Designer Rifat Ozbek, London's Young Turk, Dazzles the Rag Trade with a Theme for All Seasons
The only constant in Ozbek's quick-change career is the enthusiasm of fashion observers and an ever-growing young and hip client list that includes Whitney Houston, British TV hostess Paula Yates (Mrs. Bob Geldof), Yasmin Le Bon (Simon's wife), actresses Michelle Pfeiffer and Charlotte (Pirates) Lewis, the model Iman and, oh yes, Princess Diana. "Rifat has a great talent for producing clothes that are essentially extremely simple," says Hamish Bowles, an editor at Harpers & Queen. "Just giving them a twist makes them desirable and of the moment." Adds London style reporter Suzanne Turower: "He puts things together very wittily."
Ozbek's reputation for humor is not limited to his designs. He once appeared in a campy Tatler magazine layout done up as fashion doyenne Diana Vreeland. Yet the darkly handsome chain-smoker takes his work seriously, has perfectionist leanings and is not above befriending influential fashion insiders who can advance his cause. "I hate to say it, but he's friends with all the right people who help him a lot," says Grace Coddington, fashion director of British Vogue. Counters Ozbek: "It's nice if the right people like your clothes. It makes you want to do more and more and more." Ozbek has already done enough to transform a $75,000 investment into close to a million-dollar business in two years.
He may have picked up his good business sense growing up in advantaged surroundings in Istanbul. His father, a successful entrepreneur who brokers export-import deals, and his mother, a housewife, were at first horrified when Ozbek announced plans to study fashion design. "They couldn't believe it," he says. "In Turkey a man has to be either a doctor or an architect." In fact Ozbek was shipped off to Liverpool University at 17 to study architecture but couldn't cope with the rigors of physics and math. He enrolled at London's trendy St. Martin's School of Art over the objections of his parents, who nevertheless came around and paid his tuition for three years.
Ozbek graduated in 1977 and after a stint in Milan returned to London and became design director of Monsoon, then a small London clothing chain that resembled a punked-up Gap. For three years the firm prospered, but Ozbek languished because "I had to do the same thing each season."
So in 1983 he struck out on his own. He quickly found his backers through social channels—at a summer party in Istanbul he was introduced to representatives of a Swiss-based shipping firm that was looking to diversify. "I happened to have my sketchbooks," he says, and a deal was hatched.
For all his acceptance by London society, Ozbek knows the key to future success lies in the enormous American market. "The English women have the house in the country, and they don't give a damn what they look like," Ozbek says. "American women take more care." He is taking care to win them over. His clothes arrived in September in about 30 upscale stores in the U.S., including Bloomingdale's and I. Magnin. Ozbek is keeping his prices in a middle range (his clothes sell from $200 to $1,200) and is introducing a special lower-cost collection of knits under a new "Oh for Ozbek" label.
The young Turk has yet to indulge in excessive material trappings. Given to wearing Levi's 501 jeans and sneakers, he lives alone in a cluttered but charming studio apartment in London's Not-ting Hill section, where books spill out of ceiling-to-floor shelves and the television perches on a pile of oriental pillows. He feasts on vitamins and wears a crooked piece of coral around his neck "to ward off the evil eye."
So far, the coral has been effective. Success has come easily, and he appears to be more than a passing fancy. "There's a question mark over London fashion at the moment," says Jim Fallon of Women's Wear Daily. "Ozbek will probably weather this storm better than some of the younger designers who are more far out. The feeling is that he will be the one who will go on from here."