Looking Back: Visit from Elif Malkoclar of CRAAFTS.

Who doesn’t dream of having clients like Chanel, Chloe, and Stella McCartney? Elif Malkoclar did not, she wanted to become an architect. So, at the age of eighteen, she moved from her home country of Turkey to Florence to study. But after her studies, her life took a turn and twenty years later, she works for almost all luxury fashion brands. At the invitation of Crafts Council Nederland, she was in the Netherlands at the end of March to talk about her studio Craafts and to give a masterclass.

The unique catwalk pieces on which the big brands hang their collection are often created by Elif, as well as the special accessories such as bags, belts, and shoes. Her specialty is crochet and macramé. She has elevated these simple techniques to true art with technical feats and unique applications.

She begins her lecture with a dizzying number of photos, a selection of what she has created over the years for Chloe, Chanel, Alexander McQueen, and well, for whom not. But few people know her story, let alone what literally comes from her hands. When you think of crochet and macramé, luxury products are not the first thing that comes to mind. Crochet is done with just a crochet hook, and for macramé, the knotting technique, you only use your hands. But Elif’s craftsmanship is unparalleled. Where did she learn that, and how do you build a flourishing business in the high-end fashion industry? It all began twenty years ago with a crocheted bag for Yves Saint Laurent. But actually, the seed had already been planted in her early years.

Elif loves to make things with her hands, it runs in her blood. As a child, she learns to crochet from her grandmother, which was common for many girls at the time. This way, she becomes skilled with her hands at a young age. After completing her degree in architecture, she creates small series of accessories, which she sells at the annual crafts fair in Florence. Simply because she loves making things. It brings her into a flow state, her mind is free, her hands think and act simultaneously, as if by themselves. Her talent is noticed by an American woman who asks Elif to help with the production of handmade objects. She is given an address just outside of Florence where she can get the materials. While her future husband waits for her in the car outside, Elif is asked if she can crochet 5,000 bags, for which she is given three months. “No,” she says, “that’s really not possible.” But her mother, who was visiting from Turkey at the time and accompanied her, said, “Sure, we can do that.” And so the first deal was made.

Elif’s mother, a former pharmacist, had just established a foundation in Turkey to guide women who are far from the labor market towards paid work. These women, mostly illiterate, are poor, take care of their households and families, and sometimes experience domestic violence. These women find it difficult to escape their situation, as they have not studied and have not learned how to earn money independently. But what they have learned are skills to work with their hands, which were passed down from mother to daughter. In Florence, Elif’s mother sees a match for the production of 5,000 bags. It turns out to be a golden opportunity, a win-win. However, it is not easy because the fashion system is demanding: there is very little time for design, making samples, organizing materials, production, and delivery of the end product to the consumer.

Under this pressure, Elif leaves for Turkey just three days after her wedding. During this “solo honeymoon,” she teaches the women how to crochet the bags for Yves Saint Laurent. When the job is done, the women are enthusiastic; they have their own income for the first time, and Elif and her mother see possibilities for a follow-up project.

Elif returns to Florence and starts her studio Craafts. She gives herself one year to build a customer base, but it’s not as easy as she thought. “Don’t think that when I called Prada and said I make handmade accessories, the doors opened. The fashion world is, especially at that time, a closed bastion.” During that year, she focuses on the macramé technique, a technique that has many mathematical elements. She specializes with instruction books and tries out every pattern literally. She experiments with materials and colors, and a sample library is born, all carefully organized and coded. At this moment, her library consists of seven thousand unique samples, macramé, crochet, beadwork, weaving, knitting, all made of textiles, leather, and grasses such as raffia. This library later turns out to be one of the keys to success.

Finally, through her network of friends, she manages to get in with the big fashion brands, and with her samples, she shows what she can do. “It’s about inspiring people, you have to feed your customers’ imagination.” Nowadays, the sample library attracts designers from all major brands. The library is not only a candy shop of creativity and technical ingenuity, but it also serves as a communication tool. Blindly, Elif knows her way around it, and with a few strokes, she finds the right samples to stimulate imagination and illustrate possibilities.

‘Do you know what the problem is? I love to challenge myself. I prefer to come up with impossible things. During covid, I designed and produced macrame shoes for Fendi, but do you know how difficult that was? They could not be lined, which created a problem for keeping the shoes in shape. I made dozens of samples to achieve that. In addition, it took a lot of calculations because each size requires a different amount of macrame knots. And the ladies I work with have a different rhythm in the morning than at the end of the day; everyone has their own way of working. Working a little tighter or looser has an immediate impact on the sizing. I lost sleep over it, but in the end, ten thousand pairs of shoes were sold’.

Apart from the production challenge, setting up a business in the world of high-end fashion is no easy task. You are either ‘in or out,’ according to Elif: ‘I carry all the risks and investments. For every assignment, I do the design and also take care of the technical execution. That ranges from making molds to countless material experiments. Sometimes I need thirty people for production, sometimes three hundred. I have to train new people first, and others receive further training for specific skills. And all of this in eight weeks from the moment I accept the assignment. Because in the twenty years that I have been working, the fashion industry has changed from two to six or more collections per year. The pressure is insanely high. That’s why lately I’ve been focusing on interior design. I make macrame furniture and also huge macrame chandeliers for special locations. My latest designs are led lamp strips covered with macrame in which I incorporate 5000 beads. I sell them under my own name, Ebihandmade’.

When asked what she is most proud of in her career, she immediately answers: ‘on all the fantastic women I work with. It’s about woman empowerment, we do it together’.

This activity was financially made possible by the World Crafts Council Europe, the Creative Europe Programme, and Instituut GAK.