The Ottoman Princess cum designer of her eponymous, “everything-that-is-not-clothing-is-accessories”, brand Yaz Bukey, has charmed the world with her bold pieces that are not afraid to shock, awe and tell their own story. From orgasmic lips (C’est Ahhhhh) to a giant fireplace to put on your wall (as Yaz tells us the fantasy of one can be as good as the reality) these trompe-l’oeil treasures are carved with the same precision as applied to the ancient craft of marquetry to an unexpected material…ahem…plastic.
We sit with Yaz in a world of play where anything is possible to talk about her royal beginnings, inspirations, aspirations, and how she is not afraid of telling a story, one plexi piece at a time. There’s a reason after all why she’s known as the Queen of Plexi. Welcome to Yaz Bukeyland.
Semaine: Let’s start at the beginning. To say you have royal roots is no exaggeration…
Yaz: “My story is that I come from two quite interesting families. The side of my father was ruling in Egypt. The last king was King Farouk who died in London actually with a poisoned cigar in 1956. His sister was the first wife of the Aga Khan of Iran. It’s a big family, the obelisk at Place de la Concorde was offered by my great-great grandfather to Napoleon. So they were in Egypt and this family lost everything when the government changed in 1953. I have this side of the family that is really royal, and the other side is a mix of ex-USSR countries like Tatars that is a little tribe coming from Mongolia and Crimea, the girls with the smallest waists in then world. In the end all these people met in Turkey, you know, Ottoman empire and those leaving from ex-USSR to Turkey…so that is why I’m Turkish.”
Semaine: You once described your childhood as growing up in a golden cage.
Yaz: “My father was an ambassador specialized in the Arab world so we traveled a lot in Arab countries during my childhood. It was a golden cage. There was no going out, always with body guards, my father had his car that was bombed once. I was going to school arriving from another door after the class started and I left before class finished, so I didn’t have any friends either.
It was a lot of Africans, Lebanese, French…all these expats so it was also multi-cultural. Interesting but not knowing what’s happening outside in the street. In Saudi Arabia I did not walk out in the street for six years. You would walk out of your house, in the car, go somewhere and back. And then my father became minister of foreign affairs in Turkey and passed away ten days later. He was 40 years old, very young. So we came back to Turkey.
My mom was an Egyptologist so she started working in a University doing different conferences in the world that specialized in life after death for women in ancient Egypt. We had really mixed parents. Parents that were giving us the rules of knowing how to act, how to be with people, politesse, and at the same time totally fun, very crazy. My mom would explain to us that aliens exist and that they have three fingers…she really believed in it. It was mixed like that.”
Semaine: But despite this rather sheltered childhood, you were still exposed to cinema and music that would become a huge source of inspiration for your work?
Yaz: “From this moment of my childhood, and mostly in Saudi Arabia, my parents loved old musicals and cinema, cinema more than music, so they were giving us videos all the time to watch…Singing in the Rain, American in Paris or French movies.
Then also in Saudi Arabia I started discovering music through album covers. The only thing you can do there is walk around the shopping mall. At the time at least, this was mid-80’s. I was 11 when I bought my first album, Depeche mode. I’m still in love with them, I go to every concert I can. The Cure, all these groups, Culture Club was another discovery for me, Boy George. There were the different looks. The makeup! The hair! It was very fascinating for me. And also watching all of these movies. We were watching them not once but performing them. Each of us played a role, we were inventing games. Or the other game was destroying the walls with my mom’s lipstick...but that’s something else.”
Semaine: And how did you end up in Paris?
Yaz: “I told my parents I wanted to do music. They said no, no, no this is for prostitutes. In the end they said it’s not possible, if you want to do music here’s a violin. I opened the violin, sat down on it and said volià I don’t want to do violin. In the end, they forced me to do political science at Cairo American University. I called my mom and said, listen, I don’t understand what they are saying. They didn’t want anything artistic. So then I thought I am going to do something artistic but chic in their eyes. Interior Design, something like that. Then I discovered graphic design. I had no clue that being a makeup artist, stylist, could be a job. I didn’t even know this existed. For my parents they always said all these different people, makeup artists, they are all service jobs. Maid, makeup artists, was the same to them. So then I started in a school of industrial design specializing in perfume bottle design.
And then after, I did this fashion school Studio Berçot. I went to see the lady there and told her I had no money and asked her how I could do the course. She said every year I offer it to one person and this year it will be you and she said you know why? Because I love your voice. So I said OK this is God in front of me and she is going to change my life. And that’s what she did. I started right away I was going to school in the morning until 12 going to Margiela until 6, and then to a lady’s place that was doing linogravure [linocut], carving and painting for Christian Lacroix until midnight. I did a whole year like this and then I stayed at Margiela. From Margiela, I said I want to try a big house. But a big house with my looks already at the time was nearly impossible…”
Semaine: What was your look?
Yaz: “It was between Theda Barrow and Nina Hagen. It was trashy. At that moment coming out, of you know, from prison, I had to go to the extreme…it was to make me look uglier or something weird, like a freak. Shaved head. Makeup all pink here [she motions to her cheeks], and then blue here. Crazy. I even had a quite funny story one day when I was doing a shoot when I was at Jeremy Scott and was supposed to get some jewelry at Dior. I arrived there, “Bonjour” they say, oh welcome! They sat me down, offered me a drink and I thought, they don’t normally ask assistants this. They thought I was Nina Hagen! I said come on I’m 20 years younger! Anyway, it was Siouxsie and the Banchees mixed with Cleopatra, voilà.
And arriving to Givenchy it was with [Alexander] McQueen, so having a British designer that is also himself [that can be] trashy was fine, but still it was, “Yaz you can’t go to couture rooms because your résille [fishnets] are all broken. I said I don’t mind.”
Semaine: And when was the moment you decided to start your own brand?
Yaz: “After that I said OK want to see a small brand. I then started with Jeremy Scott. I stayed with him two and half years and I thought, instead of working for something else, I want to work for myself. I thought, OK I want to do clothes but I don’t have a big space. So I’ll do accessories. It was very much like this. But when I look back, it makes sense.”
Semaine: “Anything that is not clothing is accessories” as you once said…
Yaz: “It was that in the beginning. But I wish and hope I will achieve this dream. When I have my Yaz Bukeyland alive, I will have inside all these possible pieces you can get. Like in the same idea of a brand like a Hello Kitty, where you can find everything but for adults, sexy ladies, more for adults. Playful for adults. Something that transcends generations. ”
Semaine: And your first collection?
Yaz: “I started with my sister [Emel]. For ten years we were together. At the time we didn’t want to do Yaz and Emel. My real name is Yazbukey. It was a hard time for me at school no one could pronounce it. Everyone called me Yaz so we thought OK call it Yaz Bukey. The first collection was all made of leather and embroidery so the storytelling was already there, but at that time I hadn’t found my real material.
This first collection was bought by Kokon to Zai. Marjon Pejoski had done the dresses for Bjork for the Cannes film festival when she won the prize for Dancer in the Dark, and then she came to the shop and bought everything. She [Marjon] asked me if I could do some accessories for her shows. We went from 3 stores to10 stores. I guess people were waiting to see what the assistant of Jeremy Scott would do. Then from there we started doing this story of anything that is not clothing is accessories.
We didn’t get at all how the business was working. Of course you have a buyer for the shoes, a buyer for the lingerie…so if you don’t know those buyers they don’t come. I got the Andam prize twice and after that we grew slowly and some points we arrived and we didn’t even have the money to show the collection. But we did it. We were alone because our parents passed away so we had to find a solution. We were like trapezists without the fillet [safety net]. It’s not the business model you see for young designers today. When you speak to designers they know how their business will be in 5 years…we were freestyle and took time to see what’s going on.
Then after our 10th anniversary my sister said I can’t stand fashion and decided to go back to Turkey. The brand started growing and growing and with a certain luck I have, people think that I’ve only been there for 3-4 years each time.”
Semaine: And when was the moment that you discovered plexi?
Yaz: “Plexi I discovered around 2003. Which was a fun story. All my mom’s family have factories of plexi. I never worked from it. That’s what I’m telling you with this road. It’s weird. Why do I go and use plexi now. So I said how is your life? You come from a royal family. You are a princess. You don’t have any money. You don’t have any family. The only family that is in Egypt is like Grey Gardens. And I decided OK, how can you live different lives by pretending. You can pretend to be a queen and have all your plexi story with drawings. Like the fireplace, or you don’t have your champagne, but you have your little glass, you have your little bottle, you can pretend everything.
I wanted to take a material that was in my psychological past, a material that was not considered very important, probably as the family of my mother, and work it like a diamond. Make it it so difficult to make that in the end it’s like an artwork. So the idea is marquetry of plexi. Voilà. It is not plastic that you take and a stamp with the injection. There is someone doing the puzzle by hand.
And so I opened with two friends a space in Turkey and explained to them how to do this thing. Showing that when the piece is on the table it is 3D with the drawing you see always on the side of the object. The idea also was, selon humour, I have my clutch, I have my broach what do I want to say wearing this? Like the leg necklace, in French it’s “prendre ses jambes à son cou”, which means when you don’t want to be somewhere and you want to leave fast, you take your legs on your neck. One day someone said why those legs? I said it’s not dancing ladies…when I go to a cocktail I don’t want to be, I wear this. The idea is to give messages to the outside world without really talking. And being able to just wear a black dress…the clothes become secondary. It’s the accessory that comes on top of it and tells the whole story. Storytelling.”
Semaine: Talk to me about your shows. There’s no denying that performativity is really at the center.
Yaz: “I think this comes from the side that I wanted to be on stage. Discovering more and more the other side is great for me as well. I have a friend that is a choreographer and is part of a group called House of Drama. He was my student, I taught as well at Studio Berçot years later after my studies. He then went on to assist different stylists and then when he launched his dancing and choreography career, we started working together. But at the time we didn’t have the money. So Vincent Darré was kindly lending us his space. You know they had 1 square meter to do the little performance. This is one person that is very important to me Aymeric Bergada du Cadet. With him we are starting the story from A-Z. I tell him I don’t know next season I want to work on the bath of Cleopatara and then we start talking…we can pretend to have a swimming pool, these kind of dancers, this kind of light…it’s a real ping pong and I fully trust the taste.
I have a big love for Gene Kelly and Bob Fosse. It’s something that is a big obsession. I love watching the movies and observing how they move. The second thing that I love outside from that is all of the advertising from the 80’s. You know. Smoke more. [as she rolls her cigarette].
I like to enter into different personages. I can become the girl of Rio and have a Samba, or I can go to a Goth party and do pogo. I don’t know. I like to enter into different worlds.”
Semaine: Do you have a woman in mind when you design?
Yaz. “Again my dualities I have inside of me. I love that some of them have a double meaning. Like the lips. I designed them because I was listening to that song all summer long, Sebastien Tellier’s song [Roche] C’est Ah. I was like “ahhh Sebastien…’ so I did a collection on him. He was the head of the cult and everything that was around him…spaceship, cadeaux [gifts], and these lips were having orgasms in his cult space.”
Semaine: Did he know about the collection?
Yaz: “Yes we met and we also met with his record label after and worked with another group called Hypnolove and did a cover for them. It’s me lifting a big plexi sun, like Aurora waking the day. Amazing. Goddess. The maid, the goddess what else? I was joking with this maid story because we were with Tania and Vincent, the two photographers I’ve been working with a long time. Every season I am in the pictures being the different personages. Designing for a girl like me. For people that are shy that don't want to talk but want to send a message. I also like that some of the girls don’t get the meaning but they are like “kawaii!” So yes it was these lips that were having an orgasm, saying “C’est ah.”
Semaine: Do you have any favorite collections or ones you still would like to reissue?
Yaz: “There are two collections that I would like to reissue because at the time we didn’t show them. One is Murder She Wrote...for me I can even imagine a whole hotel floor, each floor with each personage by Yaz Bukey. Who was killed in each room, by who? We did a clue game. And at the same time it was Murder She wrote, Angela Lansbury and Agatha Christie. You know in Istanbul there is Pera Palace. My sister lived there for two years before they reopened it, it was an old hotel, I stayed there with her for a month. You were feeling like you were Agatha Christie. Everyone stayed there…you have the names, Greta Garbo, Mata Hari…
The second one is my African collection. Saga Africa. I really want to redo it with the sapeurs, the African guys that are getting dressed behind the 18th [arrondissement in Paris]. You know there were battles in the streets. I loved it in the beginning of the 90’s when I arrived to Paris, all of this Barbes parts was amazing…les sapeurs, the hairdresser ladies. All these African vibes. The African queen. The dictator. [she laughs] My dark side.”
Semaine: And what’s to come for for Yaz Bukey?
Yaz: “I’m starting a shoe license in Italy which is amazing because for me, shoes is like perfume bottling. 3D…you have to see it through every side. We have a big collaboration coming out with Lacoste and another big one with Kure Bazaar, which is a vegan, nail varnish that is not tested on animals. This is going to be a big thing because we are going to do a shop in shop, a little Yaz Bukey x Kure Bazaar concept store. I’m waiting to find the gym wear, this is one of the things I really need to do. If anyone is reading this? [she laughs] Also, accessories for the home. Again, the idea is that you can have your bouquet on the table, a real one or a fake one standing next to it. Or you can have special objects you will find in a cabinet de curiosité, but there are a few in plexi. Again, it is this idea of pretending, you don’t have a fireplace? You get a fake one. You can also make stories on the wall. You can even create a full aquarium. I was thinking when I move from this house I will do those birds you find on Chinese paravents. You can create a whole story on the walls, on the table, and also all the tableware, sheets wallpaper. Voilà! I have to start on this seriously. I have some special orders. A fortune teller astrology table. What are you Leo? You sit down there. It can be infinite. Yaz Bukey Café. Yaz Bukey Cakes. Hotel Yaz. Yaz Bukey Tapis [rugs]. Yaz Bukey Yoga. Do the lip shape! Do the lip shape! And say Ahhhhhh.”
Yaz wanted to specially thank Bureau Betak, Lucien Pages, Aymeric Bergada du Cadet and Tania & Vincent.
By Michelle Lu for Semaine.