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Why This Turkish Fashion Designer Chose A Former Synagogue For Her Runway Backdrop

This Istanbul synagogue is named after the “bangs of a bride’s hair”: “Zulf-u arus”, a classic Ottoman Turkish turn of phrase, combining both Persian and Arabic words. It’s a fitting name, perhaps, for the building of a former synagogue that was chosen to serve as the stage for a fashion show as part of Istanbul Fashion Week.

Officially, it is called the Galata Sacred Synagogue, and from 1992 to 2015, it was the site of a museum dedicated to the history of Turkish Jewry.

For her show at Istanbul Fashion Week in March, designer Asli Filinta chose the Zulfaris sanctuary to be the setting for her latest collection’s debut — a collection that embraces Turkey’s multicultural heritage.

At the show, models walked ahead of the synagogue’s empty Torah ark in sheer dresses and veils, draped in embroidered lace. The electro-acoustic duo “Insanlar” (meaning, “humans”), buzzed with the psychedelic sound of Anatolian fusion as the baglama saz followed a rhythmic trance. In front of gilded columns of marble and the carved wood of the ark, the gathering evoked a poignant air. In 1890, Zulfaris was the toast of the town, renovated by the Sephardic Camondo family, now a fine art gallery and hotel.

Although her presentation of some 23 unique ensembles received glowing praise from Vogue US, which called her “ebullient” and the “name to know” — Filinta perhaps most proudly recalls the response of her Turkish Jewish friends. “After my presentation at Zulfaris, my Jewish friends came and thanked me for introducing them to this beautiful, historic place with a modern touch,” she said. “They had never been there and were so amazed.”

Turkey’s Jewish history is part of a larger story of cultural extinction, which includes many endangered cultural minorities in Anatolia. In 1923, when Ataturk founded the Turkish Republic, there were nearly 50,000 Jews in Istanbul. But between 1948 and 1951 after the founding of Israel, as many as 37,000 Jews left Turkey, despite it being the first Muslim majority nation to recognize Israel’s independence. Turkey is now home to about 15,000 Jews.

Filinta’s work is partly descendant of an ancient Jewish trade in Turkey — garments and textiles were the source of intercultural trade for Jews since the 3rd century B.C., evidenced by the ruins of Sardis Synagogue, a Romaniote house of worship discovered in Turkey’s Manisa province in 1962 by Harvard archaeologists.

“My father was in textiles,” she said. “I am hoping for a modern interpretation of Orientalism with my unique prints.” Her designs draw from exhaustive scholarship to rejuvenate Ottoman-era fashion, including that of Jews.

Filinta hails from Adana, a landlocked city in Turkey’s southeast famous for searing skies only outmatched by the heat of its peppers and the temper of its locals. The radiant corner of the Mediterranean stimulated her absorption in bright colors and interlaced bloodlines. In 2008, she started her own label, AsliFilinta, after dropping out of Parsons School of Design in New York. By then she had earned an economics degree from Bilkent University in Ankara, and worked in finance.

Her atelier in Istanbul is off-the-beaten-path, behind a nondescript storefront surrounded by grease monkeys and street food. But inside, it is stocked with her prolific output, as each rack tells countless tales from idea to sale, with fresh approaches to upcycle sustainability.

“My upcycle approach started with me having a baby. That’s when you start thinking about how to be more useful to the world,” she said. “Textiles and fashion are the second most destructive industry. We can’t expect consumers to take all the responsibility to act sustainably.”

Upstairs, above a ground floor of 19th century antiques covered and stacked with books detailing her collections and studies, Filinta walked beside her cutting table, and playfully put on one of her beflowered and sequined fezzes like an Ottoman woman at a private soirée. She displays vintage kilims from the Anatolian cities of Ushak and Bergama beside tiles and vases from the Iznik Foundation, pairing them with contemporary ceramics of Alev Ebuzziya.

“I didn’t debut my latest collection in the former building of Zulfaris Synagogue as a bold statement but to complete my story,” she says. “My fashion designs are a way of expressing that no one is better, no one is weaker, no one is stronger. During the same period, people came together to build up the society of the Ottoman times.”

She conveys her ecological, humanist philosophy through clothing design by embracing the spectrum of community life in Turkey, sourcing her fabrics exclusively from Anatolia, such as “kutnu” silk, a staple Ottoman textile. “Kutnu” is a woven silk from Gaziantep, a city east of Adana famed for its culinary palate. It is often dyed in violet, black and crimson with folk patterns knit in the “tel kirma” technique. Her research often pivots around the apex of Ottoman economic and political power in the 16th century, when sultans set trends still copied by Turkey’s orthodox religionists, like weaving metallic gold and silver threads into silk textiles to make expensive robes and kaftans. Filinta mixes and matches the pragmatics of production with traditional design. Among her inventions are reversible kaftans, sustainable one-size-fits-all dresses, a hoodie that doubles as a hijab, and a gilt-thread embroidered silk velvet dress that she sewed by hand. Her metallic threads are designed in-house, and produced only for her company, AsliFilinta. Her mosaic-like naturalistic prints, also designed in-house, are steeped in the visual motifs of the the antique Ottoman aesthetic.

Zulfaris Synagogue. Istanbul Fashion Week.

Zulfaris Synagogue. Istanbul Fashion Week. Image by Getty Images

“Ottoman silk textiles are among the most elegant textiles produced in the Islamic world,” she wrote. “In Ottoman society, which included many ethnic and religious groups, dress became a particular marker of any religious affiliation, established by law.”

Filinta also follows Turkish Islamic customs of modesty, such as wearing a transparent kaftan at the beach. “Once, I forgot my headscarf at a funeral. I asked my husband to lend me his hoodie. So, why not a hoodie that becomes a headscarf?” she said. “I am into offering new ideas. I designed it for myself and will be happy if it’s used in our modern times.”

A model wearing Filinta's designs.

A model wearing Filinta’s designs. Image by Asli Filinta

“I am offering designs for the modern world to embrace all of the treasures of our lands,” said Filinta, who first gained her signature reputation in 2013 when the ‘bible of fashion’, Women’s Wear Daily, declared her the premier young talent interpreting Turkish traditions with a global awareness.

For her latest 2019 S/S collection, she collaborated with the Iznik Foundation to produce prints that attract young eyes, while remaining authentic to the regional style of hand-painted pottery and tiles that have defined ceramics in Turkey since the 15th century.

“I worked on the archives of those periods. The miniatures, the photos and the techniques represented were the same across these lands,” she said, citing research like the 16th century draftsmen Nicolas de Nicolay and Jacopo Ligozzi, and William Miller’s 1802 book, ‘The Costume of Turkey’.

“When I was working on the archives of all the miniatures, I didn’t look [to see] if the subjects were Jewish, Romanian, Armenian, Muslim,” she said. “The culture and the history of the Ottomans is a deep ocean where I can be influenced and interpret for the modern world.”

A model wearing Filinta's designs

A model wearing Filinta’s designs Image by Asli FIlinta

“There aren’t really big differences between Jewish and Ottoman clothing,” said Nisya Isman Allov, director of the Jewish Museum of Turkey. “In the Ottoman Empire, outside of the home and synagogue, Jews could not wear green in public because it was the color of Islam.” The museum houses a collection of clothing artifacts and replicas of historical kaftans and dresses. In the archive, a long, jade-hued wedding dress from the 1700s gleamed with its gilt-embroidered fountain-like floral embellishments.

“Usually darker outfits were worn by Jewish women and men outdoors,” Allovi said. “If you were a widow, married, or according to your stature in the community, or if you were a tailor or doctor, the outfit was different. You couldn’t wear fur, or yellow shoes. You couldn’t be very shiny. But when you just look at the clothing it’s very similar.”

Historically, Ottoman Jews were forbidden from wearing better quality materials than Muslims, for some time. Jewish identity expression on the Ottoman street varied from the salwar, inner robe, belt and kaftan ensemble. They distinguished themselves among the diverse ethnic and religious tapestry with unique hats, dark robes, white shawls, and black shoes. Indoors, Ottoman residents essentially wore the same clothing. Imperial prohibitions on muslin, silk, satin, furs and other fabrics changed over time, as made evident by the proud, fur-wearing Sephardim of old Salonica.

Filinta represented every traditional type of Ottoman garment for her show at Zulfari Synagogue’s historic building, transforming the embroidered lace of private domesticities into sheer overgarments. But it is in the researched originality of her prints and the sourcing of Anatolian fabrics where she shines.

“Orientalist culture swung between fear and fascination,” she said. “When the Ottomans start to lose their power [in the 18th century], that’s when [European] admiration of the Orient started.”

Matt A Hanson is an arts and culture journalist based in Istanbul. He is writing a novel based on his Romaniote ancestors’ immigration from Ottoman Greece to New York.

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