Most know Neil Bieff as the designer of diaphanous, delicately textured dresses that define the silhouette of any woman who slips one on. Indeed, even as you read this, women are no doubt considering his spring collection at Mary Jane Denzer in White Plains — “one of the best stores in the country,” he says — as they select an occasion gown or a statement dress that makes any day an occasion.
Recently, however, Neil was busy creating for an occasion of his own — the wedding of his son Gwyn to the former Ikbal Bozkaya. She is finishing her Ph.D. in virtue ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, not far from where her husband works as a software developer for Epic Systems Corp., a private health care software company.
The two were married in a civil ceremony in Madison on March 30, 2018. But for the traditional Muslim wedding in April of this year, the couple headed with family and friends to the bride’s homeland and a city that is often viewed as the crossroads of the world, where East has met West for millennia — Istanbul, Turkey.
Known in ancient times as Byzantium, the city was renamed Constantinople after the Roman Emperor Constantine the Great made it his eastern capital in 330, converting the empire to Christianity at the same time. That name remained in use throughout the succeeding (Muslim) Ottoman Empire, with Istanbul not coming into vogue until the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1922.
The city’s rich history, then, underscores its marriage of East and West, which is what Neil discovered when he visited.
“I’d never been there before,” he says. “Everyone I heard from who had been there said they wanted to go back, and now so do I. It has a wonderful old quality, with Asian and European influences. It reminded me of Italy — the food, the culture was like Italian with Eastern touches.”
At the same time, Neil found an Asian eagerness to please in his stay at the Germir Palas Hotel on Taksim Square overlooking the Bosphorus, the narrow but strategic strait that links Europe and Asia.
“The Turks are a very sweet people,” Neil says, “a rarity today. I loved (Istanbul).”
Though admittedly not a great sightseer — “too often the sights are better in the imagination” — Bieff nonetheless pressed on to the major ones, including Topkapi Palace, once the primary residence of the Ottoman sultans and now a museum; the 17th-century Sultan Ahmed Mosque, or Blue Mosque, so-called for the color of its tiled interior; the Haghia Sophia, a former Greek Orthodox cathedral and subsequent Ottoman mosque that is now a museum; and the Grand Bazaar. With 61 streets and more than 4,000 shops, it is one of the largest and oldest covered markets in the world. “It kind of reminded me of my trips to India,” Neil says.
Much of his time in Turkey, however, was taken up with family. While he missed the traditional Muslim village wedding — for 6,000 of the bride’s closest friends and family in Köprübasi in Manisa Province — he was there for the April 12 secular ceremony, held in a Belgrad Forest pavilion outside Istanbul. For this, he created a sleeveless V-necked bridal gown that was “a very shapely, very diaphanous mélange of different beads, sequins and alabaster stones on white silk chiffon over white silk charmeuse.” As the photographs show, the dress both caressed the bride’s willowy figure and flowed around it.
For the after party, Neil made Ikbal a short silver halter dress characterized by a sheer back, antique silver sequins, charcoal silk and trapunto stitching, which is a kind of quilting technique. “It was very young, very sexy,” he says.
Another Neil design saw Ikbal in a cap-sleeved print black dress trimmed with black satin, whose V neckline and U-shaped back echoed her bridal dress. Though Ikbal had certain preferences, Neil says she mostly trusted him with the final results. From the looks of things, that trust was rewarded. Neil also made dresses for his wife, Gwyn’s mother, and two friends.
Neil’s first loves, however, were painting and drawing, which he studied at Syracuse University and Florence. A side trip to Paris introduced him to fashion and the realization that in designing clothes he could paint and draw every day. He began as assistant to Arnold Scaasi, then designed suits and coats for Dan Millstein.
Going out on his own with the Neil Bieff label and the Genesis shop on Madison Avenue, Neil debuted the clinging yet forgiving matte jersey creations that would foreshadow his dresses and gowns in draped silk chiffons, wools and velvets. Visits to India would add the signature beading. Neil’s dresses are unusual in that the weight is carried mostly in the middle. It’s what gives them their distinctive feminine silhouette.
In creating dresses for Ikbal, Neil says he realized he wasn’t losing a son but gaining a daughter with a real fashion sense. Just as he looks forward to returning to Turkey and sitting in his in-laws’ olive orchards — small bottles of olive oil were the party favors — he anticipates collaborating more with Ikbal.
“I’d love her to be involved,” he says. “She has wonderful taste and is a dressmaker’s dream.”
For more, visit neilbieff.com.