Helping young girls through the medium of art, there’s no one better to model female-empowering designer Erdem’s exclusive gown for Harvey Nichols-Dubai than Haif Zamzam.
To celebrate Erdem Moralioglu’s first ever visit to Dubai on March 23 and also his the specially designed dress for the region – he has created eight of the same design for Harvey Nichols Dubai – we spoke to the man who’s been making us stand taller for over a decade.
Warm, enigmatic and softly-spoken, Erdem is in possession of exactly the kind of energy you would expect from a man who’s in the business of creating dreams as well as dresses. Speaking to him is a little bit transcendental, although he frequently punctuates our chat with excitable bursts about what he might do next (“something with the Royal Ballet would be amazing!”), or the go-to films he feels are like a celluloid hug, (“I love Orlando with Tilda Swinton – it’s one of my favourites. I’d love to dress her one day.”)
It comes as a bit of a surprise to hear that he hasn’t already, given the number – and calibre – of women on his roll call thus far. Everyone from Diane Kruger to Kate Middleton has championed his wares over the past ten years, meaning the half-English, half-Turkish, Canadian-born, London-based designer has come to be real fashion royalty – both in Britain and beyond.
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Waving the flag for hyper-feminine style, it’s no wonder that his fan base here is as avid as they come, including local Lifestyle Consultant Haif Zamzam who volunteers for arts-based youth initiative, Weoritu. “I absolutely loved wearing this dress. It made me feel like my strength as a woman was on display. He has a beautiful way of mixing elegance with modesty which is my sweet spot,” she told us after floating around in it in the desert, its drama matching the dunes.
He may well be loved worldwide, no doubt symbolic of his multi-cultural upbringing, but it’s London that’s really embraced him into the fold. It classes him as one of its own – alongside Christopher Kane, Mary Katrantzou and Peter Pilotto, a member of the new establishment making the capital (arguably) the most dynamic fashion hub in the world. It certainly holds him up as a poster child, getting him to be part of the Olympic closing ceremony and thrusting numerous accolades in his direction (most notably 2014’s British Fashion Council’s Womenswear Designer of the Year Award).
But it’s the fact that his eponymous brand is carried in over 170 global retailers that’s the real litmus test of his international cache. In fact, the reason he’s hitting our fair shores for the first time is to launch the dress (opposite); an exclusive he’s created for Harvey Nichols-Dubai.
Flowing, feminine and floral, it’s the very epitome of his trademark style. “The biggest compliment is when someone can say ‘Oh, that’s an Erdem dress’. I think there’s something wonderful about that – the idea of creating a tangible language,” he tells us in his charming, trans-Atlantic lilt. “Ten years has flown by, but the most important thing I’ve learned in that time is to have your own handwriting and an idea of who your woman is.”
‘Woman’, as you would imagine, is a word that comes up over and over with Erdem. Not simply because it’s women’s and not menswear that’s his bread and butter, but because his brand is synonymous with strong, stylish, modern-day women in their countless incarnations. Wives, mothers, lawyers, artists – they all want a piece of his fierce-yet-feminine appeal. Seemingly conjuring the impossible, he has created a decade’s worth of unashamedly girly confections – each underscored by a kind of power that belies their whimsical prints.
They may be lacy, or frothy, or frilly – but they say strength in just the same way as a razor-sharp suit would. In fact, one could argue even more so. It’s the Erdem paradox. “The first time I ever picked one of Erdem’s pieces was for an Eid holiday in 2012,” Haif tells us. “My mum and I chose really similar dark blue floral dresses.” It’s easy to imagine, but no mean feat to have created a brand so universal that it speaks to both mother and daughter. The ultimate fashion coup.
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“I’ve always been propelled by my woman when I design,” he says, “I’ve always been thinking about her. How she moves when she’s wearing something, how does she feel, how does she sit in it, how does she walk in it… I’ve always been obsessed with her and I think that’s a big driving force of my philosophy; whether it’s in the form of a narrative to give context for a show, or whether it’s her literally – as in, my client who’s walking into my store.” A strong female influence is inevitable when you look at Erdem’s upbringing – growing up with a twin sister (a documentary film-maker), he was very close to his mother and also his wonderfully disparate grandmothers; “I used to visit them…one in Turkey and the other in Birmingham! I grew up with vast cultural differences between my parents but also huge similarities. It makes you look at things with wider eyes.”
We tell him his half-Turkish descent makes us in the Middle East deem him as one of ours, “Well I’m happy to be!” he laughs. “I’ve been to Turkey many times but never Dubai – I’m going with a very open mind. I can’t wait for the beach, and to go to a few markets, and I’ve heard the museum in Qatar is amazing.”
Coming from a combination of places, does he feel affiliated with one region over another? “I guess it doesn’t really work like that because I’m half from one place, half from somewhere else… I’m definitely a mixed creature! And it means I have a curiosity. It’s that trigger – that thing that’s going to make me want to create a collection. I’m constantly looking for a catalyst.”
It certainly comes across in his collections, every season being a rich journey into his current obsession via a character he’s dreamed to life. Real or imagined, these protaganists now famously inhabit the Erdem world every season. The ombré-dyed, pastel ostrich feathers of pre-fall? Inspired by the grand ladies of Edwardian society, as captured by the portraitist John Singer Sargent. The pulled-apart, Victoriana lace of S/S16? Prairie women gone mad. A down-at-heel 1950s heiress, a Victorian woman botanist… flip back through his collections and he gives you a cinematic perspective on fashion that few others achieve. “I always watch loads of old 30s and 40s movies from Hollywood. I just saw Shanghai Express with Marlene Dietrich and it was so good! I’m obsessed with old cinema.”
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In keeping with his curious nature, he’s famously bookish, too, “In another life I would open a vintage book store in London. My favourite book is one my mother gave me when I was in high school – Allure by Diana Vreeland,” he says, “It’s an amazing collection of images she’s put together like a visual essay of things she found beautiful – it could be a picture of a bullfighter next to an image of Maria Callas. The incongruity and irreverence is something I find really interesting and important in my work.” There’s that duality again. The practical and the pretty. The mature and naïve. And, importantly, the intellectualism next to that very simple appeal; fundamentally, his pieces are just beautiful. Beautiful to look at and beautiful to wear. “Fit is the most important thing. When a dress works, it should work on lots of different body types. I find that process really interesting – I enjoy it.” A breath of fresh air.
So what’s next for Mr Moralioglu? “Couture would be a wonderful thing to do one day. I definitely love the idea of things that have a very human hand and are made specifically for a client. To a certain extent we do a lot of made-to-measure already and definitely have lots of customers in the Middle East. There are still so many ways we can grow.”
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In the current, ever-changing fashion climate, it wouldn’t seem surprising if he took up the reigns at a big, established fashion house if asked. “The fashion landscape in London in particular has really changed over the years. There’s definitely a structure in the current fashion schedule that works. I understand there’s a kind of relentnessness to it and it’s inevitable that change happens,” he says on the topic of Burberry and Tom Ford’s new catwalk-to-closet immediacy. “When I started ten years ago, resort was never that important and now it is – hugely. Fashion will evolve whether we want it to or not – it’s the natural way that things work. But for me, I’m really focusing on what I’m doing right now and I feel like I’m in a good place just to focus on my world,” he says. The Erdem world, of dreaming, and drawing, and dresses.
Eight of the exclusive Erdem dresses are available at Harvey Nichols-Dubai for Dhs13,995 each. Erdem will be in Dubai on March 23
Styling: Carmel Gill
Photography: Vikram Gawde