Most weekday mornings, after Demet Muftuoglu has breakfast in the garden behind her house in Istanbul, she hops into the back of a chauffeured Range Rover and heads down the hill to a pier on the Bosporus, where a sleek wooden speedboat is waiting to whisk her across the strait. As daily commutes go, it’s fairly glamorous, and not just because it involves a change of continents (Muftuoglu’s home in the city’s eastern section is technically in Asia; her gallery space is on the European side). The half-hour ride cuts through one of the world’s most stunningly vibrant urban tableaux, a seductive mishmash of hulking Russian tankers, high-speed police boats, opulent sultans’ palaces, and spectacular 16th-century mosques. Muftuoglu insists, though, that practical motives were behind the purchase by her and her husband, Alphan Eseli, of the motorboat two years ago and the hiring of its full-time captain. “Traffic in Istanbul has gotten so awful,” Eseli says. “Without the boat, the trip could take hours.”
Locals like Muftuoglu can easily take for granted Istanbul’s fabled East-meets-West cosmopolitanism; less so the international fashion and art crowds from Europe and America who have been flocking to the city in ever greater numbers to soak up the vibe. Muftuoglu—an ebullient blonde who, clad in the latest Balenciaga dress or a pair of canary yellow J. Crew jeans and YSL heels, is a perpetual sight around town—has played a key role in boosting the city’s hot-spot status. She and Eseli, a film and commercial director, run the Istanbul International Arts and Culture Festival (aka Istancool), which they cofounded three years ago with the London-based entrepreneur Pablo Ganguli and the Dazed & Confused editor Jefferson Hack. The annual event lures people like fashion designer Haider Ackermann, photographer Mario Sorrenti, design guru Zaha Hadid, and artist Tracey Emin to the city every May for a weekend of panel conversations, screenings, and parties.
“I think a lot of people feel that Europe is a little bit dead, and they’re looking for a new energy,” Muftuoglu says. Istanbul, adds Eseli, “was always interesting, but now foreigners are discovering it.” With its pumping economy, richly layered history, and uncommonly youthful population (average age: 28), Istanbul, many believe, is poised to rival New York and London as a world-class creative hub.
Energy and enterprise are two qualities Muftuoglu, 38, has never seemed to lack. After a comfortable upbringing in the city, where her father owned a transportation company, she avoided the conventional nice-Muslim-girl path and instead went off to Manhattan in 1996 to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology, working as a hostess at a SoHo restaurant. Back home in 2000, she teamed with the Turkish luxury retailer Vakko to launch the concept store V2K Designers, Istanbul’s answer to Colette, and became the first person in Turkey to import edgy young labels like Gareth Pugh and Raf Simons—and the first to discover that the local women weren’t ready for them. “Nobody bought anything,” she recalls with a laugh. “Nobody understood.” That started to change after she began calling clients to explain why they really had to have, say, a Rick Owens jacket; she also launched a magazine with features on the designers and their work. Later, as the art director at Vakko, she organized cultural events around town and recruited her friend Zac Posen to design a collection for the company.»