We seem to be floating in a sea of white tulle, lace and silk, with semi-precious gems, beads, sequins, butterfly wings and silk roses in pale colors thrown in. Mercilessly surrounded by a wide variety of wedding gowns, we conclude that anything goes: Turkish, Italian, décolleté, sequined, head-scarved, fluffy like a cream puff, slim like Audrey Hepburn’s ball gown in “My Fair Lady,” or a pants suit that faintly resembles the Bride’s attire in “Kill Bill.” We are at the “IF Wedding Fair” in İzmir, the largest fair of its kind in Turkey and the third largest in Europe, with 40,000 square meters devoted to wedding gowns, groom costumes, wedding wear and accessories.
A long-limbed girl covered head-to-toe in black, with sequins in silver at her throat, waist and hem, passes by. I cannot resist asking her whether this is a bridal gown and she replies seriously: “Not this one. But you can find the same model in white, too.”
My companion, a LSE-trained lawyer of international experience who is tough with intellectual property rights but soft on anything remotely romantic, is dazzled. She points out one gown after the other, with a particular sympathy to the gowns by the fair’s guest of honor, Alessandro Rinaudo, and a new, young producer of bridal wear, KnightandBride, which targets “natural” brides with its organic silks. I got the feeling that she was not only choosing her own wedding gown but the dresses of the bridesmaids.
I, on the other hand, am her anti-thesis. For my first wedding, I solved the problem by wearing my mother’s wedding gown. For the second wedding, a beach party, I simply donned a beach dress. My hairdresser, feeling cheated out of the sumptuous fee he would charge for the “bridal head” (around 350 – 1,350 Turkish Liras) tut-tutted my decisions to simply put some orchids in my hair. If someone had to tweet about the ceremony back then, it inevitably would have been that “the bride wore a short dress and an even shorter temper.”
Fortunately for Turkey’s $650-million bridal industry that employs 80,000 people, my friend is more the norm and I, the exception. According to Nagehan Avcı, the editor-in-chief of the “Evleniyoruz” magazine, an Istanbul-based periodical of fifteen years that specialized in weddings, weddings are the times when no family would try and cut corners.
“It is not simply an event but a process, a stamp of status, for all budgets,” she toldHürriyet Daily News as she distributed her magazine in a booth at the fair. “It is a huge show that now includes the asking for the hand, engagement ceremony, the bride’s henna night, the wedding and the after-party. The centerpiece is, of course, the wedding gown as it is a reflection of a young girl’s dreams, the fashion, status and, of course, the orientation of the family.”
The cover of one of her magazines shows a “covered bride” in purple. Asked when she started publishing conservative bridal wear, her reply is clear: “I resisted putting covered brides in my magazine until 2012, simply because I did not find them particularly aesthetic. But the sector of conservative bridal wear has grown too big to ignore. The sales of head-scarved gowns are further boosted by imports to the Middle East. They are more extravagant, more ornamental and definitely more expensive. They also refrain from sticking to white and opt for more colors, particularly green and purple.”
The more conservative couturiers, such as have taken over Hall B, which is both more spatious and more crowded than Hall A, where “open” bridal gowns are. Brands with names such as Mikel Aşk, Zehrace and Nurbanu have also held their joint fashion show on the fourth day of the five-day fair and the participation was notable. The dominant figures of İzmir, who have come to the gala to pose alongside Italian fashion designer Alessandra Rinaudo, were, not surprisingly, absent.
Hatice Çetin, one of the first-timers in the fair, who specializes in conservative, multi-colored gowns, says her creations have raised the interest of foreign buyers, mainly from Iraq and Jordan. A shy woman in her late thirties, she says she started sewing as a hobby, and then developed it as a business. She aims to come back to the fair with a “larger and stronger” collection next year.
İzmir’s important role in the bridal gown industry
İzmir’s strong-minded Mayor Aziz Kocaoğlu, who opened the IF Wedding Fair in İzmir’s new fair space in Gaziemir, boasted that three out of four wedding gowns in Turkey are produced in İzmir. The industry sources put the figure around eighty percent and further note that thirty percent of the bridal gowns in the Middle East are made in İzmir. İzmir Ekonomi University research, carried out by Elvan Özkaynak Adanır, Seda Kuleli, Özge Dikkaya Göknur and Aykut Kuleli, says İzmir has already started being recognized as a mass production center of bridal wear, like Milano and Barcelona.
This year, 198 companies participated in the fair, about three times as much as the number of participants when the fair was first launched a decade ago. It has become an important hunting ground for buyers from Spain, Italy, Portugal and the Middle East. According to the İzmir Ekonomi University research, European countries and Russia have imported 400,000 wedding gowns in 2011.
İzmir’s potential as a mass exporter of bridal gowns is fed by two factors: historically, the local textile industry has been strong from the Ottoman period onwards. There has always been the manpower (or rather, womanpower) who knew how to sew Western-style wedding gowns in İzmir, ever since the first “Western-style wedding gown” was worn by Naime Sultan, the daughter of Abdulhamit II, in 1898. Her choice, a break-away from the color red that symbolized the Ottoman dynasty, had been criticized.
“Isn’t there something ironic about the fact that the wedding sector just soars in the city which tops the divorce rate in Turkey? Or are the main buyers outside the city?” I ask Avçı.
The figures of the Turkish Statistics Institute reveal İzmir to be one of the two cities – along with Antalya – with the highest divorce rate in Turkey, with 6 percent. (Compare this to Paris, where one out of every three marriage ends in divorce and wonder why the Turkish Parliament is so alarmed that they established a committee to look at divorce results!)
Avcı answers with a laugh: “İzmir itself is an excellent market for wedding wear. There are many remarriages and no qualms about wearing a wedding gown for a second or a third wedding. One of my clients has been married five times and wore a white or off-white gown in all of them.”
Ah, this may be the only solution if you cannot decide on a single dress – or man, for that matter.