Art of Style

The designer interview: Erdem Moralioglu

Known for his exquisite fabrics, vibrant prints and detailed craftsmanship, ERDEM MORALIOGLU received the royal seal of approval when he was awarded an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List last year – a deservedly special way to mark his namesake label’s 15th anniversary. Here, he talks to EMMA ELWICK BATES about fantasy dressing, his literary muses and the importance of longevity

Photography Vicki KingStyling Marquessa Lucas-Box
Bimpe wears ‘Marlyn’ dress by Erdem. Erdem Moralioglu wears his own clothes throughout

Erdem Moralioglu is at the Bridge Theatre, an arty, modern venue near London’s Tower Bridge. His visit is far from recreational, however, as the city is still on strict lockdown. “We are shooting the fall/winter collection,” says the designer; it is the fourth collection he has produced during the pandemic. “The last time I was here, we were in the ‘loose’ lockdown and they were staging Talking Heads with Kristin Scott Thomas,” he adds of his actor friend and past Met Gala date.

It’s as difficult for me to imagine the glory of a flesh-and-blood performance as it is to remember watching an Erdem runway show in person. For the designer’s last live debut, his models stalked through London’s National Portrait Gallery – just one of several sublime moments I have enjoyed over his 15 years in business (and indeed, our friendship). Yet even in lockdown, there can be light. For Erdem, this came in the form of an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List, awarded for his contribution to the British fashion industry. The call came (yes, the Palace cold calls) early in lockdown, and he initially had to keep the accolade secret. I felt privileged to hear the news over a sushi picnic à deux as restrictions temporarily lifted. “It was a wonderful way to acknowledge my anniversary,” he says.

There’s something so transformative and important about being able to dress up

Raised in Montreal by his Turkish father and British mother, Erdem moved to London in 2005 and rose from a Royal College of Art graduate to the sole owner of a thriving business (in fashion, a rare feat). “I always had the idea that there was a great big world out there, waiting for me,” he says. His twin sister, Sara, accompanied him on his upward trajectory. Sara is now an acclaimed documentary-maker who has worked with Channel 4 News and BBC Newsnight, producing The 21st Floor film about Grenfell – and she carries off her brother’s designs with modern grace (even while walking the dog, as a recent FaceTime call with her wearing a floral Erdem jacket proved).

Dress, Erdem; sandals, Ancient Greek Sandals

Sara’s Barbie was actually the recipient of the first ‘Erdem’: a circle skirt with a bodice made from one piece of fabric – “It was very chic” – by the seven-year-old budding designer. Nowadays, his deft designs are critically lauded and commercially successful, not to mention worn by the world’s most discerning sartorial icons, including Nicole Kidman, Keira Knightley, Michelle Obama and Sienna Miller. Perhaps more unexpectedly, Madonna is also a fan, along with the legendary Joan Collins DBE. Collins once told me during an interview that Erdem was her favorite contemporary designer, so I invited her to his show, and she made a very grand, very late entrance. Yes, accomplished women who enjoy a sense of occasion gravitate towards Erdem, and the pandemic hasn’t hampered their desire for his creations. “There’s something so transformative and important about being able to dress up,” he says.

Blouse, skirt, and hat, Erdem
Of course I thought about practicalities, but life will resume, and when it does, we’ll be here with beautiful clothes
Blouse, and hat, Erdem

With his love of decorative arts and his talent for storytelling, one is easily swept away by Erdem’s design narratives and his muses – who are notably always creative and often restless. His new spring/summer 2021 collection, inspired by Susan Sontag’s 1992 novel The Volcano Lover, is no exception. Sontag herself plays muse, as does her protagonist, society beauty Emma Hamilton, whose illustrious love triangle with Lord Nelson and her volcanologist husband William plays out against the backdrop of Vesuvius erupting in 1750. “These three characters, who are in this extraordinary situation, and the idea of this thing that was larger than all of them, on the precipice of exploding – not even thinking about the revolution that was about to happen in France; that was happening in Italy – all of these political systems that were undoing themselves.” Erdem sees great parallels with the situation we are in now: “life erupts” and people are finding themselves “dancing on the lip of a volcano”.

The courtly, late-18th-century references emerge in the flattering empire-line silhouettes. “I loved the idea of making a big gown, but in this very simple cotton muslin,” says the designer. One such dress, the ‘Marlyn’, is his favorite: “That’s why I made it the finale,” he says of the Rousseau-esque white cotton dress with half sleeves and black ribbons that closed his audience-less runway show in Epping Forest. “The line was so completely romantic, because in the 18th century they were completely obsessed with Greek and Roman dress. It was very popular to wear cottony, gauzy things.” The ‘Claremont’ and ‘Sybil’ dresses also capture the neoclassical mood, featuring volcanic-red flowers all embroidered in Italy. “The red makes a slightly more joyous take on doing florals in a very simple way.”

Was the move to simplicity part of a bigger shift in dressing, after nearly a year spent mostly indoors? Erdem is resolute that it was not a re-think. “Was I subconsciously thinking about the situation we’re in? Maybe. But in all honesty, the ease in the collection really came from Sontag and who she was – a beatnik woman in ’60s New York. [There was] the idea of denim, the idea of cotton poppers and really easy fabric.” An image of Sontag wearing jeans with a mannish cardigan was central to Erdem’s mood board and materialized as the slouchy cashmere cardigan with intricate crystal buttons, which would elevate any WFH wardrobe but could be draped over a gala gown in a heartbeat. “Of course I thought about practicalities,” he says, “but life will resume, and when it does, we’ll be here with beautiful clothes.”

I always had the idea that there was a great big world out there, waiting for me
All clothes, Erdem Moralioglu’s own
Dress, Erdem; boots, Porte & Paire

His first jeté into denim is dreamy yet pragmatic: an updated 18th-century paisley realized on a rich ivory. In his Epping Forest show, the ‘Millicent’ jeans were styled under the fluted denim skirt. “That’s not realistic, although they do look amazing together,” Erdem surmises, suggesting separating them for real life and wearing both with oversized silhouettes on top. The denim is something he never saw himself doing but will carry forward into his fall collection. “It’s really wonderful to think of her [his customer], the moment she wakes up to the moment she goes to bed. It’s about thinking of her in different kinds of instances.”

Another surprisingly casual accoutrement is the bucket hat, which under Erdem’s influence is suitably haute in floral jacquard and would certainly lend the dresses from the collection a very English, carefree punch. “I do think there’s nothing chicer than seeing someone wearing a pleated dress with a bucket hat,” he says. Perhaps, too, it would be perfect for the fields of Glastonbury Festival (an event we’ve enjoyed together, come rain or shine) when it returns in 2022? “Exactly, or Greece,” he says of his favored vacation destination.

The most thrilling thing is seeing someone wearing your work from 10 years ago

While lockdown restrictions continue to change in different parts of the world, we can but dream of future vacations. But even if we are still pottering or entertaining at home, there is a Mona von Bismarck-opulence to Erdem’s printed linen shorts, especially when paired with the matching ruffled shirt and the aforementioned bucket hat. Bismarck famously commissioned Cristobal Balenciaga to create her gardening clothes to match the walls of her house in Capri; I am sure there’s a 360-degree Erdem woman out there who may elegantly achieve the same. “The print placements, I think, are really beautiful on the little shorts,” he says of the crisp white walking shorts, festooned with inky blooms at the hemline.

Dress, cardigan (just seen), and hat, all Erdem
Blouse, and shorts, Erdem

The picturesque SS21 collection heralds an amazing symbiosis of the formal and informal. I feel one of the great misnomers about Erdem’s oeuvre is the formality. Of course, he can canvass appropriateness with ease, but his clothes also capture a highly relatable romanticism, and have provided the sartorial backdrop to many fun, fabulous and wild times – as the cocktail of moiré silk, sequins and chiffon on the dance floor at his wedding last year would attest.

Clearly, dreaming and creating in the hubbub of east London – it is the melting-pot borough of Hackney that Erdem calls home – has produced an exquisite collection, of which 40 percent was actually produced locally in the city, while the knits hail from Scotland. Provenance and permanence are pivotal to Erdem’s brand. “The most thrilling thing is seeing someone wearing your work from 10 years ago,” he says. “I’ve always been obsessed with permanence.”

I loved the idea of making a big gown, but in this very simple cotton muslin
Dress, Erdem; boots, Porte & Paire