October 11, 2013 7:12 pm

Canadian businesswoman sells traditional textiles in Istanbul

Jennifer Gaudet©Jodi Hilton

When Jennifer Gaudet travelled to Turkey in the autumn of 2005 she had little idea that the trip would change her life. “The place was hopping,” says the Canadian, who grew up in Edmonton, Alberta. “At the same time, I saw certain things were missing. I got the idea that Turkey would be a good place to set up a business.”

Today Gaudet is the owner of three handicraft shops in Istanbul and a resident of the historic Sultanahmet district on the European side of the city.

At the time of her Turkish holiday, Gaudet was living in Thailand, teaching English in Nakhon Sawan, a provincial city north of Bangkok. She had wanted to open her own business there but her status as a foreigner presented too many complications. “A foreigner setting up a company in Thailand is always at risk, as the law only allows you to hold 49 per cent of your business,” says Gaudet. “In Turkey you can own all but a tiny fraction of your company. It felt like a fairer system.”

Gaudet’s first venture in Istanbul was a coffee shop and art gallery in Sultanahmet, close to the Hagia Sophia, a former church, then a mosque and now a museum, and one of the city’s most loved monuments. In the steep, narrow backstreets of the neighbourhood, boys dragging carts piled with fruit compete for space with gleaming new SUVs – a juxtaposition of old and modern that is a constant throughout Istanbul.

Some of the produce dragged through the streets of Sultanahmet winds up at the local Wednesday market. “I love walking through it,” says Gaudet. “My favourite guy is the olive man; he’s always friendly and very happy to see me. Most of the people in the market are the same as when I first moved here seven years ago.”

It was while running her coffee shop that Gaudet took an interest in Turkish handicrafts, particularly textiles such as bed covers and the colourful towels traditionally used in bath houses, all produced on old-fashioned shuttle looms.

One obvious contender for any new retail venture is the nearby Grand Bazaar. Opened in 1461, the bazaar is said to be one of the oldest shopping malls in the world and continues to attract hundreds of thousands of visitors daily. However, Gaudet decided against setting up her shop in the bazaar because she was troubled by the demise of the “hans”, local workshops that have provided shop owners with goods for centuries. Business owners in the Grand Bazaar are increasingly cutting out the weavers and leather-workers in favour of shipping in mass-produced items.

“The artisans were in dire straits,” says Gaudet. “I had heard that there simply weren’t many left. But I wanted to explore the traditional way of making things in Turkey and see how I could be a part of restoring the link between artisans and shops in Sultanahmet.”

The opportunity to open a shop came almost too quickly for Gaudet. “In the summer of 2009 I was offered a lease on a store in the Arasta Bazaar and I knew I had just hours to make up my mind.” She trusted her instinct and bought the rights to the long lease on the first of her three shops, all called Jennifer’s Hamam, in the Arasta Bazaar, a long passageway of stores in Sultanahmet.

It was only with her lease signed that Gaudet made her first foray into provincial Turkey to explore the rest of the country and source her wares. She eventually found artisans in southeast Turkey, a region renowned for its high-quality cotton weaving and use of traditional shuttle looms.

Gaudet now makes long road trips from Istanbul every month to visit her weavers, supplying them with her own designs and the threads she buys in bulk. “I came to realise that the slower you make something, the longer it lasts,” says Gaudet.

Now with a good working knowledge of Turkish, Gaudet – who knows of no other western businesswoman running a shop in a bazaar in Sultanahmet – says that having a thick skin is an important virtue in Turkey’s business world, particularly for women. “I was lucky to get into the right circle of people here,” she says. “My associates are kind and generous folk. Also, Turks in general are truly hospitable. This has been a real blessing when I’m travelling around.”

Gaudet’s life has a different rhythm now that she runs her own business. She has less time to pursue hobbies, such as yoga and photography, but enjoys walking to the Blue Mosque whenever she needs to clear her mind.

For the foreseeable future, Sultanahmet will be Gaudet’s home. “I have a small house just 800 metres from my shops, which is great as I’m one of the few people in Istanbul who doesn’t have to contend with traffic jams.”

Something less tangible also keeps Gaudet in Turkey. “Sometimes in Canada you get the feeling there is little joy to life,” she says. “Here, it is just the opposite. Maybe it’s because so many people have had to strive to make a decent life for themselves that when they get it their reflex is to be grateful and happy.”

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Buying guide

● Homes across Turkey increased in value by 12.2 per cent in 2012-13

● Istanbul is responsible for about 25 per cent of Turkey’s GDP

● The city has a population of 13.8m, but is expected to grow to between 15m and 16.6m by 2023

● The city has few public green spaces for residents to enjoy

● Istanbul has a Mediterranean climate with dry, hot summers and mild winters. Average temperatures in the year range from 3C to 29C.

What you can buy for . . . 

€100,000: A 60 sq metre off-plan unit in a residential development on the outskirts of the city

€1m: A three-bedroom apartment with about 200 sq metres of living space and views of the Bosphorus

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