy Canadian childhood, spent swimming and skiing.
Sara, like her brother, lives in London, and makes documentaries for the BBC. Currently, as his house is being renovated, he and his partner Philip Joseph are sleeping in her sitting room. Does she wear his clothes? “She wears head-to-toe me every day. I forced her,” he jokes, before qualifying, “But my sister has such a strong character, she’s completely independent. I would never be able to tell her what to do. We’re so, so, so close. She knows me inside out.” Is she married? “No.”
As is the case with many designers, his mother was a huge influence on him, reading her children books in bed on Impressionism, Manet, Sargent – traces of which can be found in so much of her son’s work. “I think that was a kind of homesickness. My father was homesick, too. I think they were two people who met and fell in love and had kids in a country they didn’t want to be in,” he says.
As a child he would read and draw constantly and was fascinated by the life of his mother and her friends. “You know you hear about designers who had mothers who would wear couture? She wasn’t like that at all. She never wore make-up. She was very pared back. I remember she would wear just red lipstick. Just a little bit of red lipstick” – he dabs his lips – “and she would wear Shalimar. And I thought that was… amazing.” Erdem’s accent is hard to categorise. Canadian no doubt, although that leaves plenty of room for interpretation as few people can identify a Canadian accent, which can vary from the Yukon in the northwest across to French-speaking Montreal. He is bilingual.
“I remember looking at her clothes and, not having the desire to wear them myself, but being obsessed by these things that made a woman a woman. She would have a friend over for tea and I was obsessed with how they looked.” It wasn’t only his mother and her friends who gave him this peephole into womanhood but the even more primal connection of having a female twin. “I’ve always had a link. It’s an interesting thing when you’re a twin of the opposite sex. Going through every stage of your development with someone who is the opposite sex is something I can’t escape in how I approach what I do. I’m not afraid of women, of bodies. I’m not trying to flatten things.”For the last two years of school, Erdem was determined to move from the local high to a private school – “I had to escape the suburbs. Really, I was like, I have to go to school downtown” – and it was there that he put together his portfolio to apply to the only fashion college in the country, Ryerson. “That was a big time of change and it involved having to tell my parents that I wanted to do fashion. My mother was really apprehensive at first because she thought, ‘God, that’s going to be a tough life’, whereas my father, having grown up in Turkey, really understood it more as a trade. It was like telling your parents you want to be an actor.”
At college, a third-year exchange to the University of Central England took him to Birmingham. “My mother was horrified. She was like, ‘I worked so hard to get away and now you’re going back?'” he remembers. Discovering the superior fashion education offered in Britain, he decided to apply for an MA at the Royal College of Art. He won a place but then had the problem of how to pay the enormous foreign-student fees. At the time his father was very ill with cancer and all the family resources and focus were on caring for him, but Erdem applied for, and won, a Chevening scholarship from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, a grant usually awarded to a more academic candidate. “They’d never given it to a fine-arts student, let alone a fashion student,” he explains, understandably proud.
At the end of his first year, he returned to Montreal to be with his dying father. “I was offered the opportunity to repeat a year but I decided that I wanted to graduate with my class. He ended up passing away just before Christmas which was really, really sad. I was very determined that my mum and my sister were going to come to that graduation show and it was going to be… great.”
In a cheering message to other fledgling designers, success didn’t immediately follow his time at the RCA and, despite many job interviews with design houses, there were a number of rejections before Diane von Furstenberg took him on as a design assistant. “My time there was brief. It was a good learning curve. I think,” he says, in a diplomatic attempt to gloss over what was clearly not a shining episode in his career. “I think she’s amazing, but it was there I really decided that I definitely wanted to do my own thing. I resigned and came back and there was a funny competition called Fashion Fringe which I thought if anything would be an excuse to update my portfolio.” He won the “funny competition”, which provided him with a studio space in the East End where he designed a small collection, bought by Harrods.
In 2007, only four years after his father’s death, his mother died of vasculitis. “That was the worst. The worst thing that could ever happen. It was quite sudden and it was… That was very difficult. And really, truly, the world fell from underneath me.” In spite of a van being stolen containing a large order to an important American department store and his head of production resigning, he managed to channel the grief into producing what would be one of the pivotal shows in his career, held at the Bluebird restaurant on the King’s Road. “It had to be this kind of beautiful thing because it had to be for her, in a weird way.”
This conversation is taking place a month after the meeting with Vanners, and it is now five weeks before Erdem’s autumn/winter ’15 show. We are once again in his office, lined with books on make-shift timber shelves. Behind him is a pile of blue Smythson boxes for a project he is working on and hung on the wall beside his desk is a violet-winged butterfly behind glass that his sister gave him, an old YSL poster and a cuckoo clock. A cafetière of coffee and china cups and saucers have been produced. “I have never seen them before in my life,” he whispers as they are set down.
He sits upright at his desk wearing New Balance trainers, Uniqlo jeans and a black shirt from Gap – although he loves Marni shoes and knitwear, such as the blue mohair sweater beside him, and his newest buy is a Prada coat. “I shaved today,” he adds. “Sometimes I try to grow a beard but it doesn’t work. I just look homeless with a beard.” He has a quick humour but also a self-awareness that makes him pause before responding to questions and even after answering, frequently adding qualifers. “Sometimes I run along the canal but I haven’t gone running in ages now,” he says, when I ask whether he exercises. “I listen to really bad music. No, not bad but, like, a Beyoncé situation to keep me going. No. We can’t write that I listen to Beyoncé while running along the canal. It’s so lame.” He has to be pressed to come up with any music he admits to liking. “Antony and the Johnsons. When I’m running slowly,” he finally suggests, scrolling down on his iPhone. “Arthur Russell, he’s great. You’d like Arthur Russell. The last track I downloaded? I think it was the Lana Del Rey song from the Snow White soundtrack. This is such blackmail material.”
He met his partner, Philip, an architect, at the Royal College. They have been a couple ever since, and are in the process of renovating a house together in Dalston that will combine Philip’s architectural rigour with Erdem’s more magpie eye. “We tend to stay in at weekends and go out during the week,” Erdem says, after admitting to not being able to cook (“It’s a skill I’m working on”) and a fondness for pubs. “I have a vodka soda or… a little-known fact about me? I love Guinness.” While Philip is a keen movie-goer, Erdem describes himself as more of a back-row-aisle kind of person, ready to exit on the rare occasions he’s at the cinema, preferring the ballet and theatre.
The previous day, Janine from his production company, two of his marketing team and Philip gather for a site visit at the Old Selfridges Hotel where Erdem has decided to show for the third time. Despite “a slight sinus situation”, Erdem is crisp and focused as they discuss the use of the space, the projected number of guests (currently 523), how many loos are needed and the design of the set. Everyone listens to what Erdem says, and Erdem kind of listens to them. “Erdem always has a very clear idea of the girls and the experience,” Janine says. (Read as: “He already knows exactly what he wants and always gets it.”) “Philip is busy,” the designer says teasingly. “He’s got this show, our house and the shop to do. We’re not allowed to talk about this in bed.” Someone suggests that they need to employ a client liaison officer.
Like Erdem’s whole creative output, the show set is determined by his vision of a woman. A very specific woman. “She” is a kind of alter ego that inhabits a large proportion of his thoughts, if not his body, and her imagined life, her demands, her appearance informs his designs, his shows – even the prospective changing rooms of the store. For the set of this autumn/winter ’15 show, he was inspired by an installation he saw at the previous autumn’s Frieze Masters and he is planning something similar (a crowded collector’s apartment) for this woman to inhabit. The woman seems to have changed since we met a month back, when he described her as “a gallery owner with two galleries, maybe one in Bond Street and one in, like, Redchurch Street”, who maybe lived in Italy but, if it were London, would be in Bloomsbury and who would mix Danish collectable furniture with flea-market finds. Since then she seems to have suffered a downturn in fortune and today, as he talks through his ideas for the set, he describes the jingling of the keys in the lock of her small flat as she returns from an unsuccessful visit to her father to ask for money – although she appears to still be a dab hand with the old flea-market treasures.
She is a proper muse, unlike the paid style helpers employed by many designers, and you can see her on the moodboards, in his neat-headed sketches pinned everywhere, and in the photographs of Romy Schneider, Marella Agnelli and various other chic women of the last century pinned up in the studio. “I’m interested in a kind of nipped-in-ness that becomes quite undone,” he explains, looking at a wall of the sketches beside a scan of the undersides of seventeenth-century silks from the V&A’s archive at Blythe House. “I like this weird, distressed thing.” As well as fabrics of faded grandeur, she will also probably be loving a high neck and a high waist (or trapeze shape), a short hem and flat riding boots with “brogue spats”.
“She exists in my sketchbooks, she exists in the back of my head. She’s what I think about when I go to bed and she’s probably what I think about when I wake up. She’s a constant thing. I imagine what’s happening to her. Where she’s going to go. She’s not my sister. She’s not my mother,” Erdem emphasises. “She’s not a tangible thing. She starts flat and then she becomes three-dimensional. She’s a sphinx. You struggle with her, you dance with her and try to get your head around her. It’s that enigma, that figuring out who she is, which compels you. Or compels me.”
She has been so compelling that, if everything runs to plan, by May Erdem should have his name above the door (or, at any rate, in Victorian mosaic tiles in the vestibule) of a large corner building on South Audley Street, opposite Thomas Goode, just along the road from Harry’s Bar and round the corner from the boutiques of Mount Street. He and Philip are showing me around the building site where, in three months, Belgian marble will have been laid for the ground floor and sweeping staircase (“We got enough to do several stores,” explains Philip, “we need to think long term”), and silk-velvet carpet for the sumptuous bespoke area on the floor below. The original glass pavement lights are being restored from decades under cover and will allow a soft light into the lower rooms. The old coal vaults – complete with ancient piles of coal – are being turned into stock rooms and an online space.
“If you told me five years ago that I would be standing in the vault of my own Mayfair shop, I would never have dreamed it would be possible,” he says. And how has it been possible, given that it is very unusual for a designer to remain entirely free from any outside investment? He won the BFC/Vogue Fashion Fund Award in 2010 which gave him a helpful cash injection to grow his infrastructure, but the expenses involved in opening a Mayfair store, running an online business, producing four collections a year and employing a staff of 47 might defeat many others. “Everything is planned for. We have worked out what we can do,” he says with a bemused look, as if it never crossed his mind there might be a problem and with a distinct unwillingness to elaborate. “Independence is something I have been able to afford. It’s as circumstantial as it is choice at the moment,” is his opaque explanation. Whatever the hows and whys, his determination and clarity of vision are not in doubt. “In retrospect, there was never a stage that was easy, but I didn’t know anything else,” he says, as we stand in the space that will be his bespoke area. “I think my strength has always been an inability to accept no. I’ve never been good with the word no.”