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Erdem Moralıoğlu: ‘Backstage, eight minutes can feel like hours’

Erdem Moralıoğlu
Erdem Moralıoğlu: ‘I sometimes sneak into the shop to do fittings.’ Photograph: Max Knight/Lickerish

Erdem Moralıoğlu, 40, was born in Montreal to a British mother and a Turkish father. He completed a BA in fashion in Toronto and moved to London in 2000 for his MA at the Royal College of Art, before launching his own label, Erdem, in 2005. His clothes have been worn by a variety of women including Julianne Moore, the Duchess of Cambridge and Meghan Markle. He is working on costumes for a new Royal Ballet production by Christopher Wheeldon as part of the celebrations of the centenary of Leonard Bernstein’s birth. He will show his latest collection at London fashion week on 19 February.

You have a busy couple of months ahead. What’s the difference between designing for the stage and for your own collections?
There are lots of differences. The main one is the technical aspect of it. I remember doing an initial fitting with Lauren [Cuthbertson, principal dancer at the Royal Ballet] and she had to move in the fitting. Her leg is up over her head and it’s perfectly straight at 180 degrees! When I’m designing a garment for ready-to-wear, that kind of movement is not something I take into consideration. Also, the technicalities of certain fabrics [for dance] are important – every time someone wears it, it has to be washed or dry-cleaned.

The costume department at the Royal Opera House is huge. You pinch yourself when you’re backstage and looking at the workshops – it’s amazing.

How does it work? With drawings?
I start like I do with ready-to-wear, with a sketch and draw it out. There is an initial fitting where things are starting to come to fruition. The production is all about Plato’s Symposium. It’s not a well-known piece of music by Bernstein. It’s an interesting angle.

How did you meet Wheeldon?
I met Christopher years ago. I was in conversations with the Royal Ballet and he came to one of my shows. I went to the Royal Ballet to watch his rehearsals. We just stayed in touch and it was wonderful. Things became a bit more serious when I became friends with Lauren. I met her because she wore a dress of mine to the Olivier awards ages ago and we became friends.

As a child, you were taken to see The Nutcracker. Did it have a big impact?
I think I was five or six when I saw it. My mind was blown. I remember I went home and I made these paper dolls of the cast. I truly loved it and thought it was just the most extraordinary thing – with a live orchestra! Also, as a child, my twin sister did ballet and I remember going to see her ballet recitals.

Erdem show, London Fashion Week, September 2017.
Erdem show, London Fashion Week, September 2017. Photograph: WWD/Rex/Shutterstock

You weren’t interested in doing ballet yourself?
My parents didn’t know what to do with me, so they put me in pottery lessons. I would have happily done ballet, but I ended up with pottery.

Do you see your fashion shows as theatre?
You have a captive audience for eight minutes. I love the idea of painting a picture and taking someone somewhere for a moment and trying to get your point across. Sometimes, when you are backstage, eight minutes can feel like hours.

Has anything ever gone horribly wrong with a show?
I had a power failure in the middle of a show. The lights went down, the music stopped. I was showing in a geodesic dome and the moment the generator failed and the power went off, the sun shone through. It was really beautiful, and the models kept walking in silence. It was like being on a very turbulent plane that nose-dived. There was a moment when the show producer said: “Do we stop?” And I said: “Just continue.”

Have you seen Phantom Thread? The idea of this tortured, perfectionist couturier – do you feel as though you ever conform to that stereotype?
I haven’t seen it yet. I do suffer from being a perfectionist. It’s a trait. I think there are moments you feel like everything falls into place, but I can always find a way where I think, maybe next time… I’m always thinking about the next time.

Did opening a shop change the way you approach the way you design?
The store opened almost three years ago and it’s one thing to have a show, a label and a collection. It’s another thing entirely to have a world that one can physically walk into. There is something really important about being able to communicate who and what you are through a space. I can see every day who is coming to the store, what they bought, where they are from, all of those things. I sometimes sneak in there to do fittings. I did hand the shopping bag to the very first customer on the day we opened, and they didn’t know who I was. But they were very nice.

You’ve dressed women from the worlds of politics, art, fashion, royal families… Is there anyone you feel particularly proud of dressing?
There is an amazing US politician named Wendy Davis who stood for 11 hours straight, doing a filibuster in the Senate five years ago. She was Texas senator and she was fighting for abortion laws and they were trying to take away the right to choose. She is an extraordinary, strong woman and she was wearing one of my dresses when she did it. I was very proud to dress someone like that who stands up for her own beliefs.

The Royal Ballet’s Leonard Bernstein at 100 celebration featuring world premieres by Wayne McGregor and Christopher Wheeldon is on 15 March-9 April

This article titled "Erdem Moralıoğlu: ‘Backstage, eight minutes can feel like hours’" was written by Interview by Tamsin Blanchard, for The Observer on Sunday 11 February 2018 09.00am

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