Harem London is a cross cultural independent fashion house inspired by two legendary cities: Istanbul & London. Founded by Ozturk sisters and later rebranded by Dee Ozturk, Harem London makes wearable contemporary clothes that feel good on skin. Designed and made in their Dalston Studio in East London, each piece is made using traditional techniques and artisanal fabrics sourced from family-run mills in Turkey. Check out the interview with Harlem London designer Dee Ozturk as we had a chance to speak to her about her brand and inspiration.
Would you tell us a bit about yourself and how your upbringing in Turkey ignited your creative journey?
Born and raised in Istanbul, I came to London to study arts. Harlem London have done Costume design at London College of Fashion and then Theatre design Masters in Central Saint Martins. Coming from such a dramatic and rich cultural heritage, and studying theatre on top of that, after I graduated I started Harem first as a hobby for trading fabric, then embedded my unstoppable desire to design and rebranded as an independent contemporary fashion brand that is 100%sustainable since day 1.
Growing up in such a rich cultural city, the mixture of different cultures throughout the history of Turkey surely helped me get aware of inspiration in the arts and crafts, handcrafts, different techniques and customs of multi-cultural heritage.
Who has been the biggest inspiration for you?
Harlem London family. Harem means family too. Unlike the false translation in the European fantasy, Harem is the specific part of the Ottoman Sultans’ family where his family lives so it is sacred and precious. Same in my life, I take great inspiration from my father’s photography and vision, my four aunts, grandmothers’ handcraft knowledge… Family is my biggest inspiration. I’d love to take what I see from them create a modern inspiration of what I am taught.
You came to study in London. Was it a big cultural shock or it was easy to adjust to the new country?
it was not a super cultural shock, as I came to another metropole city which is also a multi-cultural hub, as Istanbul. There are cultural differences but it was easy to adapt as London is very accepting. I did miss home for the first years but living in London where people respect people, and the social tolerance to different cultures, people’s curiosity to learn more about you was really inspiring and comforting.
What does the word Harem mean and how does it relate to the philosophy of the brand?
As Harlem London mentioned in the 2nd question, Harem means family, and family is my inspiration… So much that my suppliers are local family businesses, people who work with me are treated and treating me like family… I think when you do what you do with love and respect, it just keeps better every day.
Your hats are quite unique and cute. How did the design come to be?
The drop hats this seasons are really the product of fun really. I am really into hand quilting and shaping fabric. I love how the hats turned out to be really sculptural and fun.
Istanbul has a very long and rich heritage and history. How much of influence did your work took from it?
A lot. It is all about not only Istanbul, but also Anatolian heritage and history Harlem London love to interpret to modern London life.
You still source fabrics from Turkey, is that correct and you also use recycled material. How do you ensure that Harem offers sustainable clothes?
Yes we do. Our fabric makers in Anatolia are a sustainable family business, and not a factory. So its artisan and pure ethical family production, we also source some fabric from factory production leftovers, so we basically try to “save” fabric and up-cycle them as we are trying to be zero waste since day 1. We don’t keep dead stock, we make garments that are order in our studio as we get orders so that’s another way of not wasting.
In your opinion what makes Harem clothes stand out from the rest?
The story, the technique and ethical values such as no dead stock. it is almost bespoke, as you order your garment is made for you. I think our ethical values and techniques make us different. It sounds crazy as a business, and people wouldn’t risk to do what we do, but we make it work.
How has the experience of running your own business been? What has been the biggest hurdles and what is the biggest lesson you learned so far?
It’s a very interesting feeling as I started with zero business plan and I went through everything with experience. I learned a lot on the way obviously. the most extreme thing about Harem is I always think about it. Even when I take a day off, I have to talk about it, I have to think about it, how to make it better, how to work things out. I guess that is the most difficult part. Going with my gut feeling is the biggest risk I took but I am not planning to give up soon. Will carry on and make my vision grow as the brand grows too.
Do you have any favorite pieces among your garments?
I do, I do love re-making the Efe capelet. I think it’s just such a playful and original design to go back. And recreate- remake with different details and different fabric. I have heard great compliments with this piece which makes me really happy, it’s the best feeling to hear people understand and appreciate your imagination.
What advice would you give to upcoming designers who wants to make independent labels?
Be brave and never give up. I thought about giving up a lot, I thought about it almost every day. But in the end you are the only person to make your dream come true.
What lies ahead for Harem?
Growing the brand community, reaching a bigger audience to understand what my vision, and then a flagship one day…