Ethnic chic may have made Rifat Ozbek's name, but it was Future Ozbek, now 10 years old, that made his fortune. Andy Zneimer reports

Andy Zneimer
Saturday 17 August 1996 23:02 BST

Like any good designer, Rifat Ozbek has mixed feelings about fashion. Perhaps that's why his clothes have an uncanny knack of both setting and transcending trends. Women simply never hand their Ozbeks into Oxfam. He sets out to defy the way the fashion industry in the Nineties unimaginatively recreates past glories, afraid to forge ahead. "Back in the Seventies, when we rummaged about in flea markets for clothes from the Twenties, we wore them in combination with something from our own period: a dress with a little rock'n'roll, a little glam-rock," he explains. "Today, I think people are making it too easy for themselves."

Ozbek's name has become synonymous with "designer ethnicity"; his chief inspiration came from travels on the hippie trail in the 1970s and 1980s, in India, Indonesia, Thailand and Africa. Curious by nature, Ozbek filled his head with the cultural bric-a-brac that was to inform his collections. "I'm interested in people who don't change their style every six months the way we do," he says.

An Ozbek suit from the early 1990s, for instance, might have carried an embroidered detail based on rows of oblong bones from an old native American Indian necklace; but otherwise it would be a contemporary item, functional, beautifully tailored, of Ozbek proportions. Ozbek may not set out to establish trends but it seems to have become inevitable that he should do so, translating his global meanderings into an aesthetic that self-confident women in the pluralistic West find enthralling. Celebs flock to him, among them Madonna, Cher, Tina Turner, Bjork, Daryl Hannah, Elizabeth Taylor and the divorcee formerly known as HRH The Princess of Wales.

Rifat Ozbek was born in 1953 to a wealthy and artistic family in Istanbul. He arrived in Liverpool in 1970 with the intention of studying architecture, but soon changed tack to study fashion at St Martin's, London. It was during this time that he met Tina Chow, Manolo Blahnik and his long-time emotional prop and corporate communications director, Cindy White. In 1984, Ozbek formed his own company and the orders started to arrive. Joseph, Harvey Nichols and Browns signed up, and in 1988 and 1992 Ozbek received the British Fashion Council Designer of the Year Award.

Ozbek doesn't always please the pundits. Critics have complained that his main collections are disjointed and lacking in focus, too often skirting the issue of real clothing. Yet at the same time it is Ozbek's accessibility that has kept him on the map. He was among the first major designers to produce a second collection, Future Ozbek, launched in 1987, which last year outsold his main line by about pounds 2m. "Future Ozbek is truly modern," says Montserrat Mukherjee, manageress at Browns. "It goes with the times. Rifat is just incredibly good at judging the future."

For Future Ozbek Autumn/Winter 1996/7, the ethnic grip has been relaxed slightly. It's an elegant, understated collection, manufactured and finished to the very highest standards in Italy. It's sleek, metropolitan and above all wearable.

What is perhaps most surprising about Ozbek is how little success seems to have affected him. He owns just one house - in west London - and has yet to purchase the customary yacht or sprawling villa in the south of France. "He sees himself as an ordinary person who goes to work in the morning," says Cindy White. "Rifat doesn't like to philosophise. He thinks his clothes speak for themselves."


Opposite, left: brown lace shirt-dress (worn with underslip), pounds 294, at Matches, 34 High Street, Wimbledon Village, and 13 Hill Street, Richmond; Julie Fitzmorris, 40 Parliament Street, Harrogate. Brown lace trousers, pounds 187, at Contemporary Collections, Selfridges, Oxford Street, London W1, and Lisa Stirling, 3-4 St James Square, Manchester.

Opposite, right: turquoise suit with red pinstripe, pounds 510, at Contemporary Collections II, Harrods, Knightsbridge, London SW1; Room 7, 64 Street Lane, Leeds (01132 369 100).

Enquiries: 0171 408 0625

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