12 minute read

Let's Talk About... HAREM London



The New Sustainable Brand in the London Fashion Week Game

The Turkish-sister-double-act is taking the sustainability world of fashion by storm with their Harem London SS21 collection, which they presented at the digital London Fashion Week.

Merging cities of Istanbul and London, the streetwear brand changed up their style for the new season by dipdying the entire collection by hand in their Dalston studio, allowing for a unique gradient for each piece. The spectrum of colours is hand-crafted from 100% organic and up-cycled materials from their previous collections.

Minimal – yet vibrant. The SS21 collection is a true ray of joy and comfort to the last few months. Taking their Turkish heritage with a contemporary London spin, the designs are a journey of growth through the lives of Harem London sisters.

Below, I speak to the design-duo, Dee and Begum Ozturk, about their heritage inspirations, the pressures of design, and the importance of sustainability for the future of the industry.

How has lockdown treated you both?

Dee Ozturk - In the beginning, it was difficult. When you produce something, you can't really do much at home, but then we got used to it. We try to be cautious at the studio and keep our distance. We’re getting this new system.

How was it designing an entirely new collection over lockdown? That must have been a challenge...

DO - That was difficult. As a designer of the collection, I always get my inspiration from the streets. So, whenever I feel like I have the designer's block, I would go out for a walk and be around people, get inspired by the amazing diversity in London. Whenever I wanted to create something new, I would travel back to Turkey; to my roots, and do some research, but obviously I couldn’t travel. Turkey has a huge history; it's made of seven parts, and each part has its own traditions. When I wasn't able to travel, that was very, very difficult. We were even considering of maybe skipping this collection, because we didn't know what the fashion scene is gonna be.

Begum Ozturk - We had a different kind of stress compared to the physical shows. We wanted to do something different and bit more interactive, as our physical events are always very interactive, because of my sister's [Dee] theatre background. She always likes to get in touch with the clients and the audience.

DO - That's another thing whenever you have a live show, you can always improvise if stuff goes wrong. But when it's digital, you're very limited. BO - Being a small brand, sometimes you have only one shot.

How do you feel about London Fashion Week being digital? Do you think or want it to continue even after the pandemic?

DO - This is interesting. I think there's a good side that London Fashion Week slowed down. But being able to do something live is a completely different feeling. I would much prefer having something live, where I can be present, explain, and answer questions. Every time we try to do something, we create an atmosphere of our environment, our habitat, where we share, but if it's digital, you use less of your senses. Where else if it's a live show - you can smell things, you can hear things, or you can touch things, see the texture. I think that's very important. So, I would love to go back to the live events.

BO - During the physical events, you can see people's faces and how they react, and you can talk to them. It’s really tricky. The advantages are that we can push ourselves to different levels. I think that the industry is out-dated, maybe there's a different world to discover now. But the priority now is obviously everyone's health.

DO - When you think about it, it doesn't have to be either one or the other - you can always mix the two aspects. That means being creative, I think. A good advantage of doing a digital thing is that you're able to reach a wider audience. So, there's pros and cons to both sides, I think.

Do you think the pandemic will affect how we produce and consume fashion?

DO - Oh, 100% Yeah. There's the good side of our industry is that people have slowed down. I believe we were living super-fast and trying to shove everything on social media; show how active you are. There was this kind of greed before. We believe fashion is going to be more season-less, and I really hope it will be. There's a very big pressure, even if you're a small brand, to create two seasons every year at least. I think this is gonna change. Absolutely, for small brands and big brands in the future.

BO – Now, the demand has fallen dramatically. People are buying less and being more environmentally friendly, which will make small brands like us more appreciated. We put so much effort and consideration into one item, a simple t-shirt. Also, I think season-less would be great for the designers. The artists' biggest asset is their inspiration, and when you pressure them to deliver they get more stressed and loose their inspiration. I think season-less is really great - for the sake of art.

DO - After this, everything will reduce, almost equalise [production-wise]. That's the advantage for small brands like us, because you can't really compete with them. Once it's about sustainability and ethical producing, it gives me enthusiasm to not quit and actually do more. I know, I will be appreciated more at one point.

One of your core values in your company is sustainability. What does sustainability mean to you? As a brand, and as a designer?

DO - Sustainability in terms of production, for us, it means there is no waste, as well as the labour sustainability, for us, that's really important. We get our fabric from Turkey. We don’t buy factory made fabric, but organic, ethically produced for us; there is no minimum order with our suppliers, which is also about supplier relationships.

That's the side I think is also linked to sustainability - it's material and labour. The great thing is that we have control from the beginning of our production so we can see what's wasted, what's used, so we don't over-order, which also great for the environment. We always recycle and we upcycle.

That's really great. You have put a lot of emphasis on your Turkish heritage in your designs and brand. Do you incorporate any traditional Turkish techniques?

DO - I was planning to include more handcraft, like embroidery or different techniques of metal engraving, but obviously, I couldn’t travel. I usually get inspired by the cuts of the Turkish traditional designs, for example, in our AW20, we got inspired by carpet patterns, which holds so much meaning. I studied what every sign means, then we came up with a design of our own. The collection is going to be on our website in October. I don't want it to look like those super traditional brands, because half of our lives were in Istanbul and half is in London, we're a mix of the two. Neither of them is more than the other to me, weirdly. This cross-culture is also a core element for us. That's why we love diversity and the cross-culture fits between the two cultures that we come from. We like to interpret this in our designs.

As you said, your designs are a mix of London and Istanbul. Which aspects do you take from which city?

DO - I get the biggest inspiration at the starting point of the design from my own culture; my own life and where I was born, then I develop it away as I live in London now. It's like the development of my life, the grand parallel. I take the traditional aspects and make it into a more contemporary and modern version, so it's very variable. My starting point is always the heritage that I try to interpret to my today. This collection, for the first time we did colours and the colour inspiration was Turkish as well. So again, the starting point is Turkish like the whole set started from colours.

I was about to mention the change of palette, because everything you did in your past collections was black and white. What urged you to try the pop of colour?

DO - A few things actually. I think it all depends on the psychology of the designer. I always loved monochrome colour, I was never a colour person. During the pandemic, Begum suggested, "let's do something we've never done before, why don't we make it more positive this year?" I started going back to my favourite movies, books, paintings - the obelisk paintings from Harem, because I can't go [to Turkey]. I selected colours, and we tried it and everything we dyed inside our studio. This was Begum kicking in creatively!

BO - Ah thank you! [Laughs]

DO - We thought that we have time now, so let's take on this challenge!

What are the factors you look for when you're sourcing materials?

DO - Sustainability is very important. We never get anything factory-made, like ever. And we try to source from local manufacturers, both for fabric and for embroidery. It's always people that we know what they do; a family business, always local producers. I think that really shows in the material.

BO - It's really important for us to have the relationship with the supplier. All our suppliers, we know them in person, we've been to their factories, we go frequently. Sometimes we talk on WhatsApp with them. It's really important for us that they understand what we do, and they appreciate our work.

DO - We share the final product with them before we launch anything as well and they give us their feedback. We always try to have this special bond between our suppliers.

What do you think is the most effective way of promoting sustainable fashion?

BO - It's doing its own marketing to be honest. Especially with the Covid situation, and with the environmentalists going - shouting really, they're not even protesting anymore, they're actually screaming. We must take care of this world, the environment, the climate change. Fashion is the second most polluting industry in the world at the moment, we have to make sure that we produce sustainably in order to make sure that we don't damage the climate anymore. I think people are already aware.

This year, especially. I've never seen so many designers doing sustainable collections.

DO - Yes! Even just in 2020. Designers who used to do mass production - small brands that we know as well, they started talking about sustainability. It's good to see them change.

BO - A couple of years ago, sustainability was the label of the luxury branding. However, now it's becoming more mass as well.

DO - More popular.

BO - I mean, it shouldn't be ‘popular’. It should be something timeless to stay in this industry. As you can see, with COVID especially, a lot of brands had to declare bankruptcy because the way they were doing it was too fast; huge mass production factories. They were so big and couldn't do it sustainably and ethically, so they just crumbled. To stay in this industry and to be honest to your own clients, I think you have to be sustainable. As you said, we see people using these words, just as a marketing material. We would love to have you in our studio, you will see we have our own tables, we have our girls doing our stuff, and it's just really like a family - because our name is HAREM, which means family.

Can the future of fashion be truly sustainable?

DO - If we raise our children, the next generations, and the generations after that, and they are taught in a certain way - this has a bigger chance for fashion to be more sustainable. If we can defeat the consuming ideology, then maybe.

BO - I think there are two aspects to it - business wise, during this capital economical system, it's impossible because of the supply and demand, and the demand is huge. The current system must change or adapt to become more sustainable. I did my Master's in consumer behaviour, and the consumer’s habits always change. For example, when you buy a new iPhone, at first, it's so difficult, isn't it? But then within two weeks, you get used to it. So, what I'm trying to say is that consumers, if they actually push themselves, and if they want to change, if sustainability becomes a habit to them, then it is possible. In the fashion industry now, all these brands, they are not sustainable. And they cannot be because they have a business plan, and their structure is completely based on the capital of them. To change that, it's really, really difficult. However, if the consumers demand this strongly, which, in my opinion, can happen in the next 20 years, then I think it is possible.

DO - I think that means education and being aware. We need to teach the new generations how this is affecting the climate and the people. Labour and production in countries like China are not humane. I think once people are aware, and if they teach their children, then in the future it might change, but it’s difficult to say. I really wish it would.

BO - It is difficult, financially as well. Some people cannot afford to buy sustainably - for a family with three children, it’s impossible! But for sustainable brands like us, we cannot be sustainable, ethical, and organic, and be cheap. The production costs are not like those mass-produced brands. So, I think it’s important for people to understand why these items may be a bit more expensive. Obviously, there are brands that are completely taking the piss, don’t get me wrong… It’s about a system that has been going for decades, which simply isn’t working anymore. It is possible to change it, especially nowadays the small up-and-coming brands that are sustainable, when they become the ‘big’ brands they will try to keep sustainable practices. The new generation, our generation, is asking the right questions; about diversity, about inclusivity, environmental issues, climate change. These are the right questions and it shows a bright future ahead of us.