Once an educator in the field of linguistics, Şeref Özen runs Cocoon today. He is a well of information and knowledge about antics and Central Asia. We met him in his shop a few steps away from the Blue Mosque on a winter day.
SoUL: Can you tell us about yourself?
ŞÖ: I studied English language and literature at the University. After graduation I stayed at the college and started teaching. In the meantime I got a masters degree in linguistics and then started to work on my PhD focusing on the language of media.
SoUL: So how did you transition from linguistics to Central Asia and design?
ŞÖ: When I was getting my degree in English it was difficult to find English books to read. So, I used to go to the Russian Embassy as they printed and distributed Russian Classics in English for free as propaganda. I ended up gathering a lot of information and books on Central Asia and the Turkic countries there. That’s how I started to get interested in carpets, kilims and textiles and the more I learned the more I realized what an undiscovered place Central Asia was.
SoUL: So we’re talking about the last years of the Soviet Union?
ŞÖ: Sure, and when USSR dissolved we started seeing a lot of products entering Turkey from Turkic Republics primarily from Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. First it was what we call ‘luggage trade’ meaning people carrying goods in their luggage. During that time I was at the University in Beyazıt. They used to set up a flea market in the mornings. And I used to go there and try to find authentic textile as much as my budget allowed.
SoUL: Apparently your interest in textile didn’t just stay at a collector’s level?
ŞÖ: Yes, in 1997 I resigned from the university and went to Central Asia. I wanted to see everything in place and was trying to learn more by talking with people. At the same time I was following collections in England and Germany. I decided to form a business and we started selling whatever collected up until then to get the working capital needed. And today it became Cocoon.
SoUL: Let’s talk about Cocoon a little.
ŞÖ: Our main business is antics; we offer aesthetic and desirable items that have an ethnographic, historic value to interested parties including museums. At the moment, Cocoon attracts people interested in collecting Central Asian items mainly because the collection here is very eclectic. We don’t collect one type of product; on the contrary we collect anything from jewelry to clothing, from carpets to tiny ornaments for tents, from adornments for horses or camels; essentially we collect everything.
SoUL: It looks like you have other items than just antics.
ŞÖ: Sure thing. At the end of the day, there is a limit to antics. The desire to find items that no one has seen or known is not an easy to achieve task. That’s why about 7 to 8 years ago we started designing items. Our starting place was using felt. So we made felt hats. Because Central Asia is very advanced in felt making. Then we moved into felt clothing and shawls. We mixed silk with felt, cotton with felt and at some point we had four to five hundred different types of products.
SoUL: Why Sultanahmet?
ŞÖ: Well, because Sultanahmet is the ‘downtown’, if you will. This is the oldest part of the city. The first stop for any visitor to town. And when we started back in ’96 and ’97 this was the only place that we could actually make it work cost wise.
SoUL: And if we were to compare the Sultanahmet of ’96 with today…
ŞÖ: Big difference… This is now a hotel city! All buildings are converted to a hotel. I am the only resident on my street where I live. There is no other person who lives on the entire street. The end result is that Sultanahmet looks much better. At the same time, there is not much of local life left here. And it’s gotten very expensive. I think Sultanahmet is on the top of the list in terms of real estate price inflation. And when I first came in ’83, the Pudding Shop was still a Pudding Shop. It was the meeting point for the ’68 generation. All that has changed now. For sure there are more places to eat and drink. And there is more of everything, but the local life style has essentially disappeared.
SoUL: And what does your customer profile look like?
ŞÖ: About 90 to 95 percent foreign. Maybe because of my travel destinations, most of our customers come from the US. Our business is created thru word of mouth. So the US is number one, and then comes Italy, Germany and France. But the new economic reality has impacted the tourist profile. We have more customers coming from the Arabic Emirates, these days.
SoUL: Let’s talk about Istanbul. In your opinion what is the best thing to do in Istanbul?
ŞÖ: I go to the Archeological Museum every few weeks and drink tea in the garden. I get great pleasure of visiting one section every time. It doesn’t get much attention but it’s such an incredible museum. I also like walking a lot. For the last few years, I walk and photograph the neighborhood around Süleymaniye and the back streets there. I went to a café there, when you get on top from its deck Istanbul looks like a miniature. There are so many surprising places like that.
Then, there is the Istanbul Modern, which is one of the best places due to its location. Even if you don’t enjoy contemporary art you can still go there and enjoy a beer on its deck. The number of galleries, photography and painting exhibitions are increasing daily and they are being gathered around in certain neighborhoods like the West Village or part of Soho in New York.
SoUL: Where does your interest in photography come from?
ŞÖ: When my hobby, that is collecting, turned into my profession all of a sudden I didn’t have a hobby left. I had always an interest in photography. I used to take the pictures of our products for putting on the Internet and such. So, I ended up pursuing photography as a hobby. Nowadays, I pick a subject and photograph around that subject. These days I’m working on fishermen. Winter is approaching so I’m sure I’ll get some good shots with fog, snow and everything. I even thought about going fishing with them to see what I can get.
SoUL: Do you ever think about doing something with your photographs?
ŞÖ: I have a friend in Italy. We’re talking about a joint exhibition in Padua. We’ll see…
SoUL: What would you suggest foreign visitors should visit?
ŞÖ: The Turkish and Islamic Art Museum is one, and the Archeological Museum is two. The former covers a small lot but it’s probably the most beautiful museum in Istanbul. It doesn’t tire one out like the Met. It’s probably not bigger than three rooms in the Met.
SoUL: And what should folks eat while here?
ŞÖ: Everyone should try the şiş kebab once. Istanbul is so rich in culinary offerings. I recommend kuru fasulye (beans) in Süleymaniye (just opposite the mosque). It’s cheap and comfortable. There are many tiny restaurants in and around the Grand Bazaar and the Hans that are worth discovering. One should try to experience that texture.
SoUL: And drink?
SoUL: How about shopping?
ŞÖ: People can find the best of everything here. Of course, if you’re in Turkey you should get a carpet. We have groupings of shops like carpet sellers, jewelry shops, leather shops etc. And then you’ve got soaps, silk from Hatay etc. All these are things that people don’t find in their countries.
SoUL: Anything else you want to add?
ŞÖ: I would recommend people to leave their prejudice that they are going to a Middle Eastern country. If people do research before coming here they would better enjoy the experience of being in Istanbul. With the Internet, Google and Wikipedia etc. one has all sorts of information to sift through. Considering European history and that you have Byzantium, Rome and the Ottoman Empire as multiple layers in this one city… Some places are well taken care of while others are less, but regardless this city is full of history…