Istanbul's Tailors (from winter 2014)

The period around the New Year in Turkey was one of considerable political upheaval, with the government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan embroiled in a corruption scandal and frequent demonstrations in the streets and squares of Istanbul and other cities. In Moda, on the Asian side of Istanbul, one graffiti sprayed on bank windows and cement barriers during a nighttime demonstration read "This filth will be cleaned up by the people." And indeed, early the next morning a city worker was painting over the signs as others swept the debris of barricades and fires off the streets.

The people work a lot in Turkey. A six-day work-week is commonplace, and a seven-day one only moderately less so. Though many Turks own their own businesses, these are often one- or two-person operations requiring the owner’s constant presence.

A four-storey building in the Beyoğlu district of Istanbul houses 
no fewer than three tailors ("terzi").
Tailors are a prime example. Istanbul has what seems like a surfeit of them; each neighborhood has several, and some buildings even house two or three. This is partly the legacy of an earlier period in the city's history, when specialty shops tended to be concentrated on a single street or neighborhood (as in New York's one-time garment district). One can still see blocks or streets in Istanbul lined with engraving shops one after the other, or clusters of kitchen supply shops, lighting shops, gown salons and sundry other commercial venues in clusters.

The number of tailors in Istanbul is also surprising given the extent to which the trade has declined in other parts of the world. The widespread availability of inexpensive, off-the-rack clothing has made the cost of having clothes mended or altered seem impractical when new ones are so affordable. Ready-made clothing is no less available and no more expensive in Turkey, yet a great many tailors still make a living—however precarious—from their trade.

Over the period spanning December 31, 2013 to January 6, 2014, I conducted seven interviews with tailors working in different parts of Istanbul: in Kadıköy and Üsküdar on the Asian side, in Beyazıt near the famous Grand Bazaar, and in the old city center of Beyoğlu on the European side. The questions were not about politics or current events, but about work, and although the interviews were recorded, as all were conducted in Turkish, the recordings are not appended here. Instead, I have sought to summarize and relay highlights from the interviews to offer an impression of the working lives of Istanbul's tailors, how they are changing, and how these men and women view their trade.

Most of the tailors I approached were working when I entered their shops and kept at it 
Two tailors at work at Bizim Terzisi, Kadıköy
throughout the interview, at machines or on cutting tables or with needle and thread or marking chalk. Only one outright declined an interview; two others told me they would gladly agree to one, but were too busy at that moment with an order and asked if I could come back the following day or an hour or two later. The seven I did speak with were ready enough to answer questions, but the moment a customer came through the door—which happened at least once at each establishment during the course of the interview—their attention turned fully to the customer and I became as if invisible.

This was no small feat in several places, as a tailor's workshop in Istanbul tends to be a tiny space in the back of a residential building, up a flight or two of stairs, and not infrequently windowless. Unlike in the US, where their work is often combined with dry cleaning and occupies the same space, in Turkey tailors have shops of their own. Sometimes these enterprises are marked with a sign on the street "Terzi" (Tailor), but often you would only know there was a tailor in the building if you somehow already knew there was a tailor in the building. To get to Mustafa Altıntop's Model Tasarım Terzisi, for example, you have to pass through a curtain at the back of another shop, Hey Müzik ve Tekstil.

Ali Öner of Özlem Terzi in Beyazıt
Most of the tailors I spoke with were men whose origins were in eastern Turkey and who had been working as tailors for at least twenty years. Rıza Akbaş, who has a shop in Beyoğlu that specializes in making men's suits and jackets, told me that to be a good tailor a minimum of twenty years experience is necessary. Young tailors are now few and far between. Akbaş has an assistant, Mahmud Yavuz, who is twenty-three: "The youngest tailor in Turkey," Akbaş repeated twice during the interview. As I was preparing to take photographs, Yavuz stopped his ironing and came over to carefully straighten the measuring tape that was hanging around his boss's neck.

Though Yavuz is unusual in that he is still quite young, most tailors started learning the trade before they reached their teens, with apprenticeships of between six and eight years duration. Ali Öner of Özlem Terzi ın Beyazıt spoke about how he ran away from his home in eastern Anatolia at the age of thirteen and came to Istanbul, where he lived in a tailor's shop while working there as an apprentice. Kerim Erdoğan (no relation), who owns a shop in Beyoğlu, started his apprenticeship at age eleven. Coming from a very poor family, he added, the profession was chosen for him.

Mustafa Altıntop of Model Tasarım Terzisi, Kadıköy
In fact, although very few came from tailor families, most also did not choose the profession for themselves. A notable exception is Mustafa Altıntop, who had been doing piecework for a large clothing manufacturer in the eastern Anatolian city of Trabzon when he fell in love with a girl who worked as a tailor and decided to become one himself. "The love didn't last, but the trade did," he laughed. Like many practicing tailors in this city of 14 million, Altıntop works six or seven days a week. I spoke with him on New Year's Eve and he told me he would also be in the following day at around 11a.m., "What if someone needs something?" Like the others, he was clearly proud of his work and made several references to the "precision" he brought to the craft, and how customers are often referred by others who were satisfied with his work.

Müğe Deniz is atypical. She is a woman and young (like Yavuz she is just twenty-three), but like others in the business she started working in her mother's shop, Terzi Mukadder, at 
Mukadder Yılmaz and Müğe Deniz at Terzi Mukadder
age twelve and works long hours. In addition to helping out in her mother's shop in Üsküdar, she also teaches kindergarten and does secretarial work for a construction company. Her mother, Mukadder Yılmaz, who came in while I was speaking with Müğe, said nine-hour days, six days a week were the norm for her, and that she only ever dared to take vacations of three to four days for fear of losing customers. Though they feel that as women they bring a certain care to their work that men often do not, when asked what a typical tailor is like, both women pointed to a man in his late sixties with a mustache and a measuring tape around his neck who worked for them—and in fact did not cease working for the duration of my stay in the shop—and laughed.

Though the tailors in Beyoğlu similarly work long hours and six-day weeks, their situation is markedly better than that of tailors in other parts of the city. Their vacations are more leisurely, ten to fifteen days long, and their shops are large, consisting of two rooms—one for cutting and another for sewing. Both specialize in making clothing from scratch and their clientele tends to be wealthy and cosmopolitan; not everyone can afford to have a bespoke suit. Akbaş proudly showed me the business card of one of his clients, an official at the US consulate in Istanbul. 

Tailors from other parts of town generally designate Beyoğlu as the district where the best
Çağlar Kumaş (fabrics) across from Kerim Erdoğan's tailor shop in Beyoğlu.
 of Turkey's tailors can be found. The tailor who makes Prime Minister Erdoğan's suits, Terzi Amca, is based there. The reason for this concentration of skilled practitioners, says Kerim Erdoğan, is that Beyoğlu was historically home to Greeks and Armenians, the original master tailors from the Ottoman era. Most of them left or were driven out of the country over the course of the twentieth century as the Ottoman Empire collapsed and gave way to the modern Turkish Republic. But Beyoğlu continues to house the country's best tailors. One advantage of being there, Erdoğan said, was the proximity of fabric and trim shops. There is a fabric shop just across the street from him, Çağlar Kumaş, where, after the interview, I saw three men standing out front examining a bolt of fabric in the last minutes of daylight. 

The tailors in Beyoğlu are also among the few in the city who still specialize in making 
Rıza Akbaş in a three-piece suit he made himself (his assistant,
Mahmud Yavuz, is in the background)
clothing. Some of the tailors in other districts told me they used to do more clothing from scratch, but that their work had increasingly shifted to alterations and repairs. When asked whether they considered their occupation a living, a trade, an art or a craft, the common response was "living" and "trade." Only the tailors in Beyoğlu were adamant that they practiced an "art," and keen to make a distinction between what they do and the kind of work done by others in the city. Repairs and alterations were not the work of "real tailors," both insisted; true tailorship is a creative undertaking that requires special skills and expertise. It takes about four days to make a suit, Akbaş told me, "The jackets are the hardest, and that is what we do best." Both Akbaş and Erdoğan were wearing clothes they had made themselves. Akbaş wore a natty navy blue three-piece suit with gold buttons, and Erdoğan, in his black corduroy pants with a matching vest and an understated wide tie, looked the epitome of working-chic.

A further distinction between the tailors of Beyoğlu and the others was the decor in their shops. Whereas most tailors in other areas had images, clippings, and often a Turkish flag or a photograph of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (or both) on their shop walls, the decor in 
Mustafa Ağınlı's shop inside the Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı) in 
Beyazıt features  several common attributes of Istanbul 
tailors' decor: a Turkish flag, a photograph of Atatürk, and an empty 
glass of tea. 
Beyoğlu consisted only of the tools and products of the trade and the ubiquitous two-tiered teapot. Just about everyone I spoke with started the conversation with an offer of tea. Mustafa Ağınlı, whose shop is tucked into one of the dead-end corridors of the famous Grand Bazaar (Kapalı Çarşı) in Beyazıt, even pointed to a backgammon board on a shelf on the wall and asked if I knew how to play. Ağınlı is technically retired, but he continues working to augment his pension and added with a dry irony that otherwise pervaded his responses, "If I stayed at home, I would just fight with my wife."

Because his shop is in an area with heavy tourist traffic, Ağınlı encounters a lot of foreigners, but relies on friends to help him communicate with them as he speaks only Turkish. The location makes him less dependent on the cycles that otherwise affect tailors working in the city. For them, winter is the slowest time and late summer the busiest—with the start of school, the abundance of weddings, and moving Muslim holidays such as Kurban Bayram and Ramadan. 

The hardest thing about being a tailor in Istanbul, Yılmaz told me, is the time pressure, "customers want things right away and it means we are always in a rush." I had a chance to see for myself what she meant. At Ali Öner's shop, a customer came with a pair of pants, which he altered on the spot; Öner measured the man's leg and sewed the hem in a matter of minutes. Another young man came in with a shirt. "Can you come back in two hours?" Öner asked. The customer said he had to go somewhere, so two hours was talked down to half an hour and for the remainder of the interview, Öner was cutting the seams on the cuffs as we spoke. Kerim Erdoğan initially told me he had no time to do an interview, but when I said I was unlikely to pass that way again, he pointed to a stool across from where he was working. "Ask," he said, and for the whole of the interview he sat there, one leg propped on a footstool, bent over a pair of pants that he was stitching with needle and thread for a customer who was leaving for Germany the next day.

There exists a union for textile workers in Turkey called TEKSİF. The Istanbul branch is 
Recep Türkmenoğlu (left) and Kerim Erdoğan at work on suit for 
a customer who was about to leave for Germany.
called the İstanbul Tekstil ve Örme Sanayi İşçileri Sendikası (Istanbul Textile and Weaving Industry Workers' Union) and has a reported membership of 11,600. The stated mandate of the union is “to protect the economic and social rights of its members in labor relations and to promote their interests and development. To effect this purpose, the state’s territorial and national integrity should be safeguarded and preserved in the spirit of Atatürk’s principles.” The union collects dues and holds meetings, but none of the tailors I spoke with held a very high opinion of it, and several claimed either not to be members or—in one case—that it didn't exist. When asked whether and how the union functioned, Ağınlı smiled and said, "We're in Turkey." 

Though it was clear the trade had changed a great deal since these tailors started working in it, Akbaş concluded with a heavy sigh that soon the kind of work he does will no longer be practiced by anyone because everyone will be buying suits off the rack. Erdoğan felt the most marked changes were in the fabrics and the customers: the fabrics had become thinner and the customers more difficult. Akbaş similarly waxed horrified about the proliferation of cheap, low-quality "Chinese" fabrics. English fabrics remained the best, he said. 

Yılmaz believes that the most essential characteristic of a good tailor is patience and being able to listen to customers and understand what they want, which is not always easy. Above all one has to be available to them all day, more or less every day of the year. Yılmaz is noticeably proud to have plenty of business and no shortage of work, but confessed that she sometimes found it difficult to work so much without a break. "I would have liked to travel, see the world" she said, "but it wasn't meant to be."