Models present a creation by Cihan Nacar during the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week in Istanbul, Turkey on March 29, 2018. Photo: Reuters/Osman Orsal

A group of stylish fashionistas looked confused as they tried to sense their way through Istanbul’s labyrinthine performance center at the Zorlu shopping mall, minutes before models hit the stage for a highlight catwalk at the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Istanbul.

“You better stick together and follow me or I cannot guarantee seats,” said a young man in his late 20s, steering his crowd along a long queue of equally chic guests at the event.

“We bring together a group of buyers from outside the country and with the help of the government and ITKIB, we bring them to visit the fashion week,” said Avidan Attia of Showapp, an Istanbul-based creative sales development agent.

His clients were among 140 buyers at the epicenter of one of the most glamorous fashion events in Turkey, also supported by the Istanbul Textile Exporters’ Association, ITKIB, eager to revitalize ties with global clients.

It’s no surprise that Istanbul would host a fashion week when textiles is one of the most vibrant and leading sectors in the local economy and one that invests in Turkish designers to become globally more competitive in the ready-to-wear market.

Clothes & textile exports top $28 billion

The textile industry accounted for 18% of Turkey’s total exports in 2017 with $17 billion in ready-to-wear items and $11 billion in textiles, supported by more than 50,000 companies in the sector, according to ITKIB. 

The challenge of the four-day event, however, was its backdrop – a chaotic civil war in Syria, Turkey’s southern border neighbor, and ongoing emergency rule in the country, declared after a failed coup attempt in 2016.

Several terror attacks, including a mass shooting at Istanbul’s popular waterfront Reina nightclub on New Year’s Eve in 2016 that left dozens, including foreigners, slain, tarnished the image of the city as well as the country.

When security concerns left textile showrooms deserted, Turkish designers and manufacturers were forced to fill their bags with samples and fly to potential buyers. So, Fashion Week emerged as a powerful remedy to break this ill cycle.

Pulling in a selective group of buyers upon a grandiose invitation each season, the event offered a vital window for upcoming Turkish designers willing to open up to global markets and, more importantly, boosted Istanbul’s weakened brand value.

“Buyers who are invited to Istanbul Fashion Week purchase collections and of course, it’s a valuable contribution, but there’s more than that,” said Hikmet Tanriverdi, ITKIB’s chairman. 

“Events like this add to the country’ perception, its image, which then contributes to an entire economy.”

Seventh biggest fashion event

Figures have a stronger story for the fashion event. According to market research by FashionUnited, a Netherlands-based sectoral publication, Istanbul Fashion Week ranked as the seventh most profitable fashion event among more than 150.

New York Fashion Week led the list with just under 514 million euros, followed by London at 322m euros and Berlin with 73.3m euros of total income in 2016.

Visitors that each fashion week brought to the city, as well as local hotel, food, and retail expenditure contributed to the ratings. 

Although money talks in preparing top-notch events, travel warnings from Western countries help or hurt the effort.

“Reconsider travel to Turkey due to terrorism and arbitrary detentions,” read the opening line of the US online travel advisory for Turkey. “Some areas have increased risk.”

“The security environment, however, remains potentially volatile and a state of emergency remains in place,” the British embassy noted in a similar warning.

For nearly 140 international buyers who attended one-to-one presentations at special showrooms and over 30 shows, accompanied by a lively crowd of fashion lovers, such security concerns felt miles away.

Security measures

Frequent travelers to the city brushed aside talk of potential threats but said tightened security measures were hard to miss.

“We do a lot of production here so I did not hesitate coming here, and it was not an issue for me,” said Romanna Bint-Abubakar, founder of haute-elan.com, an e-commerce platform for modest fashion. 

“But I noticed the substantial increase in the security presence of the area, that is very clear – from boots being checked, [to] absolutely everything.” And she said: “Actually, I feel more secure because there’s more security around.”

Meanwhile, for Mercedes Benz, a brand synonymous with stability and safety in the automotive sector, to be associated with a city wracked by security fears seemed like a contradiction. 

The title sponsor would not elaborate on that but underlined the strength of sustainability they’ve given to the event – since 2013. 

“Today, when even long-lasting regular events get canceled, we feel proud to have left an 11th season behind,” asserted Sükrü Bekdikhan, director of marketing and sales for Mercedes-Benz Passenger Cars. 

“We are very happy to be the title sponsor of this event that generates its own economy, and uninterruptedly contributes to fashion and textile sectors.” 

A designated media team of 50 professionals dominated popular blog posts and social media channels with the participation of renown Instagram fashion personalities like Adam Katz Sinding of @le21eme and constantly uploaded images to support the cause.   

Following the Autumn-Winter 2018 collection of Mehtap Elaidi, one of the leading figures in upbeat Turkish fashion, along with another 31 labels and designers showcased at the Fashion Week, the audience hastily worked on their smartphones to share catwalk images. 

“With fashion, you reach a lot of people,” said Ms Elaidi backstage before the show.

“Through this event and through fashion, you can give those people abroad an idea of what’s really going on in Turkey.”

Emotionally consumed by news of armed conflicts, dozens of journalists awaiting trial in Turkish jails, talk of early elections, visitors appreciated the brief window of normality.

“It’s always the same, gloomy news around. Everyone is sad, almost like in a war situation,” said Oguzhan Aksu, 21, a chemistry student, his wavy fringe neatly brushed aside, matching his smart but trendy evening look.

“Events like this help people breathe, feel secure and in peace again. It’s one normal night tonight.”