Time goes on, technology develops, and some things become easier. However, there are also some things that keep their place. If you listen to the stories of a few generations back, you might frequently hear them say, “Back then, there weren’t so many clothing stores. We’d choose the highest quality fabrics and have our clothes made by the most famous tailors.”
The story of dressmaking started in the early phases of history when humans used pieces of bones as needles to make clothes out of animal hides to keep themselves warm. The development of weaving led to the first steps of sewing as we know it. Back in the day, tailors would receive a number of commissions and work until the morning light to deliver them. The busy days at their stores, especially before special days like bairams, could be compared to modern sales days. If one wished to become a master tailor, they would start working as an apprentice with famous tailors as soon as they finished primary school. After working for at least 10-15 years, they would become journeyman apprentices and then masters. There was no other way to own clothes: either you sewed them yourself or had them made by a tailor! The biggest masters of this profession in Istanbul were mostly Jewish and Armenian.
The nostalgia we feel for the past keeps the interest in tailors alive as they are resisting mass production or one-type design. Standing out with their haute couture, Kağan Gökalp, Levon Kordonciyan, Tacettin Şeker, and Sayım Uyanık continue to be preferred by those who care about the way they look. I am excited to visit their workshops to listen to their journeys, stories, and to learn the secrets of this profession.
Levon Kordonciyan is one of the first names that come to mind in Istanbul and Turkey when one talks about custom-made tuxedos. Having served many personalities including Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the brand of Kordonciyan is also a part of popular culture. Before the Clothing Reform took place, Atatürk selected seven tailors who were masters in designing hats, gloves, shoes, and clothes in general. Levon Kordonciyan (the senior) was working as a journeyman apprentice with a Turkish-Greek tailor in Sultanhamam. With his master’s reference, he was sent to Paris with other selected names. After a six-year training in making frocks, redingotes, bonjours, morning coats, and tuxedos, he returned to Istanbul and opened his first workshop. As his debt of gratitude to Atatürk, Kordonciyan trained many tailors across Anatolia without demanding any charge. For four generations, his family continues this profession with a personal contact with their customers. Kordonciyan has dressed many people who value its art from politicians to artists, businesspeople to journalists including Barack Obama, Frank Sinatra, Marlon Brando, Brad Pitt, Hugh Jackman, and Cem Yılmaz. “We’re doing this job not based on rumors but on what we've experienced and seen. Our fabrics are washed with our secret shampoo in special pools for six months. This formula enables our clothes to breathe. They absorb the smell of cigarettes and oil when indoors and release it outside,” Kordonciyan says when talking about their fabrics.
Owned by Sayım Uyanık, Rainier is favored not only by business and sports circles but also by senior politicians including President H.E. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan whose ties they've designed. Sayım Uyanık took an interest in this profession thanks to his uncle who brought haute couture pieces from abroad in the ‘90s and sold them here. Uyanık says, “I looked into how I could do this job online or via a phone call without tiring people and taking too much of their time. I realized that I could not become successful if I were to continue the traditional tailoring culture. It was an obligation to change the old habits of this profession. I came to realize that my brand could become exquisite, high-quality and distinguished among others only if I transform the tailoring culture into a store chain.” Based on this principle, Uyanık built himself a team and started to mass produce clothing – five shirts during a two-hour movie break.
Tacettin Şeker is another master tailor who began this profession in Beyoğlu in 1987. I meet him at his store, Taji, on Abdi İpekçi Street, and he begins to talk about their journey which began with the opening of their first store in 1999. In later years, they advanced their goals by expanding abroad. Their most characteristic feature is a service they call “wardrobe assistance” in which they provide assistance to their customers who find it hard to decide what to wear and which style to follow for special occasions or in daily life. Their brand, Taji, has been very popular with celebrities both in Turkey and abroad including renowned NBA player Miloš Teodosić whose wedding suit they designed.
I head towards my next stop at İstinye Park, keeping in mind that doing one’s job with love leads to the greatest results. Blending a nostalgic understanding and a contemporary approach with the brand Milimetric founded in 2002, Kağan Gökalp says, “Customers make their dreams come true in our stores. We realize their favorite designs with fabrics they prefer based on their proportions and anatomy. They choose their own fabric, model, collar, lining, and buttons. We also have some cutting techniques that make heavier customers look slimmer and shorter customers look taller.” Offering custom-made pieces for men including suits, wedding suits, capris, bow ties, and sashes, they have also received some interesting commissions such as golf pants or jockey jackets. They even made a gown for an academic.
Although their profession is believed to be falling into oblivion, these four master tailors have kept up with modern popularity, become respectable and popular, had their own frequent customers, and built themselves a brand. What they have in common is their love for what they do and desire to make a difference. As I said in the beginning, old habits die hard despite the passing of time. The haute couture tailors of the past continue to keep their profession alive with a modern and branded version.