TheKeep: the Turkish rug brand weaving old and new

Bilge Kalfa and Senem Akçay are bringing a modern twist to a traditional industry – despite operating during a difficult time for the country's economy.
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Since the 15th century, the city of Uşak in Turkey has been known for its mastery of rugs and tapestries. The intricate designs and premium craftsmanship make Turkey a top destination for rugs; after China, Turkey is the second-largest carpet exporter in the world (and a leader in machine-made carpets). In 2021 alone, Turkey exported $3.2 billion worth of carpets, mats and tapestries. Traditional designs are so revered that they hang in museums, such as the Louvre in Paris.

But that success means that rug makers have become less likely to take chances or try experimental designs. That's what Bilge Kalfa, who hails from a third-generation weaving family in Uşak, realized while working outside of the industry as an architect in Istanbul and Berlin. Now she and fellow creative Senem Akçay are bringing a contemporary twist to Turkish rugs with their new company, TheKeep.

Leading with design

‘Rug craftsmanship and [the] atelier are an inheritance from my grandfather. I always felt a strong pull towards it and knew sooner or later that I'd be involved in the business,’ Bilge says. 

But it wasn't until the pandemic – when building sites closed and she had time for a new project – that she started to consider the industry more seriously. She called up Senem, who she formerly shared an architectural studio with, to see if she'd be on board.

‘When I called Senem to tell her I had an idea and asked her if she'd be interested in partnering up with me, she immediately said “yes” without even hearing what the idea was,’ Bilge recalls, summing up the trust the two women share. 

‘We have similar tastes and a distinct sense of design identity,’ Senem says. 

TheKeep designs rugs in collaboration with female artists and architects based around themes such as ‘stories’ and ‘reunions’. The collaborations range from friends, such as Esra Gülmen, Bilge's neighbor in Berlin, to international names such as singer Gaye Su Akyol and illustrator Joanna Winograd. One of the label's best-sellers was designed by Bilge, based on a sketch of her grandmother's garden. 

The brand didn't set out to work with women designers but developed that way naturally. ‘We realized men put themselves out there more easily,’ Bilge says. ‘Our inbox was full of male designers asking to work with us. However, in our open calls, where our judges picked the winners based on their designs, not gender, the top three choices came to be women designers.’

Quality over quantity

Regardless of being a new player in this massive industry, TheKeep's fresh look and premium-quality craftsmanship have stirred up the local market. ‘At least that's what's been said to my father by his colleagues in the industry,’ Bilge says. 

To their surprise, some brands have offered to buy the rights to some of their compositions. ‘Unfortunately for them, they're not for sale. We're not interested in mass production,’ Senem says. 

Material-wise, sustainability is the brand's priority; its atelier in Uşak strictly uses vegan, recycled or upcycled cotton. The atelier has two painters on board, who specialize in converting designs onto a template for the craftsperson to weave into a kilim, the name for a horizontal woven rug. In the long run, TheKeep plans on expanding into halı, a more dense format of carpeting.

Crisis not yet averted

Although the label has stockists abroad, such as Souq Dükkan in Berlin, and ships internationally, the biggest challenge has been organizing the logistics and storage of its products. Initially, it had aimed to be a much smaller company, but the size and weight of its items necessitated scale. 

‘Unfortunately, it's a disadvantage to be in Istanbul. The rules and regulations of customs for countries, especially the European Union, are ever-changing. Outside of Turkey, we can't operate as fast and as casually as we'd like,’ Senem explains.

Another uncalculated matter has been Turkey's economic crisis. The country's unorthodox strategy of slashing interest rates to boost its economy has backfired. It's resulted in ever-increasing inflation and has been weakening the country's local currency. This, of course, has had a massive effect on costs. ‘We'd already lost money when we realized that we needed to make adjustments to our selling prices. It's impossible to do business with ever-evolving expenses,’ says Senem. 

Still, despite these financial challenges, Bilge and Senem are determined that TheKeep stays true to the quality of the craftsmanship that they're modernizing. ‘Regardless of how much demand we get, our uniqueness comes from our attention to detail, which we can only provide if we stay small. Our smallness provides us with that artisanal edge, so that's something non-negotiable,’ Bilge says.

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