Istanbul-based eveningwear label Viola & Vesper talks the 1920s, the extravagance of women, and designing in Turkey.

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Who are you, Viola or Vesper? Or maybe both? Istanbul-based RTW eveningwear label Viola & Vesper focuses on empowering women by representing their neutral and extravagant sides.
Founded in 2017 by friends turned business partners Ece Onay and Ozge Yenihayat, Viola & Vesper’s collections are marked by blinding shine, from sequins to silk velvets to rhinestones and crystals. The soul of the label revolves around the roaring 1920s, an era in which, “women were becoming more rebellious,” in the words of Onay. The brand focuses on this duality of women, the harmony of contradictory yet complementary feelings that form the core of the social Viola & Vesper woman. Their latest collection, Summer Night Fever, encapsulates the warmth of summer dancing, basking under the sun, and a post-vaccine reuniting with friends and family. The shimmery dresses flow like waves hitting the beach, meant to represent the flow of relentlessly dancing. Viola & Vesper hopes to bring back the idea of bold, confident women through their elegant designs.
I had the opportunity to visit Viola & Vesper’s showroom and speak with Ece Onay about the brand’s past, its future, and the journey of being an emerging designer in the wonderfully complex and inspiring city of Istanbul.

By Ethan Dinçer

Could you tell us how Viola & Vesper got its start? What are some of the big inspirations behind the label?

It was perfect timing for both me and my business partner, Ozge. We were friends before starting Viola & Vesper and were both fed up with our previous jobs. One day we met up and Ozge said “maybe we should start a brand”. I studied fashion design and she was in fashion buying, so we wanted to bring our forces together, it was a good combination. We focused on eveningwear, on party wear, because it was very difficult to find what we were designing at the time. We started 4 years ago.
We are inspired by the 1920s era, but not from the fringes, or the Great Gatsby kind of extravagance, more the vibe of it. Women started to feel freer, they were partying, they were becoming more rebellious. We wanted to put the idea of women being more courageous and out there, showing their own style, in our brand.
We always felt like a woman has two different sides: sometimes we feel more neutral, you don’t want to do make-up, you want to be more natural and sometimes you want to go wild and dress up and stuff, so Viola & Vesper represents that in one woman. Viola comes from Shakespeare, 12th Night, and she is more like a tomboy, more natural, and Vesper comes from James Bond, sexier, dressed up. We love everything that sparkles and everything that shows the shine of the woman. We want women to feel courageous enough to show their personality through their clothes, to exaggerate what they’re wearing, and be confident.

Could you walk me through your latest collection, Summer Night Fever? What were some of your ideas in the collection?

When we started designing the collection, what we missed was dancing relentlessly and we wanted the fabrics to have that movement. With the shine of the fabrics, the pieces move with you, the effect of movement goes with the design of the dresses. We thought about the summer nights when you go out under the sun and we added gold accessories to reflect the warmness of the sun. We wanted to have the dresses be lighter fabrics that will flow while wearing them, so you will feel light and it’s easy to move. The collection is called Summer Night Fever, a warm summer night dancing, crowded party scene. What we missed from the past 2 years.

It seems that Viola & Vesper cares a lot about empowering women, do you have an ideal client, someone you design for? Is there a certain person you think Viola & Vesper is for?

The most basic thing about the customer of Viola & Vesper is that she is very social. She can have any kind of taste, style, anything. We don’t have one specific person in mind when designing, but the thing they have in common is that they’re social and they want to go out to events, they want to dress up.

Given that the brand’s entire motto is around being social, how has designing through the pandemic been?

That was the worst thing about the pandemic. Last summer we did a collection for loungewear, but it was the loungewear a Viola & Vesper girl would wear. So it was silk kimonos, sitting by the poolside, it still had the sparkle, the out-there look. It wasn’t just sweatpants and t-shirts. We did that for the pandemic, moving away from the eveningwear because there weren’t any events going on. It was a difficult time, last summer was good and this summer we are hoping to go back to better days.

What does the future, then, look like for Viola & Vesper?

We want to go international. We are now partnered with a showroom in Paris and we are trying to find international stores that we can be a part of. Through this time, we always connected with international influencers and editors because it’s always nice to hear different opinions and what different people think about the brand. Our next step is finding international buyers.

How do you find the market in Turkey for eveningwear? What is Viola & Vesper doing differently?

What we do is RTW eveningwear. Up until almost now, all the eveningwear brands were couture brands. So, they make a dress specifically for you. What we do is RTW: we have our designs and collections pre-set. It wasn’t very familiar with customers here. People were also very scared of wearing sequins. Because it has a very fine line between being very over the top and being modern, so I think what we did well was using fabrics that people were afraid of in a modern way, so it was easier for people to try out new designs, new styles for them. We meet with our customers here, so we can talk to them, and they often say, “I’m not a very sequins person”, and then end up buying a sequin dress.

Have you found this RTW model increases customers and clients because it’s not as much time commitment for someone to go to a couture house?

All of our customers come in and say, “I need this dress by this weekend”, we are a last-minute stop, and they come, and they find what they were looking for. I think it’s very easy for people who don’t have a lot of time to come here. Because they are RTW dresses, they aren’t too heavy or too expensive, so it’s easy to wear many times, many customers keep it in their wardrobe for years. We have some dresses that are more lifesaver pieces.

How is it being an emerging brand here in Turkey? Are there any benefits and challenges in the scene here?

It wasn’t that difficult. When starting up, we always planned to have the atelier in-house. We were trying to get rid of all the difficulties brands face beforehand. Trying to get production outsourced is very difficult here. Here, you give people a design, but they do what they think of, what we were trying to do was to reduce all stress, to have everything under our control. Production-wise it made it easier.
Because we were active on social media, I think it was very easy to become more known. When you have nice pictures and can use Instagram, it’s easy to reach out to people. Once a celebrity starts to wear your dress, you immediately start to get reactions. I think it’s easier to promote your brand here in Turkey. Even though we are a huge population, it’s very close-knit.

Do you find the fashion community here in Turkey to be quite supportive?

It’s been 4 years and we haven’t been too involved in the fashion community here. There is one very, very tight fashion circle and it is difficult to get in there, we are not there yet.

How has the economic situation been for Viola & Vesper?

One of the strong sides of Viola & Vesper was keeping the prices in the realm of reachable luxury. When you see the dollar going up to 14 or 15 Turkish lira, we were like “shit, we have to change things, we have to change our prices”. We buy all our fabrics in U.S. dollars, that’s why we have to change the prices accordingly. It’s very hard to keep up with the up and down economy. The currency is one situation, and now with the new year, we have all the extra taxes, minimum wage raise, inflation, everything. So, as everyone did, we must raise our prices as well. Yet, the buying capacity of people is getting lower and lower. I don’t know what will happen this year.  We calculate the prices of the dresses according to what we buy, yet we haven’t seen the customer buying yet so I don’t know what will change in that scenario. The rise of the currency is very new.
The thing is, it’s good for Turkish designers within Turkey because international brands have become very expensive. I think people who usually buy those designer brands will look into more Turkish brands and designers to shop. In terms of in Turkey, I think it will be a shift from bigger brands to more local brands.

What is something you want people to know about being a designer here in Turkey?

Istanbul is a very inspirational city.
I want people to be more open to new things. What I struggle with here is that people are afraid to look different. Designing different and outrageous pieces and having people wear them will make people more confident with themselves. I think it will help people be more courageous and show their identity more by breaking the rules of the design aesthetic that people are used to. and on Instagram.

Photography/Pelin Kacar