Born: Istanbul, Turkey, 11 July 1953. Education: Studied architecture at Liverpool University, 1970-72; fashion design at St. Martin's School of Art, London, 1974-77. Military Service: National military service in Turkey, 1977. Career: Worked with Walter Albini for Trell, Milan, 1978-80; designer for Monsoon, London, 1980-84;
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My collections always have an element of ethnic and modern feeling.
One of Britain's few truly international designers, Rifat Ozbek draws on London street style and his own Turkish origins to produce sophisticated clothes that successfully amalgamate diverse sources and keep him at the forefront of new developments in style. Ozbek restyles the classic shapes of Western couture, using multicultural decorative references like the traditional stitching of the djellaba and caftan to outline garments such as A-line linen dresses. He became renowned in the 1980s for a series of lavishly embroidered black cocktail suits that appeared with different themes each season, such as gold bows and tassels or Daliesque lips.
After leaving Turkey at the age of 17, Ozbek trained as an architect at Liverpool University, cutting his studies short after deciding he was more interested in decorating the surfaces of buildings than learning the methods of construction needed for his architectural projects to remain standing. This interest in the decoration of classic shapes, rather than breaking the barriers of garment construction, was expressed in his first clothing designs, which appeared in 1984.
Ozbek graduated from St. Martin's School of Art in 1977 and went on to work for three years at Monsoon, a company known for creating popular styles based on non-Western originals. Ozbek assimilated all these ideas and became known in the mid-1980s for his combinations of motifs and shapes from different cultures and juxtapositions of unusual fabrics, creating not just a straight pastiche of ethnicity but an arresting amalgamation of eclectic sources such as Africa, the Far East, ballet, and the Ottoman Empire.
At this time, his skillfully tailored clothes were fashioned out of luxurious fabrics like moiré silks and taffeta, with an amazing palette of colors of turquoise, purples, and fuchsia. His sophisticated and understated designs developed into an easily recognizable style, using heavy fabrics like gabardine or cashmere to structure the top half of an outfit combined with lighter materials below, like silks or jersey. This elegant look was supplanted by a more overtly sexy one in 1988, where the multicultural aesthetic was taken to new levels with the use of a diverse array of eclectic material. His confidence in dealing with a number of different non-Western sources was displayed in this significant collection, with garments showing their origins in Senegal, Tibet, and Afghanistan, an ethnic look made urbane for the fashion consumer. The collection included sarong skirts and gold chain belts, midriff tops, and boleros embroidered with crescent moons and stars, hipster trousers, and tasselled bras worn on the catwalk by models who resembled Turkish belly dancers.
In the 1990s Ozbek became more heavily influenced by the club scene, and his White Collection of 1990 caught the mood of the times. Acknowledging the New Age and Green consumerist tendencies of his audience, Ozbek created a range of easy-to-wear separates based on track suits and other sports clothing to be worn as club gear. This collection was in complete antithesis to the hard metropolitan chic of 1980s power dressing and paved the way for hooded sweatshirt tops and trainers appearing in the catwalk collections of other designers that year. The clothes were a stark bright white, displaying New Age slogans like "Nirvana." Unlike designers who have used white before, such as the "yé yé" designers of the 1960s who employed white to glorify science and technology, Ozbek used the color, without irony, to profess a faith in the concept of a New Age and a belief that a return to the spiritual would improve the quality of life and save the planet.
Antifashion soon became the fashionable look of the early 1990s. Casual, baggy clothes, making reference to sports and black youth subcultures, were worn with sequined money belts and baseball caps, and Ozbek was lauded as a designer in touch with the street. His popularity continued with the urban cowgirl look of fringed suede tops, hot pants, and North American Indian jewelry, his mock bone fronts on waistcoats and evening gowns, and the Confederate look incorporating tailed or cropped military jackets.
In 1995 Ozbek guarded his turf by inaugurating Ozbek, his signature women's fragrance manufactured in Milan by Proteo Parfumi. After three years of work developing the glamorous, heady blend of pittosporum with freesia, peach, and touches of jasmine and ylang ylang, he bottled it in an aluminum-topped flask reminiscent of a Turkish minaret and launched it in the U.S. exclusively at the Barneys chain in New York and Los Angeles. In England, he marketed Ozbek at Harrods, Liberty, and Selfridges. Of its appeal, he remarked, "I wanted something traditional yet modern… I wanted it to be quite floral, but not too strong. It's supposed to be very feminine and sensual." Paralleling his coup in the perfume market, Ozbek did not hesitate to clash publicly with Thierry Mugler for professional sabotage in block-booking such top models as Naomi Campbell and usurping Ozbek's space on the fashion calendar with an unscheduled showing.
Ozbek asserted his individualism in 1997, complaining that the era's design standards forced him to think of his hobby as a business. To old friend writer-interviewer Rupert Everett, who labeled Ozbek "an independent, an inventor, and an inveterate puncturer of pomposity," he said, "I still love designing, but it just moves too fast. Fashion has become sort of a relentless Ferris wheel, and you can't get off it— you know, it's one collection after the other."
Ozbek joined English stylist Christopher Farr's stable of carpet designers in 1998 and added vibrant prints reminiscent of Ottoman tile motifs to his clothing line. For city silhouettes, he stressed long romantic skirts mixed with energized, sporty jogging pants in Polartec fleece. He declared his exuberant, sensual chiffons, flocked velvet, devores, jerseys, and metallics a return to his Turkish roots.
updated by Mary Ellen Snodgrass