Reality is overrated. You can’t help but think it when you emerge from Highbury & Islington station, blinking into the sunlight. Traffic thunders down the Balls Pond Road. Stand still at a crossing and you can taste the diesel in the air. If your phone rings, don’t take it out. This junction is one of the worst in London for moped muggers. It’s surrounded by a rat run of alleys, down which the thieving toerags make their escape. Today, there are bored-looking policemen discreetly parked up, waiting for the day’s action to begin. On the opposite side of the street looms a 1970s office block. That’s where Dilara Findikoglu has her studio. The building is aggressively boring. Its flat, bog-standard exterior belies the creativity within. Polluted, dull and dangerous: modern life is rubbish.
Perhaps that’s why Findikoglu’s fantasy world is so fabulously appealing. In Dilara-land, red, bead-encrusted catsuits count as daywear, corsets are de rigueur and comfort is for wimps. Escapism is at the core of what Findikoglu does. Ever since she was a child, she has inhabited incredibly vivid imaginary worlds full of self-penned characters and soaring fantasy narratives. She can’t design without a story. “It’s about me trying to escape the real world a little bit. Escape the things I don’t like, that I don’t want to see and don’t want to live in,” says the Turkey-born designer. Growing up Muslim fed her imagination, she says. “We used to tell a lot of ghost stories. Muslim people do that a lot – they like to tell stories about otherworldly Islamic creatures, and if you do wrong they will come and get you.”
But her narrative approach is also political. She tackles issues of female empowerment, sexuality and waste, her alternative realities providing a critique of the way things are. “In my work, I talk about the world’s problems in a mystical way,” she says.
The clothes she creates are almost a by-product of her compulsive storytelling. “I create characters – that’s my main thing. Every look has a name and who that person is. I write notes about them, even if that character is just going to wear a hoodie,” she says. When she’s dressing herself she’s also thinking about getting into character. “One day I might want to look like a poet. I have a hat that makes me look like Oliver Twist, so I wear that and then just imagine myself as a poet from Victorian Spitalfields. These are the characters I have in my brain.” What character has she conjured today? Sexy undead wench? She’s wearing a floor-length 19th-century petticoat and tattered Victorian blouse. It barely covers her scarlet Agent Provocateur bra, which is making her bosoms cantilever out in spectacular style. Her spirit animal must be Fenella Fielding in Carry On Screaming. Red is her favourite shade. “It’s the colour of fire, courage, blood,” she says with vampiric glee. “Some people find red vulgar – maybe that’s the reason I like it.”
Apart from her own designs, a coveted pair of Y/Project jeans and an impressive collection of shoes, she rarely wears anything from the 21st century. The components of today’s look come from her huge collection of 19th-century clothes, which she buys from specialist dealers. “These are my daily Victorian clothes,” she explains, gesturing to her artful rags. “I have some really insane Victorian clothes, too, and I wear them all the time. I love it. And I have an actual 18th-century dress that makes me really happy.” Punk, metal and goth culture, as well as 1970s and 1980s music and subculture, play into the richly embellished tapestry of her glamorama, too.
For Findikoglu, getting dressed is a passion project. “I love what I wear. It’s generally quite out-there, I guess. I like things that are ripped and distressed – probably every single item I wear is a little bit fucked and old. I like buying old clothes because I feel like they have a soul and I like to think about who wore them before and how they were worn, because then there’s a story to it.”
Using fashion as a means of self-expression started early with Findikoglu, who was so obsessed with Alice in Wonderland, she would dress as Alice, dyeing her hair and eyebrows red to look more doll-like. By the time she was 14, she’d graduated from Harry Potter to Chariots of the Gods by Erich von Daniken and got her first tattoo. “I was reading all these weird books on the paranormal. I had black hair and tattoos. For a while, my family thought I was going to be this weirdo satanic person,” she says.
Instead, she became a fashion designer, more by force of will than anything else. Her father owns an opticals factory and her older siblings work with him, but Findikoglu, the youngest child, had other ideas. She became fixated on studying at Central Saint Martins, fuelled by an obsession with John Galliano (a fellow designer committed to lavish narratives), and made it happen, despite her parents’ reservations about her studying abroad. “They tried to control me in different ways, but I found a way to get out of it all, because I’ve known what I wanted in my head since I was a really small kid.” Nobody is going to write Findikoglu’s narrative but her. When her CSM tutors didn’t pick her for 2015’s final-year degree show, she defiantly staged her own catwalk outside the venue. The right people saw it and her career began in earnest.
Perhaps it’s her absolute self-determination that has endeared her to other rebellious free spirits. Tilda Swinton is a fan and, after a stint interning at Maison Margiela, she counts Galliano as a mentor. She has also created costumes for Ozzy Osbourne and dressed Madonna’s Madame X persona. “I kind of think that she sees her youth in me, being fearless and being a fierce woman who can do what men can do.”
Findikoglu is irrepressible. She simply won’t be dictated to and doesn’t care for convention. You can see it in her designs. Trends don’t interest her and she and creates her fantastical looks though a mix of riotous upcycling and ethical sourcing(much of her lavish embroidery is done by a women’s charity in Turkey). “If someone starts a brand nowadays and if they don’t talk about making the world a better place or saving the planet or doing ethical things, if they just want to produce hundreds of the same T-shirts made out of the most awful polyester, then it means absolutely nothing to me. If I’m going to make something it has to say something about the world and make the world a better place, because doing fashion for fashion is a bit old school. The world is not that kind of place any more,” she says. “If you don’t want to talk about politics, at least don’t be wasteful – that’s the number one thing.” Then, with one more flash of that fabulous red bra, she’s gone. She has dreams to build and new realities to make.
by Claudia Croft
Photographer Anton Gottlob
Fashion Editor Dilara Findikoglu
Text Claudia Croft
Hair Declan Sheils at Premier Hair and Make-Up using Aveda
Make-up Mona Leanne at The Wall Group using MAC