According to Lonely Planet, the “#1″ and TripAdvisor, the “# 3” shopping experience in Istanbul, a city full of exotic bazaars and markets, is at Jennifer’s Hamam. The three small stores in the Arasta bazaar sell traditionally woven Turkish towels, peshtemals and other staples of a Turkish bath. Last week in Istanbul I was able to speak with Jennifer Gaudet herself and hear a little about her entrepreneurial rise.
You are a Canadian. How did you come to start a shop in Istanbul specializing in traditional Turkish linens?
I was born in Canada, but have always felt like a citizen of the world. The first destination I fell in love with was Thailand. When I was living in Canada, I would take long vacations in Southeast Asia. Each time I returned home depressed because I missed that part of the world. I eventually got a job as an English teacher and moved to Thailand full time. After seven years of teaching I became restless and started to look for new horizons. One of the benefits of teaching is long holidays: a friend told me that I had to go to Turkey. Visiting Istanbul I realized that the city held many opportunities for an industrious entrepreneur and the laws were more attractive in Turkey than in Thailand for a small business owner. I started with a cafe/ art gallery and it became very successful. While operating the café, I formed two partnerships – one in ceramics/quartz clay and on in carpets/kilims – and my love for Turkish hand-craft started to build. In June of 2009 I had a nice offer on my café and I started Jennifer’s Hamam in August 2009.
You seem to have a lot of admiring clients; they go out of their way to praise the experience of shopping at Jennifer’s Hamam. Why is the experience at your shops unique?
In Turkey the norm is to haggle and use aggressive sales tactics, but I think our clients appreciate our fixed-price policy and our non-aggressive service. In today’s world of factory-made everything, I think people are dying for the quality of products that only old-style shuttled looms can make. This kind of quality existed in the past, but has been forgotten. Most clients coming into the shop for the first time are amazed at how wonderful everything feels and even more amazed when they take it home and start using it. I buy all the threads for our weavers working in cotton, linen and bamboo; we are proud that we are the only shop with GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) certificates for our cotton. These points make the client experience unique but it also makes us, and our quality, unique in Turkey.
Most shops in the bazaar are happy to sell cheaper Chinese knockoffs. In contrast, you are taking a very active role in promoting traditional Turkish crafts and the use of organic materials. Why is that so important to you?
When I went looking for weavers the original idea was just to find and sell really good quality loomed textiles. When I found out that there were only nine weaving families and a few scattered individuals, the original idea turned more from a business to a mission to try and save weaving. There are hundreds of weavers that I did not meet, because they went bankrupt long before I came on the scene. Even with the existing families, if I had waited just six extra months before looking for them, five of these nine families would have disappeared. For example, that very nice robe you bought was made by a master weaver who was about to go bankrupt for the second time – he had already called the scrapyard to take his one and only loom. Fortunately for all of us, we found him in time; now his workshop has four looms and eight workers. He has moved his family into a larger house and, because he is making a successful living now, was able to have a second child. There are many of these happy stories and it is our clients that deserve thanks for supporting this art.
What do you find challenging about your business?
I like the variety of things I am able to do as an entrepreneur. I like helping my clients find products that suit their needs. No two clients are exactly the same, so every day brings new experiences. I also enjoy the creative process of the business. Many of my suppliers are not familiar with the tastes of a Western clientele, so I get to help them design products that are likely to be popular with my clients.
What do you do to market your business?
I completely rely on referrals from our clients, and the wonderful reviews they write about us, to bring us further business. We tell our clients the stories of the weavers, educate them about the products, and ask them to help spread the word. I believe there is no advertising in the world that’s better than that.
Checkout Jennifer’s site here