‘Turkey was my comfort zone, and I find comfort zones uncomfortable,’ says Yelda Bayraktar, sounding out each syllable of the word in her accented English as if to emphasise her distaste for a simple, easy-going existence. The notion of curiosity strongly resonates with the Turkey native, who fled Istanbul for life in Africa – from Morocco to Dakar, Nigeria to South Africa – 17 years ago and who, as an experienced interior designer and buyer, never saw herself launching a lifestyle brand at this stage of her life. ‘I was consulting for an international company interested in investing in South African fashion, and they had such a vague, clichéd idea of what African design is, so I put together a presentation of what I know and understand from the continent,’ she says. And so Couth was born: a unique alchemy of Yelda’s passions for craft, collaboration, design and art under one fashion and homeware label.
Couth’s niche is in bringing together Yelda’s design savvy with authentic craftsmanship and high-quality materials. The result is one-of-a-kind items tailored so meticulously that they look as if they came off a production line rather than being handmade in a studio. ‘While I’m a foreigner, I am still an insider here in Africa,’ Yelda explains of her place in the European market, ‘and I use that to get the right balance of skills and to ensure that quality, style and craftsmanship are all at their best for every design.’ Collaboration is at the heart of this process, and Yelda is incredibly selective when it comes to choosing prospective creatives. ‘One of my favourite experiences was with Peta Becker,’ Yelda says. ‘She was so collaborative and excited.’ The artist and founder of Projekt, an artisan fairtrade collective based in Hout Bay, Cape Town, worked closely with Yelda to create knitted jewellery and a series of crocheted pockets based on contemporary and abstract masks.
Forging individual pieces with a handpicked selection of artists and artisans across the continent means that Couth’s inaugural collection is by no means large, but – comprising everything from kaftans and hats to masks and vases – it is comprehensive in its offering. Collaborating with ceramicist Clementina van der Walt, Yelda reconceptualised a traditional African mask in a striking cerulean wall piece, while Swaziland-based organisation Gone Rural helped to create a vibrant handwoven tray table, and Frances van Hasselt lent her mohair expertise to a playful pom-pom rug. Some of the designs – such as the handmade applique Asafo shirt in collaboration with Heartworks or the Jungle Moth knitted brooch by Becker – offer a modern interpretation of tourist-driven ‘curio’ art, almost challenging preconceived notions of African design through an international gaze.
Yelda’s creative history has taken her across the continent – from co-curating Vitra Design Museum’s Making Africa exhibition to interiors and buying for David Adjaye’s Alára concept store in Lagos – and while she has looked to far-flung destinations such as Portugal and Istanbul for her textiles, Yelda finds inspiration in all corners of Africa – most recently, in Dakar, Senegal.
‘After I bought a piece of art over there that I would never usually buy, my husband [artist Porky Hefer] joked, “You must be a totally different person in Dakar”, and I think that’s true,’ she says. ‘There’s a kind of colour explosion when you are there, and that’s what I brought back with me.’
As a result, Couth’s next edition, called Artwear – which will be a range of fashion created with local artists such as Siwa Mgoboza and Athi Patra-Ruga – promises to be far brighter than the subdued earthy neutrals that dominated her initial edition. ‘It has to be exciting,’ Yelda says, ‘otherwise Africa – and the world – doesn’t need to see another brand.’
COUTH Studio is at 64A Hof Street, Oranjezicht, Cape Town; open by appointment only. For the current collection visit couth.co.