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Erdem Moralioglu on diversity and the power of femininity

Interview with Canadian designer Erdem Moralioglu

Erdem CAFA Awards interview

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Erdem Moralioglu on diversity and the power of femininity

Erdem’s fall fantasy comes with velvet, lace, and a touch of politics.

It’s the afternoon of the fourth annual Canadian Arts & Fashion Awards (CAFAs)—a megawatt gala recognizing the best in Canadian talent—and Erdem Moralioglu is a little jittery.

It’s understandable, though. The unassuming designer is nominated for International Canadian Designer of the Year against stiff competition from fashion darling Tanya Taylor and rising star Vejas. During our chat in the plush private shopping suite at The Room at Hudson’s Bay in Toronto, the bespectacled Montreal native is charmingly self-deprecating about his work—but not in the typical “Aw, shucks” Canadian way. He just seems to really, really love it. And so do the women who wear his clothes. Moralioglu’s dynamic creations attract a variety of clients from the A-list (Natalie Portman, Anne Hathaway, Kate Middleton) to the political (Michelle Obama, Texas senator Wendy Davis—the latter wore Erdem while holding an 11-hour filibuster to block a bill that would reduce access to abortions). His evocative reworked florals, textures and nuanced prints speak to many, and he embraces designing with an unpretentiously feminine silhouette in mind. “I think that the idea of femininity, true femininity, is something that’s an extraordinary power,” he says. “I’ve never, ever felt like it was weak.”

We (happily) concur. Here’s our conversation with the designer, who went on that evening to win at the CAFAs.

Your fall/winter 2017 collection pays homage to your family and politics—not your usual influence landscape. “The fall collection was really important, and it felt that way in my head. When I was designing it, everything was happening: Brexit happened; Trump came into power. I felt it particularly in England, where I live. There was this feeling of xenophobia...and it felt like a really strange place. I started to reflect on my family background, which is something I never do; my work has always been a kind of narrative and a story.”

And what is the story for fall? “My great-grandmother on my mom’s side was English; she spent a lot of her time alone because my great- grandfather, who was a member of the Royal Scots, died in the First World War. My great-grandmother on my father’s side grew up near the Syrian border in Latakia. The collection was based on this idea of an improbable meeting between them—what the exchange and discourse would be. It’s a celebration of the mixture that I would eventually become—from these two people from two very different cultures, two different religions, two very different places.”

Tell me about a special piece in the fall collection. “There is a velvet dress worn by Aleece Wilson, a Canadian model who has amazing freckles and red hair. Her dress is a bias cut, made of tartan from the Royal Scots, mixed with Ottoman miniatures and other clues as to what would have happened if my two great-grandmothers had come together. I thought that kind of mixture was wonderful. I like clothes that have little secrets.”

Your father is from turkey, your mother is English and you were raised in Montréal. Do you feel Canadian? “My sister and I are the only Canadians in our family. When you’re the child of an immigrant, there’s automatically a slight disconnection from that sense of roots. My parents died when I was quite young, but being Canadian is who I am; it’s where I grew up. In a weird way, maybe that fall collection is really about how we’re all from very different places and that is what Canada celebrates. London is where I live with my partner and work—my store is there. But I feel totally Canadian.”

Did you feel even more Canadian after watching Brexit happen and trump take office? I know I did. “It made me realize how much more accepting Canada is. The world is a funny place. On one side, it’s so progressive—when I was 19, I never thought I would be able to get married because I’m gay. On the flip side, I never thought what’s happening in America was possible. It’s a very confusing time.”

I wonder how designers will react to these changes in the political landscape. “Often, fashion either responds or offers an escape. I think there are ways of saying something very quietly and beautifully. That’s what I was trying to express with the fall collection. It felt very important.”

You have since expanded to include accessories, shoes and... “Jewellery and sunglasses! But, yes, the shoes have been something. I really, really enjoy that process; I work very closely with a beautiful old factory in Italy. It’s exciting. It’s the idea of a whole look, which for me is amazing.”

Your clothing is available up to size 12—unusual for high fashion. It still surprises me that it’s news that “Oh, you can get this dress in a larger size.” “My clients come in all different sizes. I think fit is most important, and it’s a great joy for me to see my work being worn by different women from so many different backgrounds. You know, like Wendy Davis, when she did her filibuster in Texas wearing a dress of mine, and then a woman like Keira Knightley. They’re both amazing, extraordinary and powerful women.”

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Erdem Moralioglu on diversity and the power of femininity