“Fashion has to change and the change starts in Berlin.” With that ambitious statement, Mandie Bienek of lobbying organisation Fashion Council Germany (FCG) kicked off the first post-Covid fashion week in the German capital on September 6. Besides ambition the statement also showcased activism, as although FCG represents the interests of the entire German fashion industry, there is something at stake for Berlin as a fashion city ever since its most important fashion trade fairs, Premium, Seek and Neonyt, left Berlin for Frankfurt a year ago.
The launch of Frankfurt Fashion Week has in fact divided the German fashion industry further. What traditionally was split into two, with Düsseldorf as the buying centre in West Germany and Berlin as the creative - and green - fashion hub in East Germany, the country now has a third player on the map. It forced the local Berlin government to pump 3.5 million euros into the city’s fashion sector this year. A capital injection that is of course welcome, but according to those involved and local media such as the daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, actually came too late. If the local government had been more concerned about the ups and downs of the fashion sector earlier, the trade fairs might have stayed.
On the other hand, Berlin’s timing was perfect this season, because while the first Frankfurt Fashion Week in July still took place digitally due to the ongoing corona crisis, Berlin was able to continue entirely physically, including foreign fashion press and a handful of buyers who could be flown in, partly thanks to the financial support from higher up.
Open door policy in Berlin
The move of the trade fairs to Frankfurt also forced Berlin to reposition itself and, in doing so, the city - traditionally a magnet for smaller, independent brands and designers - is now explicitly targeting the end consumer. Under the umbrella name Studio2Retail, an initiative of FCG and the local government, dozens of local designers and brands opened the doors of their studios and shops to visitors during Berlin Fashion Week. Among them were well-known names such as Lala Berlin and Lutz Morris, but also smaller, niche brands such as Esther Perbandt and Oftt by British designer Ashley Hovelle.
The focus of Berlin labels on the German fashion consumer is not one-sided. On the contrary, during the pandemic, consumers have embraced local fashion labels as well. While several brands lost their retail customers last year due to lockdowns and shop closures, the end consumer found them more often. Take Natascha von Hirschhausen, for example, a small, niche ‘zero waste’ label that operates completely sustainably and plastic-free and has optimised the patterns so much that less than 1 percent of fabric remains on the cutting table, which is then made into earrings and given as a gift with the purchase of a garment. The designer says she now sells 90 percent directly to consumers. Until 2020, two-thirds of her turnover went through wholesale.
Retail partners lost
Luisa Dames of shoe label Aeyde shares a similar experience. Although the shoe brand launched as a direct-to-consumer brand in 2015, since 2017 it has also been selling through wholesale to online shops such as Mytheresa and Net-a-Porter and some 75 retailers such as department store Lane Crawford in Hong Kong. “Because of Covid-19, we lost retail partners. Some addresses just don’t exist anymore,” says Dames in her office at Strausberger Platz in the east of the city, “but new customers, consumers, have come to us. These are people who used to buy the brand in a shop, but when that was no longer possible during the lockdown, came straight to our webshop. Coincidentally, that is what I had in mind with the company in the first place.”
Although in Berlin, physical shows, talks and events were held again, making it seem like an almost normal fashion week, on the other hand, there was the daily testing, the FFP2 face masks that are compulsory in Germany and an even stricter door policy than before corona. Nowadays, anyone who wants to attend a fashion show during fashion week not only has to negotiate the hurdles set up by razor-sharp PR staff, but also produce QR codes of recent test or vaccination certificates. The time of sneaking in, traditionally a sport for young design students, is definitely over.
It’s worth it though: after a year of online activities, the excitement of a big live show, the thumping of the beats and the models, the light effects and the rustling of fabrics and sequins, is a feast for the senses.
Also festive was watching Berlin Fashion Week visitors getting dressed up again for an event after a year in homewear. This was not only evident at the fashion week shows and events. The American-German design duo Johnny Talbot and Adrian Runhof and their formal wear brand Talbot Runhof also experience it. The brand, which has four of its own shops and a wholesale network with sales locations at major department stores in the US, was supposed to celebrate its 20th anniversary in 2020 with the launch of its own fragrance, but had to put the plans on hold during the Covid year. Now that weddings and parties are back, their customers are, according to Runhof, “going wild”. “We get orders for two or three dresses by the mother of the bride. One dress is simply not enough. People really want to go all out, there’s no end to it.” Talbot Runhof’s party dresses do, however, still show a hint of the past year. “The silhouette has changed a little,” explains Johnny Talbot. “The cut is a bit wider, it’s more comfortable…” and he pulls a cocktail dress studded with sequins from the rack to illustrate, it’s a loose-fitting model with a deep neckline and pockets.
It was a fashion week that, on one hand, was all about hope for a better world after the corona crisis, the forced pause and period of reflection that the industry - and the world - is undergoing. On the other hand, relief was palpable in Berlin, as was the desire for ‘everything’ to be back to normal as soon as possible. Just like before, but a little different.FashionUnited was invited to Berlin by Fashion Council Germany.This article was previously published in Dutch.