Forbes and Fashion

by Ali Friedman and Catherine Osborn

Power?/credit: Catherine Osborn

We approached today’s interview with a high-end fashion designer this afternoon from two different places, mentally and…as we came to realize afterward, morally.

Catherine had heard that this particular designer was a high-powered woman with some interesting views on feminism. It turns out the designer does not classify herself as feminist because she thinks women are superior to men, which she aims to communicate through collections inspired by powerful women in history (we’re talking female Popes and Greek scholars). Catherine was most concerned during the interview about whether to ask her opinion on the ban on headscarves in public institutions, with which the ruling AKP Party has encouraged leniency since September 2010. Ultimately, our group decided against asking outright after the designer dismissed the influence of conservative Islam (and our “typical American questions” about it) as an influence on fashion and her designs. The designer has been honored many times as one of Turkey’s top women entrepreneurs, and she gives free leadership training to young students. Catherine thought the designer was doing women in Turkey well.

It was only afterward, during a delicious dinner of kofta and aryan, that we were reminded how a group of people can experience the same event and emerge with extremely different impressions. It all has to do with the framework through which you are evaluating something. Ali and Uzra had arrived at the studio after meeting with the Editor-in-Chief of Forbes Turkey, the sole female editor of all business magazines in the country. After five years, Forbes is the number one business magazine in Turkey and doubles its competitors’ output in production. The editor also is part of an organization that works toward getting more women on executive boards in Turkey, where they currently only occupy 9% of positions. From Ali and Uzra’s perspective, the third-floor, locked showroom in Istanbul’s wealthiest neighborhood did not meet the standards of women’s empowerment they had just encountered. The isolated designer and her studio neglected the 55% of Turkish women who choose to cover their heads.

Women make different choices for headwear in an Istanbul Mango, a popular retailer./credit: Catherine Osborn

We talked about the obligations of “high-powered women.” Over time the discussion evolved into one about our expectations of the people we interview…it is one thing to quote a source in the context of a larger issue and something entirely different to evaluate that person on how well she does her job—let alone how she does her duty to her gender, or her country. How do we separate our own judgment of a person from a fair portrayal? If the designer were a different kind of artist—a rug weaver, for example—would we have been so quick to make a moral judgment? Surely we should evaluate artists among other artists.

But as Sanjena pointed out in her post, in Turkey, women’s clothing will have a meaning beyond just art for a while.