The New Business Traveler: Sabah's Mickey Ashmore Goes to Turkey for Inspiration, Materials, and Community

A week before the devastating 7.8-magnitude tremor earthquake that struck south-eastern Turkey and northern Syria, I chatted with Mickey Ashmore of Sabah—a Turkish-inspired shoe brand based in SoHo, New York, with stores in Texas, California, the U.K., Florida, and factories in El Paso, Texas and Gaziantep, Turkey. Ashmore had recently returned from a trip to the brand's Gaziantep factory, and followed up his meetings with the craftspeople behind Sabah's colorful leather designs with a dreamy drive along the Mediterranean coastline.

Thirty two days later, and Gaziantep remains one of the cities worst affected by the earthquake, which has caused a death toll of more than 45,000 across the country, according to Turkey’s disaster management agency, making it the worst national disaster in a century. Ashmore has been rallying his customers to donate directly to AKUT (plus other organizations mentioned below) and pledged to send 20 percent of Sabah’s global sales to humanitarian efforts on the ground during the month of February—95 percent of Sabah's products are made in Gaziantep.

“The over $150,000 we have raised to date have been donated to several organizations, including the Turkish Philanthropy FundAhbap, and other local aid groups, as well as most recently to the direct purchase of 1,000 mattresses and 1,000 bed covers to be distributed to displaced families in need,” says Ashmore. “We’re continuing to work with our team in Gaziantep to identify the most effective ways to direct donations.”

Below, Ashmore tells Condé Nast Traveler about his autumn travels in Turkey, including his love for the country's ritual of tea drinking, shooting the Sabah holiday travel guide by the beach, and the enduring resilience of his Gaziantep team.

Sabah employees in Gaziantep, Turkey during Ashmore's recent business trip.
Sabah employees in Gaziantep, Turkey during Ashmore's recent business trip.

Where did you go?

Gaziantep, Kaş, and Istanbul.

Purpose of the trip?

I really had three purposes for this trip. One was a regular visit to our Gaziantep factory. I go twice a year solely to focus on our collection that's coming up for the next six months. I've made a point to really connect and be deeply integrated with our production—our shoes are all made by hand by wonderful craftspeople—and so getting to know them and spending time there has been a big part of the story and the joy of building this business. The second aspect of the trip was to put together our holiday travel guide for our customers. This was the first edition, where we featured the two most significant places to Sabah: New York City, where we started as a business, and Turkey, where we make our shoes. That’s why we added Kaş and Istanbul to the itinerary—making a trifecta of places that were important to me from when I lived there. And lastly, I was able to travel for the first time with our brand director Ariana Diaz, who I've worked with for six or seven years at Sabah and has been a friend of mine for 10 years. She's like family to me. This trip was a big mix of business and pleasure.

How did you get there?

Turkish Airlines every time—they have a great JFK to Istanbul direct flight. I generally don't like to eat on planes, but it's the one time where I'm like, I'm going to wait and eat on the plane because the food's actually good.

Do you have an airport routine?

I like to dress up when I travel and I like to get there very early. There's very few times in life where you're neither here nor there. And the airport is one of those places—I like using that time to disconnect, read, and think. I buy a huge selection of newspapers and find myself in the Turkish Airlines lounge reading and never looking at my phone, imagining as if I was a traveler from a different era. I know that’s kind of silly, but it's fun.

Where did you stay?

In Istanbul, I almost exclusively stay at a hotel called Corinne Art & Boutique Hotel. It's a renovated old building that I've stayed at for 10 years. It's really good value. And it's a very dignified and beautiful place to stay with a location in Çukurcuma that couldn't be beat. It’s near all my favorite coffee shops and restaurants. So at this point it feels like coming home. Which is one of the ways I like to travel. I like to repeat trips. I like to stay in the same place—even the exact same room.

Why the same room?

It’s nice having your routine especially in business travel. Losing routine is one of the things I don't like about travel in general, but especially business travel. In New York, I'm seeing my friends regularly, exercising, and enjoying my office time, and trips can really throw you off. So I try to add repetition to them, and you know, that can make it like you're headed to like another home. It feels a lot better, and that's certainly how I feel I'm in Istanbul.

What was on the agenda?

In Gaziantep, we spend a lot of time reviewing all the leathers that have come in from the tanneries and going through the upcoming production plan. When I’m in New York, sometimes going from idea to sample can take a few weeks. But when we're there, it's like, “hey, let's cut the samples.” We're getting them done in two or three days, and we're able to make a lot of decisions.

There's also a lot of time spent just talking. I think one of the beauties of our business is this 10-year relationship with our people in Turkey. So it’s great to sit and catch up about everything in life and drink tea. I think in Western terms, it probably sounds pretty unproductive. But the fact of the matter is, it's building and strengthening bonds that actually make everything else easier. Because of it, we have a really tight relationship and there's a ton of trust.

From there, we flew to Kaş [a seaside town on the southwestern Mediterranean coast] to shoot and document for our holiday travel guide. One of the best parts is driving the coast and the wonderful seafood and fresh vegetables. Here, the agenda was to relax and have fun the way we are telling our customers to in the print guide. A highlight was this collection of beaches across the bay. There's a public ferry and it's just really fun because everybody on the ferry is excited to get there and then once you get to the beach, there's 30 or 40 different little beach clubs you can pick from that are nestled in the hills. You spend the afternoon drinking beers and teas while snacking on grilled fish and grilled octopus. We had a great day and caught it on camera.

And then we flew to Istanbul. I'd say the highlight there was when we hired a private boat on the Bosphorus. You can see all these little towns on the Asian side and back to the European side. On a warm summer day, it's pretty hard to beat. It’s just a really special way to see Istanbul and understand its relationship to the water, and see the diversity of its different areas.

The best thing you ate?

There's a traditional yogurt-based soup with chickpeas, spices, and little chunks of lamb meat that I always eat in Gaziantep. It's called Yuvalama. It can be found all over but I usually go to Yesemek in the old bazaar or Bulla, a modern restaurant celebrating traditional regional cuisine.

The one item that makes work travel easier?

For me, it is not an item, it is to not do too much. Not over jamming your schedule and allowing there to be time to breathe and enjoy the richness of time.

The most interesting person you met with?

I met the owner of Papilio in Kaş. We went to that store probably three or four times. They curate and make really beautiful textiles, clothing, and ceramics from all over like Turkey. As a retailer myself, I'm always moved when I come into a store that has a lot of soul and uplifts you as much as I hope our stores have uplifted people that walk in them. We had a great conversation with him—he had great style and a really kind demeanor. You could tell even, I don't know, 30 years later, he was still really passionate about what he does. When I started Sabah, I always had this thought of like, I hope my business is around for a long time. And so going into a store that's been around for this long, a spot that feels like it gives more than it extracts, is always inspiring to me.

In light of the recent the earthquake, how is the Sabah team looking ahead?

We couldn’t be more moved by the resilience and strength of our people on the ground in Gaziantep; and by our customers who have shown up and supported with donations, purchases, and warm notes of support and concern. I feel like we put a lot of work into sharing stories and connecting our customers to the craft, and building a real community and connection there—it counts so much in times like this, in times of crisis.

We’re feeling so galvanized to push our business forward and continue on, with a renewed understanding of the human side of what we do, and an elevated understanding of our mission to uplift all that we encounter through this business.

Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler