Interview with Bilge Can, the Founder and Creative Director of AnatolianCraft

Q: Could you tell us a little about yourself? How did you become the person you are today? What is your story?

BILGE: I’m the second child of two teachers who were in love with their profession. My parents were honest, hard-working people who wanted to be as useful as possible to their country and community. My mother used to always do handcrafts whenever she was home. Sometimes she worked a lace curtain. Other times, she knit a sweater or sewed clothes for us with her Singer machine. When I grew up, I also always took joy in handcrafts, mostly embroidery.

Something my mother, grandmother, and I loved doing was purchasing fabric before each new season and visiting the dressmaker to order beautiful, custom-made outfits for each of us. My love for textiles must have begun back then. My mother had an eye for quality fabric and fine sewing. She was also a good dressmaker herself. She would often embellish the dresses she sewed for me with hand embroidery. Recently, my daughter enjoyed wearing an embroidered evening gown my mother had sewn for herself sixty years ago. 

When my parents traveled to Greece on teaching assignments, my mother would bring back home elegant shoes and handbags. I adored them. I still use and cherish some of those pieces.

My grandmother used to look after me on weekdays since both of my parents worked full time. Grandma had an antique wedding chest, which, for me, was the ultimate treasure trove. If I kept begging, she would open it and allow me to explore its contents. Only if I promised to handle everything with care. Under all the antique textiles, lace brooches, embroidered duvets and pillowcases, crochet curtains, satin nightgowns, and hand-painted porcelain sets, deeper into the wooden chest, was the one family heirloom that enchanted me more than anything: a stunning pair of hand-embroidered shoes. I was told that the shoes used to belong to a very special maternal family member named Zehra Aylin. Miss Zehra was one of the beloved adopted children of Atatürk, the founder of modern Turkey. This young girl, who was born in the Black Sea region, had eventually died on her way back to Turkey from London while she was traveling on the Callais-Paris express. 

My grandma used to tell me that when I grew up, that pair, which she called “the palace resident,” would be mine. Years later, those petite, delicate slippers did become mine, but unfortunately, they were a bit small for my feet. The timeless elegance of those hand-embroidered slippers would stay with me for a lifetime and become my biggest inspiration for creating my fashion brand, AnatolianCraft. I knew that one day, I would design the heritage slippers I longed to wear.

I have always been drawn to handcrafted objects—ceramic Kütahya tiles and vessels, Yıldız porcelain objects, handwoven Hereke and Bünyan carpets, hand dyed and hand sewn silk clothing… First, I used to search for such treasures during my travels to various Turkish cities. Later, whenever I traveled abroad, I would spend hours exploring the antique shops and crafts fairs to get acquainted with the unique handcrafts of that country. After each trip, I returned home with marvelous pieces I admired—handmade Brussels lace in Belgium, hand-painted ceramics in Hungary, petit point bags in Austria, Capodimonte porcelains in Italy. I often wonder about the stories those objects carry. Each one once belonged to another person, and they have brought into my life the stories of people I would have never been able to know.

Q: Who has inspired you the most as you grew up? And how did your upbringing, education, and the culture you were a part of influence the work you do today as a modern women entrepreneur?

BILGE: My biggest influence has been the women in my family. In my twenties, I was lucky enough to spend a lot of time with my great-grandmother who was still alive. She was born during the Ottoman Empire, long before modern Turkey existed. My great grandmother, my grandmother, my aunts and great aunts, my mother… They were powerful, prolific women—at home and in their careers. And they also always did their best to be useful to their communities and transform the lives of the people around them.

We had a huge library at home, and my parents encouraged my brother and me to grow our collection of books. Even though they liked adhering to our family budget, they might have been considered lavish when it came to buying books.

I always went shopping with them. What I loved the most was the handbags, purses, and custom-made shoes I used to see in the stores in the fashion district—stores that no longer exist in my city today. I remember the purses and shoes I saw in those shops as shiny, stylish, delicate pieces. I can still call to my mind’s eye a specific pair of red patent leather shoes my mom had bought for me.  

Studying architecture at the Istanbul Technical University broadened my worldview and developed my ability to understand and appreciate good design. It was during college that I started frequenting museums and developed an interest in visual aesthetics and advanced my skills.

In my designs, I enjoy interpreting the important symbols and aesthetic details of a culturally significant era from a modern perspective—but without losing the nostalgia. The embroidery motifs I employ in my designs and the work done by master artisans are in danger of disappearing slowly as a result of our fast-paced consumption culture. Such handcrafts need to be nourished and nurtured through a master-and-apprentice relationship. I want to do as much as I can to help keep those handcrafts alive.

I live in Istanbul—a time machine. AnatolianCraft is seriously under the influence of this city that had been the capital of empires and the melting pot of so many different cultures. I feel lucky to have spent my childhood, my youth, and now my midlife in this magical, one-of-kind city. Inhaling the scent of the blue Bosphorus, feasting my eyes on the colors of the Egyptian Bazaar, and listening to the chatter of the sparrows congregating in the courtyards of centuries-old stone edifices give me joy. I take that joy I feel and translate it into AnatolianCraft designs.

Q: How did you decide to become an entrepreneur? And why hand-embroidered shoes?

BILGE: An architect’s work requires a fine balance between ergonomic and technical specifications and design. The ability to juggle both is what makes an architect successful. Both architecture and fashion are disciplines about the human body—both use different materials to create a periphery around the human body by defining its boundaries.

My architectural education enabled me to easily translate what inspires me into AnatolianCraft designs. As an architect, I had to be good at finding the right proportions, select the right materials, textures, and colors, pay attention to the correct application and make good aesthetic decisions. Now, I have to be good at the same things for my AnatolianCraft brand.

My entrepreneurial journey first began through my relationship with Zehra Aylin’s embroidered slippers in my grandmother’s antique chest. During my childhood, that pair was the ultimate masterpiece for me. I had never seen anything like it before. My grandma used to say that one day, those slippers would be handed over to me. That happened. Even though those embroidered slippers didn’t fit my feet, they sparked my AnatolianCraft journey as an entrepreneur. 

Q: Who or what inspires you the most in the design process?

BILGE: My curiosity as well as my passion for anything and everything beautiful and aesthetic. The legacy of the land where I was born and my cultural roots. Myths and history. The strong, confident, inspiring women in my family. The city of Istanbul. My architectural education. The nature around me. 

Each step I take or each object I see is enough to create in me an idea to pursue or a visual aesthetic to recreate. The time I spend in nature turns into the embroidered buds and butterflies perched on AnatolianCraft slippers. Everything I observe during my travels leads to new experiments with fabrics and threads. It’s as if each design I make is a direct response to my desire to perpetuate the beauty of nature, my friendships, precious moments, and memories.

I love designing timeless and elegant objects. Just like some of the clothes, shoes, and accessories I’ve inherited a long time ago and still love wearing. I hope the owners of AnatolianCraft pieces will value them enough to want to hand them over to the next generation in their own family. Aren’t heritage objects that have meaning and that are keepers of our stories the most precious and priceless things we can ever have?

Sevan Bıçakçı is a world-renowned jewelry designer. His ability to convey the glamor and tell the story of Anatolia, Byzantium and the Ottoman era in a single ring has always amazed and inspired me. I was over the moon when he purchased a piece from AnatolianCraft. Like him, I've set out to tell my own stories and share my sources of inspiration in the mules and handbags I design.

Q: You are one of the fierce advocates of the “slow fashion” movement that started as a reaction to mass production, fast consumption, and the senseless depletion of natural resources and human labor. How does AnatolianCraft support sustainable design?

BILGE: Hand embroidery and handcraft are essential to the AnatolianCraft brand, which is sustained by the culture of this land I call home. We create unique pieces, and we do it without the anxiety or haste that defines today’s competitive marketplace.

In the past, you used to go to the dressmaker for your clothes. First, the measurements would be taken. Then you would select the fabric. The patterns would be prepared. The fabric would be cut. There would be multiple fitting appointments. Adjustments and fine work would be made. It would take one to two months for your new outfit to be ready. Today, on the other hand, everything is fast. Too fast. And yet, we often complain about not having enough time. We miss out on the small joys that make life worth living. It is as if we’re surrounded by “the Men in Gray who steal our time.” What is 'trendy' today is no longer relevant as soon as the new trend is up. But isn’t time itself life? It seems the more time we try to save, the less time we end up having.

When you look at our marketplace, we see today that the master-apprentice relationship is rapidly turning into a thing of the past as a result of the industrialized production of footwear and bags. The same is true for hand embroidery. My goal is to support the work of master artisans and the handcraft tradition in Turkey by creating projects that incorporate their work and by promoting that work globally. 

In families where handcrafted heirlooms are handed over from generation to generation, the beautifully embroidered tablecloths, runners, and pillowcases are usually kept in chests and not used as everyday objects. AnatolianCraft products offer a way to modernize this legacy and make the embroidered motifs of these textile heirlooms core elements of pieces that can be worn every day and on any occasion. That’s why I collaborate with dozens of women embroiderers from Anatolia to prevent those unique embroidery motifs from being forgotten. 

As a brand, we are committed to empowering women and supporting their financial freedom. My biggest wish is to triple or quadruple the number of local women artisans we join forces with. We honor their beautiful work with wages that are over the market price and make sure they feel appreciated as a crucial part of our business family. I believe in genuine connections and long-term relationships. We want to make sure that not just our materials and process, but also our relationships are sustainable. 

Q: Each AnatolianCraft is, in fact, a piece of art. For readers who are not familiar with the “wearable art” concept, could you tell us a little about what it is and how it differs from a regular piece of clothing?

BILGE: Objects don’t talk, but I always feel as if AnatolianCraft products can talk. They look and feel as if they have their own memories and are keepers of stories. They tell the story of the woman who makes the needle and the thread dance. They tell the story of the time they spent with the master shoemaker in his workshop. They also tell my stories: my memories, travels, the books I read, the museums I visited, my inspiration that is nourished by the aesthetics of a glamorous history.

We live in a culture that constantly demands faster and faster consumption. As AnatolianCraft, we take a stand against the industrial and mass manufacture of our clothes. Each person who wears an AnatolianCraft piece reinterprets the product’s creation process by adding their energy and life stories into the mix. Our customers become a part of the creative process by combining our products with the other items in their wardrobes. Our goal is to create products that are as unique as the people who wear them. The story of a pair of shoes created by AnatolianCraft continues in the lives of their new owners. Our stories, desires, and dreams intertwine with one another, becoming richer.

Q: How long does it take to create a pair of AnatolianCraft mules?

BILGE: Once I complete a design and decide upon the colors, texture, and form, I work with a master artisan to create an embroidery prototype. We choose the fabric, the threads, and the embroidery stitches we will use. As the design is tested, adjustments are made to ensure the right fabric, right threads, and right color palette are applied.

We custom make our products after we receive the order and need 7 to 20 working days to make each item, depending on the complexity of the embroidery design. Some take a few days; others may take over a week. All of our products are handcrafted and hand embroidered. Each pair of mules is crafted completely by hand, using traditional techniques, patterns, and equipment. 

Different parts are made by different artisans. First, an embroidery artisan creates the embroidered fabric section. Then, the embroidered fabric goes to the master shoemaker who cuts custom leather soles from patterns according to the size you ordered. After that, he prepares the layers for stitching. Next, the shoes go to another master artisan who is specialized in leather uppers. He assembles the uppers using the embroidered fabric pieces and also crafts the insoles.

Then, the shoes are sent back to the first master shoemaker, who stitches the leather uppers and the soles together by hand. The shoes begin to take the desired form. After that, each shoe is shaped using a special mold for three days to allow the leather to tighten around the form and take its final shape. Finally, the heels are made, the soles are trimmed, the lining is added, and the edges of the sole are waxed and burnished to create a sophisticated end product. 

From start to finish, the process of making a pair of AnatolianCraft shoes takes many days, sometimes weeks, depending on the intricacy of the design. For us, creating each product is a gratifying labor of love that preserves decades-old embroidery techniques and shoemaking traditions.

Q: Are AnatolianCrafts mules suitable for everyday casual wear? On what occasions do your clients usually wear them and how do they integrate them into their style?

BILGE: You can wear our mules at any time of the day. You can wear them with your morning gown as soon as you get out of bed. You can complete your jeans with them when you go shopping. Or you can combine them with a cocktail dress when you go out for a formal dinner and enjoy effortless elegance. You can also wear them indoors in the winter when you’re visiting a friend or hosting guests. 

Our mules save the day for our customers who want to be chic and comfortable. Especially for our customers who run businesses (cafe owners, dentists, etc.) I feel delighted when I come across someone I don’t know at all and realize they’re wearing our mules.

Our products are showstoppers. You know you’ll stand out when you wear them—even if you combine them with the simplest outfit. I believe that’s our biggest difference. My designs speak a global language. And I believe our collections have pieces for women of all ages and backgrounds—each one will find something that will elevate her style.

Q: What is the most important element of creating a bestselling AnatolianCraft product?

BILGE: Giving joy. It has to make your heart sing. On a dark and dreary winter day, it has to remind you of the sea and the sand, the sun, the flowers, and the green grass. It has to take you back to your childhood and fill you with a sweet sense of nostalgia. It also has to be valuable, sustainable, high quality, and useful—it must contribute to the lives of each person who participates in the making of it. 

For me, creating your unique style without imitating another person is essential. Our bestsellers help women do that.

Q: How has AnatolianCraft changed your life? What is your best advice for creative women who want to bring to life their own dream business?

BILGE: AnatolianCraft has allowed me to meet so many women artisan embroiderers in rural Anatolia. Knowing those creative, hard-working women and being able to contribute to their economic freedom gives me joy. It’s priceless! I feel as if I know so many families I belong to across my homeland. I could knock on their doors and feel welcome. It’s very important for me that they earn the worth of their amazing work and love collaborating with me. As AnatolianCraft, we will never compromise on our ethical values. We want to keep growing our family of women artisans and help more talented women turn their skills into economic power for themselves and their loved ones.

The women I collaborate with come from entirely different backgrounds, world views, and walks of life. But when we work together, we become like one and create in harmony. Working with women is incredibly enjoyable! So, my first advice would be to open yourself to new people, different ideas, and get to be in touch with people.

And the second one is to never stop growing. I believe in lifelong learning and personal development. That’s why I continue to make use of new training opportunities to nourish my mind and my business.

Q: What is your most favorite pair AnatolianCraft shoes? And why?

BILGE: I think it’s the red, high-heeled pair called Inamorata (shown in the first photo on our homepage). Perhaps because I love red and the heels make me feel even more stylish. Also, the handcrafted fabric flowers we use on it were made by one of our artisans I admire the most.

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Each AnatolianCraft product is a unique wearable art masterpiece, handmade and hand-embroidered by the talented artisans we collaborate with.

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