Vitali Hakko

Vitali Hakko introduced Turkey to fashion. Like a dynamo all his life, he was his own biggest competitor. His highest dream was to create and to be first. And he was.

It was 1913 and the world was on the brink of a great war when a boy was born in a wooden mansion in seven-hilled Istanbul’s Yedikule district along the shores of the Marmara Sea. His father worked for the railroad, his mother was a housewife preoccupied with her children. The Hakko family named their latest addition ‘Vitali', or ‘life'. Little Vitali got his basic education at a school run by an order of French Freres in the nearby Istanbul district of Kumkapı. But he was only able to attend for six years when his father lost his job. When his father took up carpentry, little Vitali became his apprentice. He also managed to squeeze another experience into his boyhood years when, at age seven, he converted the cavernous, dark space where children played at Yedikule into a cinema - his only capital a tiny projector and the speech his big sister gave at the opening. As he was struggling to get the projector going after she finished speaking, the kerosene lamp slipped from his hand in his excitement and the film went up in flames. That’s how Hakko learned to take risks in business. But this incident, which he remembered as a failure, embarrassed him terribly and he didn’t go out of the house for a week. Blowing a trivial incident out of proportion instantaneously taught him the concepts of honor, character, confidence, intelligence, honesty, success and failure.

By Jewish tradition, boys become ‘men’ at age thirteen, an occasion celebrated in a ceremony known as a ‘bar mitzvah'. Realizing he was a ‘man’ now, after the ceremony Vitali decided he would feel guilty if he didn’t start working and contributing to the family budget. Following his forays into carpentry and the cinema, he bid a firm farewell to childhood and started to work in Mahmutpaşa, Istanbul’s traditional garment district. Although his job was to stand in front of a shop and say, “Please come in”, this young man, whose commercial sense would prove ingenious in years to come, never looked down on it for a minute.

Forward-looking and industrious, Vitali learned all the tricks of the trade from the Mahmutpaşa merchants, all the while witnessing with growing enthusiasm the phases of reform through which the new Turkish Republic, young like himself, was passing. Swept along by the dress and headgear reform, in 1934 he opened a tiny shop called ‘Şen Şapka’ (Happy Hat) in Sultanhamam near Mahmutpaşa. “If it hadn’t been for the dress and hat reform,” he would say all his life, “there could have been no Happy Hat and no Vakko.” (Vakko is the name of the fashionable department store he founded which lives on today.) Despite years of hardship and scarcity and the pervasive black market, Mr Vitali Hakko was always upbeat. Why else had he named his shop Happy Hat but that he believed clothing and accessories to be a happy, festive world?
Years later he would say in his memoirs, ‘Vakko: My Life': “Many businessmen of my generation claim to have started from zero. I didn’t start even from zero. My starting place was a point way below zero. Nonetheless, we trained ourselves at a time when our only capital was our good will, our hope, our native skills and our confidence in ourselves and in the future. We were the first generation of the young Republic and it was Ataturk’s reforms that spurred us on.”  

Frequented by style-conscious Istanbullu’s of the period, Şen Şapka at the same time constituted the core of Vakko, which four years later would become Turkey’s first fashion trademark. The Vakko brand name, which combines the first initials of Vitali Hakko’s and his brother Albert Hakko’s names with the last three letters of their surname, would be synonymous with fashion in Turkey for years to come. The slogan, ‘Fashion Is Vakko', that they used in their advertising campaigns for many years seemed to confirm this.

Back in the days when raw silk was still sent to France to be printed, Vitali Hakko created scarves that could be considered works of art using Anatolian cottons and Bursa silks. He also turned the designs of prominent artists such as painter and poet Bedri Rahmi Eyüboğlu into scarves. In 1948 he set up Turkey’s first factory for printing cloth in the district of Kurtuluş in Istanbul’s European sector, where scarves bearing the Vakko label are still produced today. By the fifties, Hakko realized that he was not going to be able satisfy his love of fashion simply with scarves. With his quick mind and his perception of fashion as an integral whole, he decided to introduce ready-to-wear in Turkey. His chief competitors were the numerous neighborhood tailors and dressmakers that made clothes to order. Coming out ahead in the competition, he chalked up another first by organizing the first style show in the history of fashion in Turkey. It was 1955 and Vitali Hakko was 32 years old. Ottoman motifs also entered his life around the same time when he began to incorporate into his fabrics motifs from the traditional Ottoman arts of calligraphy, illumination and paper marbling that had so impressed him at the Topkapı Palace.

In 1962, when no lady would be caught dead without a hat and no gentleman without a ‘cravatte’ in Beyoğlu, Hakko opened his first big store here. Later he would bring his great love for this district, his ‘prolonged love affair’ as he put it, to the Society for the Beautification of Beyoğlu, of which he was one of the founders. In this store, whose sign read ‘Vakko', shoppers would also encounter for the first time concepts such as ‘no bargaining', ‘regular discounts', and ‘no returns or exchanges’ .

Vakko made a splash and prospered. “Vakko and I are one and the same,” Hakko would say. “The story of the rise of Vakko is none other than the story of my life.” In 1969 he would take Vakko, which he had nurtured with his own hands, to an innovative factory in Merter, an outlying industrial area on the road to the airport. Fashion and art went hand in hand here at the factory which was filled with paintings and sculptures by prominent Turkish artists. Hakko’s love of art was unquenchable and found further expression in the art galleries he opened at his stores. Further expanding Vakko in the seventies, Vitali Hakko also took the store to Ankara and Izmir, and in 1982 created a new brand together with his son Cem. Called Vakkorama, this chic new youth trademark was a dynamic entity that combined style, fashion, art, music and sports.

A virtual dynamo all his life, Vitali Hakko had an overriding passion to create and to be first, which drove him to bring out his own brands of chocolate, perfume and interior decoration at the start of the nineties. At the same time he was indefatigable in his efforts on behalf of Turkey’s ready-to-wear sector, pioneering in training models, founding professional societies, starting up fashion magazines and organizing fairs. On numerous occasions he also entertained foreign leaders on behalf of his country.

“I can’t paint,” he would say, “but I can spot a scarf or necktie whose pattern or color I believe will make people happy. I can win them over with kind words and make them happy.” Indeed, Vitali Hakko devoted the 94 years of his life to creating such ‘brief yet happy moments'.

“At a time when Ataturk was carrying out his dress reform,” says this idealistic man, “my sole purpose was one day to found Turkey’s most fashionable store. I have no idea how many such people there were in Turkey, but I was one of them.” When he passed away last month, not only was he the founder of Turkey’s most fashionable store, he was the undisputed ‘dean’ of Turkish fashion. Thousands of people joined his wife of 60 years, Ketty Hakko, his son Cem Hakko, his daughter Sima Lodrick, and his grandchildren Pia, Katia and Vitali Cem at the Jewish Cemetery in Ulus. Vitali Hakko was given a fitting sendoff with his favorite flowers--antorium, white peonies and orchids. Flowers as valuable, chic and elegant as he was