In the shadow of London’s Canary Wharf is an industrial building that even an iPhone GPS struggled to find. But the quest proved worthwhile because inside a wedged-shaped studio space is a romantic world filled with bolts of organza and lace, shelves of antique dolls, mood boards of pretty girls in vintage photographs and rails of airy pastel-coloured dresses. This is the nerve-centre of Bora Aksu, the Turkish-born, London-based designer whose mission is to create ethereal clothes for the fashion romantic.
You might not have heard of Aksu, but the designer has opened a new boutique in Harbour City, Tsim Sha Tsu. He’s not as well known as Erdem, Christopher Kane or Simone Rocha, fellow alumni of Central St Martins in London. But being under the radar has been his asset. He is one of those fashion finds that people jealously protect and in fact his label has, quietly, been a success since he staged his first fashion show in 2003. “I have this romantic style that’s a bit tomboyish, that has worked really well in Asia,” he says.
Bora Aksu is ideal for those bored with big brand names, who are looking for something individual and feminine. In partnership with Chinese-owned fashion brand Maryling, Bora Aksu has opened nine stores on the mainland, from Beijing to Kunming, in the past few months. And more are planned. Maryling recognises him as a talented designer with a brand with big potential.
“Bora has a unique iconic fashion sense: his clothes are not only beautiful on the catwalk but wearable,” says Isabelle Lee, chief executive of Maryling. “Asian girls like lace, dresses and lovely colours and his palette is pure, quiet and cute.”
Ever since he was young, Aksu has been a talented and prodigious illustrator and each store is decorated with his images: “It makes it more personal; the customer steps into my world. I even paint on the faces of the mannequins,” he confesses.
His consuming passion for drawing worried his doctor parents when he was growing up in the sun-drenched city of Izmir on the Aegean coast of Turkey. “I drew over my study books, always people, but it was only as a teenager that I discovered that what I drew could also be turned into a 3-D object – drawing became a tool to create something else.” So he decided to study fashion and enrolled at Central St Martins to learn the subject completely from the late great tutor Louise Wilson. “She was a tough cookie and pushed our creativity to the limit: it was like working in a high-end luxury company with us working for her.”
He proved to have a flair for draping fabric in the way of the great couturiers of the early 20th century and uses this technique to create volume in his clothes. “Volume can be bulky,” he warns, “so the concept is to keep it feminine with flattering volumes, especially for younger women. So the waist is kept slim and the volume is around the hem.” It is a style that works particularly well in his new spring collection, unveiled at London Fashion Week last month. There is a trend for swishy skirts next summer and his dresses have lots of movement, as does his current autumn collection, which is in-store now.
Whimsical drawings, oil paintings (something that he dabbles in periodically), collection mood boards and catwalk soundtracks make Bora Aksu’s website an engaging experience. “Like Instagram, it is a great way of communicating with people around the globe, but I feel you need to have some creative privacy, some things need to be hidden, like your way of thinking,” he muses. “I worry that the internet is somehow taking this away.” However he does think the medium will increase individuality in the way people dress – except for those who ape celebrities.
Aksu’s ultra-feminine collections are created around a story. Each has a narrative. His current collection, for instance, was inspired by someone he calls Duchess Olga. In his imagination she escaped the Russian Revolution by becoming a farm girl, which takes the collection from aristocratic silks and furs to raincoats and shearling.
His new summer 2017 collection is closer to home. Inspired by his grandmother living on the Aegean coast in the 1930s in her home-made dresses, whiling away the hours as a child in the family olive garden. With the pleating and embroideries and swishy silhouette, that sense of childlike nostalgia is strong. “I work in my own cocoon creating very personal stories from my childhood,” he explains. “Despite what the sales, the stores and the retail figures tell you, you need something like that which comes from the heart. It is more honest.”