As the geographical crossroads between Europe and Asia, Istanbul offers a rare front-row seat to observe two very disparate sets of cultural influences. From the domes of its mosques to the frantic pace of its western shopping malls. It’s an awe-inspiring city that seems like it is forever being remade and reimagined, and the resulting sense of opportunity is tangible.
In recent years, the struggle between older Turkish traditionalists and a growing youth population with a much more relaxed, European attitude has played out across the country in a number of ways, including the recent authoritarianism-protests in the city.
The impact of Istanbul’s growing ‘culture clash’ is also evident in more subtle ways within its malls, with retail developers keen to attract sales from two very different audiences. The Emaar Square Mall – from the same developers of the famous Dubai Mall – caters to the premium shopper familiar with Middle Eastern and Turkish brands such as Jewellery retailer Atasay and Atelier Rebul. Any sight of European brands is only really for the affluent shopper with stores such as Camper and Jo Malone. Meanwhile malls such as the Mall of Istanbul plays host to mainstream and traditional western brands including Zara, Debenhams, Mango and Victoria’s Secret but also Turkish born brands like Mapa. Exploring the retail offer in this city often feels like hopping between two very different worlds, and it’s a truly fascinating experience.
Is the UK really multi-cultured at all?
Beyond the malls, Istanbul is home to The Grand Bazaar – a large traditional market, similar to the Medina Market in Morocco, but much bigger and more organised. From a tourist perspective, it is dirt cheap, and haggling is absolutely the name of the game. Here, products from apparel to accessories from the big quality, mainstream and luxury brands are sold at unbelievably cheap prices. The catch – they are all counterfeit. In fact the vast majority of products sold here are.
This has a real effect on the brands that have stores nearby. Considering the expensive running costs of rent and rates for mall space, it is absolutely a concern for these brands. With the influx of European and prestigious global brands only likely to increase in the future, it will be interesting to see how brands and retail developments within the area cope with the vast numbers of counterfeit copies.
Western countries such as the UK are often regarded as ‘multi-cultural’ but from my visit to Turkey it really begs the question; Is the UK really multi-cultured at all? On UK highstreets there is rarely ever a genuine multi-cultural retail mix, and only western brands hold a substantial presence. It brings to light how inspirational Turkey actually is, especially in its retail offer with a true blend of East and West, each with equally strong retail experiences. While tension may continue to grow in Turkey regarding an unclear political, economic and social future, it could still be a place for retailers and cities to look towards as a source for inspiration – if done it right.
Although it may sound tough, and it certainly will be, it is possible. We’ve seen it before with Hong Kong – one city with two very different systems and a clash of high profile British and Chinese retail brands. Istanbul is swiftly becoming a sterling example of a truly multi-cultural city despite its uncertain future and I left with the overwhelming sense of wanting to return, confident about what wonderful retail experiences will lie instore in the future.