In our latest Belgian fashion article we discover that fashion collections are often inspired by great stories. But now and then the history that leads up to the fashion brand itself is even more interesting, writes fashion expert Veerle Windels – and the family behind Belgian fashion brand 29th October only recently unveiled how its story came to be.
Entering Manufero, the headquarters of 29th October in Brussels, a very decisive smell is taking over. As a Walhalla of lamb, goat and calf skins, how could it not? Since the end of the Eighties, this is the place where Manufer Gulcu manufactures coats and jackets, dresses and skirts made of the most exquisite leathers and skins. The beautiful maison de maître in the Avenue du Roi, in Forest, Brussels, also serves as a showroom for the many clients that buy the collection every season and sell it in their multi-brand stores and for other designers who want to collaborate with the brand. In the past, Natan, Yves Saint Laurent, Kris Van Assche and Jean-Paul Knott are known to have worked with Manufer on leather items.
Manufer’s wife Claudine and his two children Lucie and Benjamin, who recently entered the business, are happy to do the talking and it is clear why: Manufer is not a man of many words. After the interview, I am taken to the workshop, where he is busy assembling a black leather jacket. Words hardly matter here: I can see that Manufer’s job involves a lot of handicraft and skills. Which he learned at a very early age, back in Turkey, where his story began.
Manufer Gulcu grew up in a small village in eastern Turkey. His father worked as a farrier; his mother was a housewife. When Manufer’s dad moved to a somewhat larger city in 1966, he opened his own workshop, manufacturing horse saddles. Manufer went to school but was often found next to his father, handling leather and trying out the different skills that come with it. In 1972, the Gulcu family decided to move to Istanbul and Manufer was obliged to quit school. He had barely reached the age of 11, but applied for an apprenticeship position in a workshop in the Beyazit district of the capital. There, he quickly learned the tailor techniques and found out that working with leather fascinated him especially.
At the age of 17, Manufer opened his own workshop, teaming up with his best friend to lead a group of eight people. At the end of the Seventies and leather is a must-have asset in the fashion business. In 1981, Manufer wanted to build a better life outside Turkey: he moved to Belgium, where he first worked in other workshops, only to start up his own again, three years after arriving in the country. In the meantime, he fell in love with Claudine, a young woman from Italy living in Brussels, who was ready to venture into the fashion business with him. “Manufer hardly spoke French at that time, but we knew we were going to make it together,” remembers Claudine.
As Manufer’s wife, son and daughter tell me the story, it is fascinating to hear how they only recently decided to talk about the early beginnings of 29th October – whose name is a triple symbolic date for the family – Manufer and Lucie’s birthdays and the day Manufer and Claudine got married. “Our dad was hesitant to talk about how he started his business,” says Benjamin, who, together with Lucie, is ready for a boost of the brand. “But today, storytelling is important. Moreover, 29th October is a brand that is designed and manufactured in Belgium, and it is important to be transparent about that. The fact that our father has the expertise from an early age adds to the power of the story.”
As the second generation enters “the business we grew up in”, they have already put their stamp on several aspects of the brand: Benjamin reworked the website and established an online shop, while Lucie started working on a collection of textile designs, which can be combined with the leather pieces. On October 29 (naturally) 2020, a bag collection was launched and several accessories were added to the collection. The brand now also includes some vegan options, made of cactus leather. But, as Manufer says, with twinkling eyes, nothing beats the real thing. Real leather, that is. He buys the skins in Italy, Spain and Portugal.
Over the years, 29th October has established a close relationship with several shops and partners throughout Europe. The financial crisis of 2008 proved a moment of hardship but the brand survived. And with the entire family involved today, the future shines bright. After a two-year stint at Balthazar in Brussels, where the brand opened a pop-up store, a real boutique recently opened in the Sablon quartier. New partnerships seem to be just around the corner, as Claudine tries out prospects in Belgium and elsewhere.
“It’s great to feel the confidence of our parents,” says Lucie, who is eager to build 29th October into a real fashion brand together with the rest of her family. “Dad knows we are passionate about our job and he listens to what we have to say.” Looking at the pictures of the new collection online, one easily sees that is true. No old-fashioned or boring snap shots, but up-to-date and very Instagram-friendly views of a brand that is ready for tomorrow.