Remembering Ayla Eryüksel
Ayla Eryüksel was one of the first woman fashion designers in Turkey who featured her own pret-a-porter line in the beginning of the 70’s. She was once married to my Mom’s cousin, Ömer Adula and this is how my family got to know her. Ayla Hanım as we called her, was well known for reviving an old textile from a small seaside village north of Istanbul, namely Şile. “Şile Bezi” as we call it (Şile fabric), is hand-loomed and traditionally prepared by local women for generations. Her revival does not consist of material alone of course. Ayla Hanım was a master of traditional Turkish clothing, transforming them in new ways. On the Şile fabric she used printed Turkish patterns and also embroidery.
I first got to know her in 2002 when getting ready to be married, I caused something of a turmoil in my family by refusing to wear the bridal gown. The white bridal outfit just was not for me. So I was shopping for a formal attire when mom, saddened by my decision, and not liking the dress I had bought, finally offered that we visit Ayla Hanım, who perhaps could make a nice dress for me. I agreed. We made an appointment and visited Ayla Hanım’s small workshop in the Nişantaşı district which hosts fine boutiques and a lot of textile shops in the back streets. Ayla Hanım must have been well into her 60’s then. She received us graciously and we told her the problem. In a few minutes she came up with a sketch for a simple dress which featured a wonderful collar as well as nice details around the cuffs. She suggested we head out to look for the fabric. She knew exactly what she was looking for. So it was only a matter of choosing the color. We settled for a jersey in olive green. The color was soft enough for a daytime wedding ceremony, and yet looked very modern which made me very happy. It felt fluid and formal at the same time. I think she read my mind. The soothing effect she had over this issue was like magic. After one fitting, she also told me how and where to wear flowers with the dress. Everybody was happy, and the dress, after 17 years, is still in my wardrobe, and I wore it on other occasions.
It was a natural process from there on to work on my concert attires with her. Over 17 years, Ms Eryüksel who divided her time between her ever smaller getting Istanbul pied-a-terres and her Bodrum house (she loved Bodrum!) made about ten outfits for me. Of course we had plans for more but it was so hard to catch her in Istanbul. It was only for the few winter months that she actually stayed in the city. Almost fully retired, she only took a couple of clients. However she kept making pieces that were sold in a boutique in Bodrum. She never refused to work with me though; I think we enjoyed each other a lot. She had extensive experience working with performing artists as well as with the advertisement industry from her earlier days. She enjoyed greatly the art of making dresses with traditional elements re-articulated and her understanding of comfort was beyond imagination. To be comfortable on stage playing an instrument like the harp, the arms and back must be well designed. She knew those things so well, and every single garment she made for me felt like a second skin.
As I worked more and more with traditional music she came to the rescue for my performances by designing outfits that expressed the same goals I had with my music: traditional, hybrid and modern. In 2008 Ayla Hanım made a great “şalvar” jumpsuit for the premiere of Hasan Uçarsu’s “Concerto for Harp and Çeng”. I had to be able to sit on the floor with legs crossed to play the çeng. She made a pink silk jumpsuit inspired by the “şalvar” which is traditional Turkish pants. People wrote about the outfit. It is something she suggested I could also wear in different ways, so she made a sleeveless colorful top, a batik she had dyed herself that slipped over the jumpsuit and the outfit felt different. She also suggested I wear my grandma’s Ödemiş shirt over the jumpsuit at times. With ideas like this, she actually taught me how to dress to play.
In 2013 Ayla Hanım and I went to Gaziantep in southeast Turkey to buy some fabric, “kutnu”, which is a local fabric used almost only for folk dance outfits. She made miracles with it. Outfits that were half way dress, half way şalvar…with wonderful kaftan to be worn on top. I loved the kutnu journey we had together which resulted in five outfits. “Such a rich and colorful fabric, hard to sew but so inspiring” she would say. She made a special dress for a London recital I had in 2013. Ayla Hanım was proud of this dress.
Ayla Hanım was a meticulous designer. Even in modest settings in her later years, her place always had a grandeur about it. A beautiful mirror, a lavish velvet armchair, boxes everywhere (I guess from having to move too many times), a beautiful carpet. She would always greet me and have me sit at least for ten minutes before a fitting. She said the sweat had to dry before. She would draw right there, on a piece of paper. With time, she told me that she know my measurements so well she could make the dress right ahead. Sometimes she would make a paper dress. I loved those. She would use either me or the wooden mannequin. It reminded me of days where I would dress paper dolls with cut out dresses from a book. This was all so joyful, so creative and exciting.
Ayla Hanım passed away from a heart attack in her Bodrum house in the summer of 2019. She was in her late 70’s. I do not feel Turkish fashion paid her the respect it owed her in her later years unfortunately. She still had energy to work, but no backup. I do not think anybody managed to transform traditional elements into a universal language in the way she did in Turkish fashion so far. She commanded a very fine line of couture which she blended with local flavours, just the way I needed them. We made dresses for specific projects and concerts…nothing out of the blue. And she was such bohemian artist, fragile in many ways and full of finesse with me. With her passing, she literally left me naked.
Since 2002, I am greatly indebted that she provided me with so much security on stage with the layering of musical languages I am involved in. I regret that I could not even attend her funeral as I was away from Turkey. We had plans for new outfits, with fabric ready to be done at her house. And I could not find any pictures taken together, thanks to the digital world where I am not tidy enough to hang onto things. She will live in her work, like many true artists do. May she rest in peace.