At his desk in Istanbul’s Laleli neighbourhood, Recep Cesur sits with a colourful spectrum of men’s suits hung behind him. From traditional black to an unusual glimmering shade of aubergine, the Kurdish tailor’s creations are known across Iraq and the rest of the Middle East – his claim to fame amounting from a rich past of designing suits for high-profile figures across the greater Arab and African regions.
Unlike some, Cesur didn’t learn the trade by observing a mentor who expertly tailored one suit after the other – he takes pride in being completely self-taught. Born to a Kurdish family in Boşa, a village connected to the city of Silvan in Turkey’s Diyarbakır province, Cesur grew up with 10 siblings and two chickens and went to school for exactly 14 days before he had to quit due to his family’s financial shortcomings.
Today, Cesur speaks eloquently and carefully. With heavy eyelids, he pauses between words, conjuring memories that vividly decorate his sentences. He remembers exact dates and numbers – the license plate of the bus that brought him to Istanbul on May 28th, 1983, for example, was 56AS454.
He worked as a shoeshiner, a waiter and a night porter at a guesthouse in Aksaray, and during his mandatory military service in Turkey he learned to read and write.
Cesur’s entrance to the textile world began with the production of women’s clothes until a nearby store went up for sale in 1985. He bought it out, began to produce men’s pants and officially launched Cesur Textile.
‘I was so fast,’ he says. ‘Neither day nor night was enough for me, and I would get angry when the day came to an end because I needed more time.’ It was during these years that Cesur established his business’ logo: two lions facing one another separated by a tailor’s most prized companion – scissors.
By 1990, Cesur Textile was producing about 12,000 suits per month and by 1998, Cesur opened a factory in Istanbul’s İkitelli industrial district with 190 workers. Before long, the growing number of staff at Cesur Textile nearly doubled, reaching 360. While his brand continued to expand, Cesur decided to pack his bags and explore the world beyond Turkey’s borders.
‘When I was little I thought the world went as far as Diyarbakır. Then, when I came to Istanbul I thought this city was the end of the world. But then I realised that there was so much more and I began to plan how I would see everything.’
In 1996, Cesur went to Baghdad to oversee his Iraqi branch. Cesur Textile had begun to make (apart from the suits) men’s shirts, ties and shoes, and was therefore the only store in town that provided full outfitting under one roof. When a car filled with security guards came by to do some surreptitious shopping, Cesur asked what was going on.
‘They told me they were buying things for Saddam Hussein and not to tell anyone,’ says Cesur. ‘So I said, “Well, why don’t you bring me a suit of his and we’ll make him a few new ones according to his measurements.”’ It wasn’t long before the tailor began to churn out suits for the entire government staff. Cesur still has the binder that contains every person’s measurements. ‘We would make about 200 suits per month just for the Iraqi government,’ he says.
Cesur closes his eyes again and counts, ‘South Africa, Mozambique, Zambia, Ivory Coast, Mauritania, Mali, Chad, Senegal, Ghana, Congo, Angola, Uganda.’ He has opened retailers in more than 50 countries across Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and Europe. When asked why his customers prefer his suits, he answers, ‘Quality. I know what it’s made of, where the materials come from, and so I can promise that whatever has our logo on it has a 10-year guarantee. I don’t sell anything that I wouldn’t wear myself.’
Although everything carrying the Cesur logo is made in Turkey with Turkish materials, the brand has few Turkish customers. ‘Our suit models don’t appeal to the Turks. Our customers are 40 percent Middle Eastern, 20 percent African, 20 percent European and 20 percent Central Asian.’
It’s also Cesur’s minute knowledge of standard physical dimensions by nationality that have made his suits so popular – he knows exactly which suit will fit each man in each country. ‘I speak Farsi, Arabic, Russian, Turkish and Kurdish,’ he says. When asked where he learned these languages, he simply replies, ‘Laleli.’
Whether it’s the wider cut preferred by his Middle Eastern customers or a short-sleeved jacket for an African client who lives in sweltering temperatures, the Kurdish tailor’s suits are in harmony with the physical and aesthetic variations of each geography and culture. No matter his background, Cesur aims to offer a poised stance via high quality garments to all of his customers.
On the walls facing a staircase that leads to the basement of his Istanbul shop are images of regional leaders dressed in Cesur’s madeto- measure clothes, interspersed with framed newspaper stories written about the tailor. He takes a seat on one of the steps and, while talking about the past, has a hint of nostalgia in his gaze.
‘We love our work because we know what it’s like to have nothing,’ he laments. ‘You come from a small village in Diyarbakır to a city with a population of more than 15 million, you travel the globe, sell goods internationally and compete with world brands, but all the while you never forget that it’s all a blessing. Because we know where we came from, when we look back we can still see where we were born.’
Brownbook, January-February, 2016