Nida Gonul, the designer who is literally giving her shoes a twist
Turkish shoe designer Nida Gonul, is redefining footwear by merging the old with the new. Fusing the 250-year-old coiling technique of Zembil with the cutting-edge use of Kombucha leather, a homegrown bacterial leather that's 100% eco-friendly, Nida has created a collection that proves design does not have to be compromised for sustainability. It is therefore no surprise that this up-and-coming designer was selected as a finalist for the Kering award in collaboration with Stella McCartney while she was studying. It was not long for the Ocotur team to take notice of this promising young designer too, and we are excited to share our conversation with her below.
Describe a typical Nida Gonul wearer?
A woman who likes a sleek, polished look where the devil is in the details. She likes wearing a garment that, in a way, is quiet, plain and easy to wear, but will combine this with something outrageous, like her shoes. In addition, as the material choices are completely vegan, so she would not care much for leather. For me, the core that connects a shoe with the wearer is the aesthetics, the feeling it creates. The fact that it's sustainable would be a highlighter marking on the main message, so to speak.
How important is sustainability for your customers?
For over a year now, I've been using secondhand denim and recycled textiles in jewellery, but from my experience customers react to it differently than I expected. When I explain to customers the backstory of the pieces and mention the sustainability aspect, it helps gauge people's interests, but doesn't make or break it.
In your collections, you use Kombucha leather, what is this and how is it different to regular leather?
I first found out about Kombucha leather from the designer Suzanne Lee, she was really a pioneer in the use of microbial cellulose to create leather. Kombucha leather resembles traditional leather, however it is made from a combination of bacteria and yeast. I added my own twist to Kombucha leather by coloring it in my own way. I also used another type of artificial leather from Turkey which is also 100% biodegradable. Although traditional leather is the easiest material to work with, when you start to research how leather comes about, and consider the detrimental effect it has on animals and the environment as a whole, you realise how important the development of alternative, eco-friendly leathers is.
I loved your unique MA collection 'With a Twist'. Tell me about the Zembil method, you used throughout this collection.
Zembil is a basketry technique originating from Bafra, a town located in the north of Turkey. It has been used over 250 years and is a specific way of coiling. While I was working on my MA collection, I started to research alternative ways of construction. By chance, I stumbled upon a video on Zembil, and that was my light bulb moment. I knew I wanted to experiment with this unique coiling technique and apply it to my footwear! I had never used the coiling method before, so I practiced a lot. After many trials, I made a prototype of a ballerina, and then I went into constructing the thigh high boots. It is a very slow and careful process as all the shoes that I made were constructed from a single thread, so there is no break in the coiling process. As I was doing it, no one in the market was applying this coiling technique to shoes. However, around 6 months after I started, I saw that an American company was doing something very similar. The American company constructed it a bit differently as they were using raffia, a more course material, but as it was so similar in essence to my MA work, I decided to not go forward with commercialising my collection.
It must have taken quite a significant amount of time to construct the shoes if they are made from a single strand?
Omg yes, they took forever! Luckily, I had help as I had been given a bursary, so I could pay other people to help me. In total, I probably spent over a month on each pair of shoes.
How do you make the shoes stand straight?
I wrapped the base with copper wire to give the shoes shape.
Considering how innovative your shoe designs are, it is no surprise that you were a finalist for the Kering award for Sustainable Fashion. But how did you get elected for this award and what did you have to do for it?
At the time, out of 116 students, they picked 6 finalists to present their projects for Stella McCartney and Alexander Mcqueen. It is extremely competitive, but is a very educational experience as it gives you an insight into what big labels look for and how to communicate with them. Almost every week, we had a representative from Stella Mccartney come to track our progress. As Stella Mccartney is well known for not using any leather in her products, and I come from shoes, my project was about an innovative way to propose an alternative to the artificial leather used in shoes that was completely sustainable and ecofriendly.
For my project titled 'Upper Sole' (see below), there were two stages. First, I used bioplastic for the heels to make an upper. I sourced the bioplastic from the producer in Italy - the company called me crazy but still sent me a bag of it. I dissolved the bioplastic in a laboratory in Queen Mary and I mounted it into a thin sheet to make the upper, which is the leather part of the shoe. On the second stage of the award, I then covered the viscose used in Stella McCartney collections with a 100% biodegradable biocoating, an innovation from a Turkish PU producer. The assignment is really about seeing how much you as a designer can do, and pushing your limits.