Scruffy and cheap, Berlin isn’t traditionally associated with fashion and glamour.
Nonetheless, the bi-annual Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week has been doing its couture-clad utmost to unite the Berlin fashion industry’s commercial and creative interests since 2007.
Unlike the fashion week events of cities such as London or Paris, Berlin tends to rely on large trade fairs, such as the much-hyped Bread&Butter, for its bombastic glamour, rather than an endless succession of the kind of high-octane catwalk shows that you might find elsewhere.
While some designers stage shows at the historic spots such as Bebelplatz and near the Brandenburg Gate, many in Berlin do fashion week slightly differently. Throwing open the doors to ateliers with peeling walls and vintage chandeliers in dilapidated corners of districts like Wedding and Kreuzberg, lots of local designers simply allow prospective buyers to come and browse their frequently self-funded efforts.
“The big shows are very expensive, which means that many independent designers can’t afford them,” said couturier Andrea Schelling, adding she hoped media coverage will also extend to the more off-piste events such as her own.
But many are adamant that this boutique style is more representative of the Berlin fashion scene, and some even believe local designers should resist the glamour of “mainstream” shows.
“These glitzy runway shows are not Berlin,” said Judith Thomas, a Berlin-born designer whose avant-garde creations were displayed at one of the many smaller events displaying cutting-edge German design across the city as part of Fashion Week.
“You find more passion and artistry in these little showrooms than you do at the big trade shows: they are the heart of the Berlin scene.”
Low rent, high fashion
Much like Berlin’s art and music scenes, the abundance of people in the city who can try their hand at being a fashion designer stems in part from the Germany capital’s cheap rents and low cost of living – the primary reason Berlin’s mayor once famously dubbed the city “poor but sexy.”
Vitali Gelwich, sometime model as well as the fresh-faced manager of the Edged Showroom in Mitte, was positive yet uncompromising in his view of the city’s scene.
“Berlin is cheap in terms of production – you can run an atelier here for next to nothing,” he said. “I think that having such low basic costs allows people far more creative freedom, and the fashion to become far more adventurous. Spending money on rent hinders creativity.”
Gelwich emphasized that while the Berlin fashion scene is overflowing with cutting-edge creative designs, the kind of financial backing required to turn these into a business is harder to come by.
“It’s easy to become a designer here, but success is harder to attain,” he said. “Berlin has the potential to become a world fashion city. But creativity is just one side of the coin. The growth in the fashion scene is unsustainable without the business element.”
International buyers Sebrina Pitt and Yaw Dabanka of Wardrobe Berlin agreed more German designers needed to see fashion as a business venture.
They said the underfunding of the Berlin scene was partly hindered by the fact that the city, unlike fashion heavyweights London or Paris, is Germany’s political capital but not the nation’s financial centre. Pitt and Dabanka also pointed to the different approaches to fashion across Germany, and how this affected its growth as an industry nationwide.
“The value of fashion varies between German cities. For example, people from Stuttgart are far more into fashion than those from Berlin, and you see it reflected in the way they dress,” said Pitt.
Pitt and Dabanka said Berlin had the potential to grow into a fashion capital, but not at the luxury end of the market.
“Fashion is really a street thing,” said Dabanka. “The Berlin mentality is kind of anti-expensive…so if Berlin was going to do expensive haute couture it would still need to show that roughness, that edge. Just look at peoples’ shoes in this city: they never clean them!”
Cutting it at the top
Nonetheless, there is no shortage of homegrown talent when it comes to Berlin couture. One shining example is Parsival Cserer, who won the Peek&Cloppenburg “Designer for Tomorrow” award in 2010 and whose show is one of the most anticipated moments of Berlin Fashion Week this year.
Cserer is a sterling example of how the relative isolation of the Berlin fashion scene can be at once positive and negative for the designers themselves.
A surprising advantage is how a lack of an international mass market has allowed Cserer the time and space to create more ethically sourced designs, something which designers abroad might aspire to but are not normally able to achieve.
“The clothes are made in China,” he said. “But I live at the production site, together with the people who make the fabrics, to develop everything alongside them, because I want to give people joy through my designs – not only to the customer but also to the people who produce them.”
However, it’s uncertain Berlin can hold onto the talent it has so far managed to foster. The main difficulty faced by the city’s designers is that reaching the very top of the local fashion scene does not equal any form of international acclaim, and Cserer exemplifies this.
“I think the next step for me once Fashion Week is over, if I don’t find any financiers or people who want to produce my designs, is to go abroad. This is for sure,” he said sadly.
“I will have to go to Paris or to London and there I will live like some impoverished intern at a big company, and hope to work my way up.”
But Cserer also said the future of Berlin’s fashion scene depended on interest from abroad, not just in terms of international investment but also for new influences.
All eyes on Berlin
And if this years’ Berlin Fashion Week is anything to go by, foreign interest is very much on the rise. Modesta Dziautait and Salma Barakat, both studying design at the prestigious London College of Fashion, said the world was starting to notice Berlin.
They said Berlin should follow London’s model, whereby corporate interests often finance younger designers to ensure the scene keeps its creative edge while growing financially.
“Berlin is seen as the up and coming place for new designers, this is the second Fashion Week that we’ve been to and you can see that it’s progressed even since last year,” said Barakat. “Things are growing here from season to season.”
And Dziautait said the reputation of Berlin’s internationally respected art scene could rub off on local fashion designers.
“Berlin definitely has an edge over other cities,” she said. “It could be the new London.”