Even though Burak Cakmak and I initially aimed to meet for coffee in the mythical ‘absinthe’ Green Bar of Hotel Cafe Royal, it’s unfortunately closed until noon. Instead, we settle in the cafe, where pictures of supposedly famous people frame the walls. The tables are made from a warm marble; the flower in the glass on top of it is orange, and suits the hair of Parsons’ new Dean terribly well, who orders an americano with milk on the side.
He leans into the conversation, sometimes lowering his voice as if talking in conspiracy or secrecy about fashion business, but always with an underlying smile. His energy could almost be described as a youthful, which is present when we make a small tour through the hotel when trying to find daylight to shoot a portrait. We end up going to the top floor in old elevators, opening doors hoping a roof terrace would magically appear, but finding a closet with mops and cleaning products behind it. We laugh, dash back downstairs, and walk into the ‘closed’ Green Bar anyway. It’s like you’re in an in-crowd. Burak Cakmak seems incredibly relatable and approachable, which is part of his nature; largely developed by his almost centipede-like capacity to keep up with changes in cultural, societal and political landscapes and having different narratives playing in his mind at any time (acquired by working in a variety of jobs in the industry), making him able to look at issues within the fashion industry from different viewpoints simultaneously.
Burak recently moved to the States, after leaving his role as Vice President of Corporate Responsibility at Swarovski in London, and will slowly start making changes at Parsons. At some point in the conversation he talks about his former role, and how visiting the Swarovski factory in Wattens, Austria is like being in a Willy Wonka movie — it’s located in the middle of the mountains (actually in the place where they filmed The Sound of Music), with small rivers running through it… Though perhaps no oompa loompa’s refining crystals.
Prior to the interview we talk about Truman Capote’s claim to be able to recall everything he hears from memory — no tape recorder or notebook needed. I flip out my iPhone, however, and the cracked screen smilingly lies between us on that slab of marble, next to a ceramics bowl with white-and-brown sugar cubes. We share some stories about our nationalities — Turkish and Dutch — how they sometimes intersect, and dive into a conversation about living in London, and his then prospective moving to New York. “Life is a walk in the park after New York,” Burak jokes.
“My whole life has been about playing the role of a catalyst.”
“What’s unique about the United States is the positive attitude to life and feeling that you can be anything. That’s not how I have been raised — even in Turkey, and either West or East Europe you don’t have that. You always have boundaries, you follow certain paths. In the US, those are somehow broken, because they don’t have these preconceived notions of who you are or what you need to be. They’re ready for the new, as a state.”
Though Burak did not think about embarking on this new journey one year ago, he says that he is excited to make a difference, especially with an eye on sustainability, a field he specialises in. “As my whole life has been about playing the role of a catalyst, I address it from an industry and non-profit angle; and now I have a chance to approach it from an educational angle. One unique thing in trying to be catalyst is that you’re engaging with everybody across the organisation. So I feel I bring a unique aspect of understanding knowledges from across the whole fashion industry, as well as external stockholders, non-profit companies, governments, and many other players. I always have different perspectives in my mind that are constantly reminding me who is interested and in what.”
This fresh sustainability-in-fashion background that he is bringing with him to New York will ensure Parsons’ future as a potential leader in revolutionary fashion education. “The students are listening and want to know how to become the designer of the future. They need to understand the changes that they can make with their talent,” he tells me before talking about the (r)evolution side of fashion. “One big issue that I’ve always struggled with during my whole career is this issue of is this a revolution or evolution?” The main problem seems to be that there is hardly any place for revolution in established businesses, as their whole structures would collapse. New designers and future brands who are starting from scratch, however, must be asked the question: can you revolutionise? “Use new tools, new ways of thinking a radical shift. I think there has to be place for both, because we’re 7 billion people going to 9 billion.”
“As humanity, we’re not used to thinking ‘I should do less’.”
The problem with sustainability, and one thing that scares Burak, is that we’re not going to learn until we make a big mistake, but he adds: “I’m 100% hopeful there will be enough ideas to show the alternatives. How mainstream they will be, I don’t know.” On the fashion side it’s about the challenge of having limitations and using them as advantages to create something new, while questioning what fashion is in the 21st century. But, it’s also difficult to say ‘you should design less’, Burak notes. “As humanity, we’re not used to thinking ‘I should do less’. We should look at our responsibility as an industry, looking at how we can make the least amount of negative impact and then in some ways try to drive more responsible behavior.”
The big question is: why do we need so many clothes? “Really, nobody needs that many. It’s not driven by needs, but by the wants. It’s a sheer responsibility between the consumer and the brands in terms of how that design is managed. There’s an influence of marketing that drives people to purchase more, but the decisions are made by the consumers, so we cannot cancel their power.”
While we talk about consumerism, I make a remark about the consumers, and while doing so they are transformed into being a separate entity, positioning Burak and I, at that moment, as outsiders looking in. Burak pauses for a moment. “The challenge that I have is that when we are using the consumer term, we basically made it the third person. So, when you think about consumers: think of yourself. But normally you don’t immediately think about your own behavior. When you talk about consumer in third person, suddenly it becomes a distant topic and the conversation doesn’t translate immediately into something personal. We have to get a view of consumerism as you and myself. Then the individual becomes the center of the discussion.”
“I’ll do whatever needs to be done to open the door for that open engagement with different disciplines across the school.”
Sustainability in terms of environmental issues is not the only thing he is focusing on. It extends to a bigger plateau of political and social concerns within our industry, like feminism. “Women in power is one of the key topics for the next decades. I’ve already been pushing for action specifically on this issue, even in the organisations that I worked for, so we have engaged with organisations like UNWomen to get an understanding of the women’s empowerment principles.”
It sounds like his plans are exactly what young fashion designers need in the education stages of their lives. Optimism is key in solving the issues that the industry is facing, and Burak is bursting with it. “I’ll do whatever needs to be done to open the door for that open engagement with different disciplines across the school, but also putting some of these big challenges in front of students to see how they can address some of the big issues.” Parsons students, be ready for a challenge.
Words and portrait by Jorinde Croese