Passion Points: Style
Denise Spencer’s introduction to Istanbul was dramatic: traveling with her then-boyfriend (now-husband) who was visiting his Turkish family, she was taken straight from the airport to the city’s sprawling Grand Bazaar. “That set the theme for my long love affair with the country and its culture,” says Spencer who now splits her time between New York and Istanbul. It also may have subconsciously inspired the designer’s decision to launch a company that carries beautifully crafted jewelry and accessories from Turkey. We carry a number of her pieces at our pop-up souks. Many of the collections’ pieces evoke the meaning of ichiche (which translates to “intertwined”), by infusing traditional motifs and materials with an undeniably modern and wearable quality. The newest addition to the collection are stylish wraps made from traditional fabrics with intricate embroidery. Spencer spoke to Indagare about her creative process, as well as shared her favorite places in Istanbul and beyond.
What are some of your favorite pieces in your current collection?
Right now, I love the kimono wraps created from vintage suzani embroideries. Each piece is one of kind and has its own special beauty. I adore wearing them with tights or skinny jeans and boots in the cold weather. My husband and I recently traveled to St. Barth’s for a getaway, and I wore them with little sandals. I’m also a fan of really long chain pieces from the jewelry collection that can either be worn as a belt or wrapped a few times and worn as a dramatically long necklace. The chains evoke a luxuriously opulent, fantasy-like feel. It’s similar to a modern day version of adornments worn during the Ottoman Empire.
What are some of your favorite neighborhoods in Istanbul?
We have a home on the hillside in Bebek, where we live when in Istanbul. I love Bebek because it is very pretty overlooking the Bosphorous. There is a little town center with a lot of rather hip cafes and bars and some good shops. It really feels like a neighborhood in the midst of such a big city. People come from all over the city to hang out there so it’s great for people-watching. I’m also intrigued and starting to explore the area of Galata around the Galata Tower. This neighborhood is growing and changing very fast as nice cafés open, and up-and-coming designers set up boutiques there. Naturally I love Sultanahmet, the historic old city where the Bazaar is located.
What are some of your favorite restaurants in Istanbul?
I will always love Park Şamdan when I want to have a nice dinner. The classic atmosphere is elegant without being stuffy and the service and food are always great. Afterward, if I’m feeling like music, dancing and having fun, we’ll head to Moreish in Tepebaşı near Beyoğlu. It’s small and unassuming before 11p.m. but it turns into one of the best places to dance on Friday and Saturday nights. The DJs are great and play a mix of everything from American rock, ‘80s music, to Turkish pop, and everyone has a great time.
My other favorite places are luckily in Bebek so I can go often. Lucca is always a scene and actually has really good food and drinks. On a weekend night it feels like all of Istanbul stops in at some point for a drink at least. Mangerie is more-low key but still gets a crowd especially at lunch or on the weekends. I had some friends come to visit over the holidays and they kept requesting to go to Mangerie over and over again because the food, people watching and view are just a perfect combination. And for something really authentic and local we go to Bebek Balikçısı (Cevdet Paşa Cad. No: 26/A Bebek) for a traditional meal of meze (Turkish tapas) and fish.
You are a foodie. What are some dishes not to miss when in Istanbul?
My favorite dish is a breakfast or brunch dish called menemen, which is sort of a Turkish version of scrambled eggs but different and far more interesting. The eggs are cooked with a lot of butter, tomatoes, peppers and spices; it’s amazing! One of my favorite cafes, Mangerie, makes it all day so I’ll even order it for a late lunch sometimes.
Going out to a traditional fish restaurant to have a meal of all of the different types of meze (Turkish tapas) is a must. Servers bring a tray of the various meze available, and you pick out what you like. First the cold dishes followed by the hot, and then if you have any room left, you order the main course of fish that is fresh or in season that day. Traditionally one would drink Rakı with the meal (its like Greek Ouzo but less sweet), but I’ve never acquired a taste for it; I have wine but one should definitely give it a try, since it’s part of the experience.
Finally for dessert: I’m not a big sweet eater but irmik helvası is really good and something to definitely try. It’s made of semolina (what we eat as cream of wheat here in the States) cooked in butter and spices with pine nuts and then packed over ice cream, sort of how the meringue in a Baked Alaska is. While not as common as other desserts, one can find it on the menu at Bebek Balikçısı and at the kebap houses Köşe Başı and Tike Kebap.
What are some of your favorite boutiques, markets, shopping resources?
Midnight Express has a nice selection of clothing from contemporary local designers alongside select things from foreign brands. They have a boutique in Bebek (Küçük Bebek Cad. No: 7/A Bebek) as well as Nisantasi (Kadırgalar Cad. Açık Hava Apt. No:8/3). In Bebek they also have a separate jewelry boutique (Cevdet Paşa Cad. Gemekcik Sokak Bebek Palas Apt. No. 1) that has the most beautiful pieces from designers both local and international.
Laundromat (Galip Dede Cad. 93/B, Kuledibi) in Galata, not far from the base of the Galata Tower, is a fairly new boutique with a revolving selection of local designers. The atmosphere is beautiful and unique, and it’s fun to see all of the creativity and design percolating in Istanbul. The up-and-coming leather designer, Simay Bulbul just opened her first boutique, also in the Galata area (Şahkulu Bostan Sokak No: 22A, Galata), and I think she is one to watch.
On a foodie note, definitely visit the Malatya Pazarı inside the Spice Bazaar (Mısır Çarşısı No: 40-44-44/1 Eminönü) for all of the best dried fruits, nuts, and Turkish Delight (locally called “lokum”). They also sell something they call “kayısı döner” (apricot döner) that I’m crazy about. Typically döner is meat packed onto a turning spit, roasted, and then sliced off to eat. This apricot version is dried apricot and spices packed together with walnuts and then sliced. It’s like the best fruit roll-up you’ll ever have and without that artificial quality found in the grocery stores here in the States.
Finally, I adore the Grand Bazaar and obviously it is a must. When people think of Turkey and shopping, one of the first things that probably comes to mind are carpets and I couldn’t recommend anyone more highly than the shop Adnan & Hasan (Halıcılar Cad. No: 89, 90 & 92, Grand Bazaar). They are the best. I can’t say enough about the pieces they sell, their knowledge about each piece, their kind and gentle manner, and their fair prices. For an ever-changing selection of funky, unique, costume jewelry go visit Hayrullah in his shop Arts 15 (Kalaflar Cad. No: 15, Grand Bazaar).
What has changed the most about Istanbul since you first started going?
Starbucks! That’s just an example. When I first visited and then lived in Turkey, there wasn’t nearly the abundance of American and European brands and businesses existing today. In some areas, specifically shopping malls, and some streets you could easily be anywhere in the world. While in some ways this has made life in Istanbul more convenient, I think it’s an unfortunate change that is taking away from the local flavor.
Have you traveled elsewhere in Turkey and what are some of your favorite discoveries?
The South of Turkey is absolutely gorgeous and so wonderful during the warm weather months. I’ve been going to Alacatı, near Cesme, south of Izmir since I first started spending time in Istanbul. My husband is a dedicated windsurfer and Alacatı is one of the best places in the world. For many years there was nothing at all, just a dirt road where we’d turn off and park and walk a few steps to the water. Now the area has windsurfing schools and cafés and shops have opened up, and everyone goes to hang out there whether they windsurf or not. While the original rustic quality is gone, the more modern conveniences have made spending the day easier and it’s still a fun place to go.
The town of Alacatı has also changed dramatically. For many years, only the locals inhabited the actual village and visitors stayed in the surrounding communities and wouldn’t really go into the village other than to see the old stone architecture. But now the buildings and houses have been restored and cafes, restaurants, boutiques and hotels have moved in and it gets so absolutely packed on summer weekends that one can barely navigate the streets. It is quaint and interesting when it’s not too busy but can be overwhelming, and I do miss the quiet times of the old days there. It is still an amazing place to visit, and we go every summer.
Farther south on the Bodrum Peninsula is the town of Türkbükü, another little resort settlement nestled on a bay. The beautiful resort of Maca Kızı is there and it’s a great place to spend a luxurious long weekend just lounging in the sun, swimming and eating beautiful food at the restaurant. This is the place where my husband and I had our wedding, and it will always hold a special place for us.
Read Denise’s three tips on shopping the Grand Bazaar
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