We sat down for a game of backgammon and Turkish coffee with Yalçin Bílgüvar, the founder of Yaltch Hats, who told us all about his time growing up in Istanbul, his NYC story and his pursuit in the art of hat-making.
Yaltch Hats are now available on the Sabah Portal and select Sabah House locations.
Mickey: Soooo, you’re Turkish!
Yalçin: I am!
Mickey: Nerelesin!? ["Where are you from?" in Turkish]
Yalçin: I was born in Istanbul but I grew up two hours west of Istanbul in a town called Lüleburgaz. On the European side of Turkey.
Mickey: That’s quite a name — “Lüleburgaz! What’s Lüleburgaz like?
Yalçin: It’s become really industrialized but when I was growing up it was a lot of nature and farm land.
Mickey: I am actually going to Istanbul next week, I haven’t been since January 2020.
Yalçin: Well I haven’t been since March 2020! It’s been a minute, I have not seen family, I am going back in December.
Mickey: Do you miss living in Turkey?
Yalçin: Well I was just thinking the other day, in January it’s going to be half of my life that I have been living in New York so it’s been a long time that I’ve been here. Almost 23 years. So you do the math about how old I am! But yes I do get homesick but I like visiting Istanbul more than I like living there.
Mickey: Well New York, Istanbul is a great back and forth! What brought you to New York?
Yalçin: I sort of followed some friends here. But I also found a school to have an excuse to come… I just didn’t want to come aimless so I did a year at NYU after I finished college in Turkey.
Mickey: So 23 years ago was the late ‘90s? How was New York then? How was it moving from Istanbul here?
Yalçin: I mean it was complete freedom, my first time out of my family’s house and it was the turn of the millennium and there was excitement in the air. I had a great time — I met really cool people. I met my partner within the first year that I was here and we are still together today.
Mickey: That’s longevity. That’s impressive! I really appreciate longevity, especially today when things move so fast, open, close, get famous quick. To make something survive a long time — that’s a real accomplishment! What were your favorite things to do when you first came to New York?
Yalçin: I was more Manhattan-centric then! I always lived in Brooklyn but I loved going to the city back then. I am a big music fan and I thought the concerts and music shops were really exhilarating. To browse a music store and buy in person. Now it’s different! You don’t shop for music, you have every song in the world on your phone.
Mickey: To me that’s like going to the bookstore! I can get all the books on Amazon or Audible but going to the bookstore — you discover things. Something so nice about touching and feeling things in person! Which is actually a good segment into hats and doing things with your hands. How did you get into hat making?
Yalçin: The first year I came to New York I had an internship and started working as a film buyer. I did that for a while. It was fun to travel and go to movie festivals but there was something missing. I think at the end of 12 or 13 years I just wanted to make things with my hands. I was interested in clothing since I was a child and became fascinated by the great hat makers. I always admired hats.
Mickey: And when did you make your first hat?
Yalçin: Let me think…I would say 2013 about nine years ago. It might be laying around somewhere… Maybe I should find it and see how far I’ve come!
Mickey: Yes! Sometimes I look at photos of myself when I first started Sabah and I think “Oh my god…” But it’s good to look back and see progress. I think as you do something you are really focused on the current moment and the current moment's challenges. There’s always something stressing you out — but then to take a step back and look at all the things that have gone well and all the progress to give us perspective that — yea this is hard, but we have done a lot! We can’t forget how far we’ve come. Anyways! So your first hat, nine years ago. And when did you start selling them?
Yalçin: Well it took me a while. I didn’t feel comfortable right away. The first hats I started selling were in 2017. That was an order from John Derian. He’s an old friend I met him back in ’99 and he had a little store in the East Village which is still there but now he has four others. I made him a hat, personally, and people started asking about it. So he requested more and that was the first time I started selling. At first I was really just giving hats to friends and family. It’s a long learning curve to make hats. I went to school at FIT to learn it. I studied for two years for hatmaking they have a really excellent program but even with that what you learn there is not industry standard. There are so many different kinds of hats but in the end they need to be of a certain quality. I would say school helped me a lot but I taught myself after that for a long while.
Mickey: Would you say we can confidently call you "Yalçin Usta?”
Yalçin: No, I don’t think I’d feel comfortable with that!
Mickey: What does Usta mean exactly...
Yalçin: It’s the tradition of the craftsmen. The Usta is the master, it's usually an old man --- an expert in his craft. And he has a lot of apprentices under him. I'm not old enough yet to be an Usta!
Mickey: I love that word. So anyway, your business grew. Up until that point did you have another job?
Yalçin: I did and I still do. I work with a jewelry designer.
Mickey: So you are immersed in the world of making things? That sounds like a good life.
Yalçin: Yes, no complaints!
Mickey: I have been thinking of alternative versions of success. I think society tells us to be successful we have to either make a lot of money or have a lot of fame. And there isn’t a lot of discussion about, like in our case, having a nice, small business. Doing what you love. Having independence. We love who we work with and we are present in our work and proud of what we do. That’s a great way to live! It’s inspiring to me — people who have gone on an alternative path and found fulfillment.
Yalçin: Right, yes it’s not much spoken about. It is in the sense of aiming for a lifestyle. But what is real success?
Mickey: I think it’s a conversation that needs to happen more! We should enjoy what we have… and on that note! I have a few fun questions for you.
Mickey: So we’re going to go to Turkey… What’s your favorite Turkish meal?
Yalçin: Kokoreç.I am a vegetarian. But I will break the rule for this.
Mickey: Kokoreç -- I know what that is. But you'll have to fill everyone. That's not light dish for a vegetarian.
Yalçin: In the simplest terms, it’s lamb intestines. Prepared on a grill with a lot of spices and tomato. You eat it most of the time in a loaf of bread.
Mickey: I know Kokoreç as a dish eaten late night in Ortakoy (a neighborhood in Istanbul) after a night out clubbing on the bosphorus. It was never for me. But let me tell you, I love having soup at 4 in the morning. I’ve never seen it anywhere in my life where you can go have soup at 4 or 5 in the morning after partying. An antidote to the future hangover… genius! What about favorite restaurant in Istanbul?
Yalçin: I ate at Yeni Lokanta last time I was there.
Mickey: Very good — part of the newer restaurant scene! My favorite restaurant is Suna'nin Yeri in Kandili, on the Asian side. It’s a fish restaurant and I will tell you the food is good but the atmosphere Is incredible. Right on the water. I usually take a little water taxi there. It’s my favorite thing to do on a Sunday afternoon.
Yalçin: I would go to Gaziantep (note: that is where we make Sabahs) just for the food.
Mickey: Gaziantep is a foodie town -- kebabs and baklava. I swear when you get on the plane back from Gaziantep, the overhead bins are full of baklava and there’s nowhere to put your bags. 500 lbs of baklava!
Mickey: Anyway, to wrap this up! Tell me, what do you think makes your hats special?
Yalçin: The colors and attention to detail gives them a certain quality and durability. They are hats that, not necessarily, overwhelm your outfit but instead complement clothing rather than taking over.
Mickey: That’s a really nice point. So many people use their hats as a big fashion statement. Like all you see when they walk in the room is the hat. Your hats are different. A subtle cool. I like that.
Yalçin: Exactly, I’d rather that, then make a big statement.
Mickey: Last question — where to next?!
Yalçin: Back to the hat studio! Working on more hats for Sabah :)