Turkish ninjas, identity and championing sustainable fashion: An interview with Emre Pakel
Left: Sustainability and fashion, photograph by Ferda Demir. Right: Turkish Ninja from Pakel Cooperation Spring-Summer 20 campaign, photograph by Jiyan Kızılboğa. Images provided by Emre Pakel.
Emre Pakel is an independent designer currently based in Milan. In recent years, after creating his brand in 2018, he took part in fashion weeks such as the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Istanbul (2019). His work has been featured in L'Officiel, Forbes, Esquire, Wait! Fashion mag, among others.
Together we talked about collections like Fatality’s ‘street avantgarde’ look which is an allusion to ‘surviving in the fashion world’; his reflection on ethnic origins, headscarves, bags, Japan, and his latest collection ‘Isn’t Less Enough? Ecological background’.
Javier Ormeno (JO): So, how do you want to do this? Your work has many aspects that tick the boxes in my checklist: your reflection on your origins, mobility, scarves and bags…
Emre Pakel (EP): Maybe, we can start from the beginning of my fashion studies. As you know, a lot of fashion learning is done through mentoring and coaching and one issue is to find your own DNA. In this quest, one of my mentors challenged me to receive inspiration from Turkish costumes and motifs. In my research, it was obvious that Turkish culture and fashion has been inspired or invaded by US and Western fashion to the point that you cannot reconstruct our traditions. In most designers, the Western gaze is too present; that bridge with the past had long gone. We blew it forty years ago.
JO: Yet your work I would dare to say is very Turkish.
EP: Well, my mentor told me that if I couldn’t find references outside, I should look into my own DNA. So, I started looking at my roots. I always felt strange. I am Turkish, of course, but also Armenian and Greek. We are migrants. Turkish people themselves come from different backgrounds and they arrived in Anatolia from the East centuries ago. My collection of bags came from the idea of my ancestors travelling down the long road carrying their possessions. The complementary scarves are a way of protection. It is local fashion powered by multiple migrations [he smiles].
My multicultural family is just like Istanbul: in between West and East, Christians and Muslims. Also, we have our traditions that we preserve and respect. And at the centre of all is the idea of caring for each other more than for religion or ideology.
JO: I would say that both your headscarves and bags convey the idea of caring and protecting. Might that be related to your ‘Fatality’ collection, the Turkish ninja one?
EP: It is a unisex collection that presents you with hero costumes. ‘Fatality’ is inspired by a video game. It also draws from the Far East and Turkey and a splash of colour. You see, most people feel they need protection, so they find shelter in religion, cover behind borders or barriers. If there were no barriers or ideologies, the world would be one, just us. But we feel weak and need these divisions. If we see a hero, we want them to fight for us. To protect us. Some people see this in the collection, finding an idol. But my idea is that these are costumes. You have to strive for being your own protector, you will be the hero. Basically you drop the idea of external norms and protection.
JO: Basically Nietzsche’s idea of Übermensch in a Turkish ninja attire.
EP: Fighting to construct your own identity, to be yourself. Rather than choosing a hero to protect you or fight for you (as in the game), an idol in life, an external reason to believe, we are our own heroes living our own lives. We destroy or pronounce fatality to all that oppresses us or divides us. We do not need to create heroes, we have our unique talents… Maybe you haven’t discovered this yet and the collection wants to inspire you.
EP: Yes, while the ideas of sustainability and transformation have been around for a while, people have liked the fresh vision a foreigner brings. In this case, putting two things together. The big fashion industry in New York or Paris or Milan have visions, and people on the move always bring new ideas and create fresh things. As I mentioned I believe people are people, we are all beautiful, regardless of our nationality. We each bring our vision informed by our unique histories and background. Here, each hero inspires us to think globally and do our part in caring for the Earth. We work together for a better future tackling climate change even if we won’t be there. This is a way of real solidarity. So, we do this in two ways: one is using materials that last longer and can be recycled; the other one is producing less. This is where transformation joins sustainability. We are designers. Recycling is not the only solution; it also lies in how we design. We can think of items that can have more than one purpose. This reduces the use of materials. Multi-function, sustainable fashion.
I designed this collection caring for younger people and climate activists, listening to what they have to say about their needs. Unlike most of us, younger people are used to thinking globally. Internet-like mobility helps broaden the mind.
JO: You know you are also young?
EP: Well, I tell people to go and discover other cultures. You don’t need to leave your life behind to learn from other cultures, knowing that you can cooperate with other different people. With my fashion, I want to suggest that people start from themselves, spread love from our own self-recognition as heroes based on Earth and caring for Earth and not an individual country, thus working for a better future.
With a philosophy background, Javier got involved in humanitarian action around the globe, working for the Red Cross Movement between 2008 and 2019. His MA in Human Rights (UCL) was an opportunity to reconnect with academia and articulate his experience. His research links arts and justice (including transitional justice, LGBT+, migration rights, and identity). Besides being involved with the Theatre of Transformation, he is Research Tutor for Diplo Foundation. His interest in performance and pottery seems to be somehow related to his self-declared addiction to matcha. Javier is a Spanish editor at Routed Magazine.