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Getting to know: Istanbul

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Can you recall the feeling you have when you meet someone and you both click for no understandable reason? I recently had this experience on a trip overseas… not with a person, but with a city – the contradictory and contrasting, ambiguous and ambitious, Istanbul.

As first impressions go, I’m smitten. I can’t put my finger on why the city resonates with me so strongly. Was it the purposeful bustle we saw all around as we crawled through the traffic at a snail’s pace? Perhaps it was the colourful array of pedestrians intent on getting somewhere – or leaving somewhere – fast? Was it the juxtaposition of the new and the old, the East and the West, the peaceful and the frenetic? Or was it simply because it feels like a city that shouldn’t function, but does so very well?  In truth, it is all of these things and more. Istanbul is a city that is more than the sum of its parts and, as such, it’s impossible to analyse and define after such a short time experiencing it.

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As befits a city of contrasts, there are also downsides. I can almost overlook the impenetrably gridlocked streets, which even feature at 1am – something Istanbul shares with the capital city of its MINT compatriot, Indonesia. However, what’s harder to ignore is the impact Istanbul’s rapid development has had on the city. From the ‘city of traders’ that brought us the Grand Bazaar in 1461 (one of the largest and oldest markets, read ‘mall’), it’s no surprise that there is a sudden predominance of markets in Istanbul, with over 90 at the last count. With such rapid change, frustration has overflowed, which is characterised by the protests we have witnessed at Taksim’s Gezi Park, one of the dwindling green spaces that used to flourish in the city. The park was due to be removed for another mall development until its reluctant reprieve by Prime Minister Erdo?an.

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During my last visit you could purchase respirators, anonymous masks and Talcid (mix 1:1 with water to reduce the effects of tear gas) in the lobby of our hotel, the perpetually ironic Mama Shelter. This gesture in itself is a testament to the strength of character of the Turkish people and it is representative of all those I had the pleasure to meet and work with.

Personal and travelogue observations aside, let’s talk shops. The latest, biggest and brightest of the malls to arrive in Istanbul is the Zorlu Centre. Zorlu is home to over 200 stores, the Raffles Hotel, residences, office space and a performing arts centre, not to mention our first Turkish fashion client, Twist. Our new store concept for Twist opened in the Zorlu Centre at the end of 2013. Istinye Park is another retail destination with a huge cross section of brands, both international and domestic. Local players of note include Mudo, a retailer that defies pigeonholing. Mudo is part home retailer and part fashion store. The retailer’s unusual mix of home, fashion and art seem to typify the eclectic nature of the Turkish psyche.

At the top end of the retail market we have Vacco, a stylish and seductive luxury house of brands that recently opened its latest re-imagining at the Zorlu Centre. Vacco is one to watch on the international stage as its brand personality and commitment to quality gives it a strength that few can match. Let’s not forget Beymen, again open in Zorlu. This store is a luxury department store for the 21st century, competing in its local market with well-established international brands such as Harvey Nichols and, in the coming years, Galeries Lafayette, which opens in 2016 on the Asian side of the city in a new development by Emaar Group.

Other homegrown brands include Vestel and Arçelik. They are characteristic of the retail markets’ openness to manufacture, particularly technology and home appliance brands. Arçelik is in fact the third-largest home appliances brand in Europe. New brands such as the menswear company Tween, a recent sponsor of the WGSN fashion awards in London, and a new brand out of the Damat Orka stable, is one to watch. You also can’t ignore the LC Wiakiki fashion brand for its penetration and success in capturing the hearts and minds of the Turkish consumer, recently voted the most recognisable brand on the Turkish high street.

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With a vibrant and eclectic atmosphere and a history of trade and retailing, it should come as no surprise that Istanbul is a hotbed of new retail brands and environments, and an exciting place to be involved in today. I can’t wait to return and continue to experience it, despite the traffic!


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