By  on January 11, 2011

"Happy New Year” might still be on everyone’s lips as the German market kicks off the fall season in Berlin next week.

Backed by healthy year-end sales, lean inventories, continued good tidings on the domestic economic front, ongoing consumer optimism and more interest in new styles and labels as retailers actively attempt to differentiate their assortments, the overall mood is upbeat indeed. The fashion week schedule is packed, hotels are booked solid and, barring another Siberian cold front, Berlin looks like it’s going to experience four hot fashion days Jan. 19 to 22.

With Bread & Butter and Premium flanking the runway shows of Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Berlin, plus numerous independent presentations off-site, Berlin has developed into a one-stop destination for the contemporary segment as well as those eager to scout the season’s first trends. The sustainable platforms and Green Showroom additionally provide an eco-friendly focus, skateboard enthusiasts can head to Bright and the intimate apparel sector is upgrading its presence at 5 Quite simply, Berlin is getting bigger, noted Jürgen Dax, director of the German Association of Apparel Retailers.

“Though Bread & Butter can’t get much larger,” he said. “But the other shows, like Premium, are growing.”

Dax expects the retail gang to be in Berlin as well, also in high spirits. Two-thirds of the nation’s apparel retailers didn’t just end 2010 with increased sales, he reported, but after a long period of depressed margins, many posted a profit, as well. “The average sales gain was about 3 percent, but there’s always a wide spectrum, and some saw growth of 8 to 9 percent,” he said.

Retailers and manufacturers played it safer in 2010, meaning little winter merchandise is now left to mark down. But there were also lost opportunities, he pointed out, as reorders were often not possible due to tight production planning. That could ease next season and, overall, he said he hopes retailers show a bit more pluck. “The possibilities to set oneself apart from one’s neighbors are limited, and the key merchants are now searching for vendors the others don’t have.”

“I was talking to retailers before Christmas and the mood has been open and the feedback extremely good,” said Jörg Ehrlich, co-founder of the sophisticated jersey collection Odeeh, which made its debut in Berlin three seasons ago. “I have the feeling retailers here are beginning to look on German collections in a more positive way. I was kind of surprised myself. They’re all looking for a certain discipline when it comes to being able to deliver a good product they can sell.”

“It’s incredible how many people in Germany are interested in fashion these days. Germany has developed tremendously,” said Dorothee Schumacher, who added that Schumacher’s brand awareness has improved significantly since the Mannheim, Germany-based collection first took to the MBFWB runway a few years ago. “We have so many more people hearing about Schumacher because of it. And I notice how much we’ve grown by being here.”

While designers and fashion brands from around the country are important regulars on the MBFWB catwalk, Berlin’s designers have moved into a more central position and now generate much of fashion week’s buzz. The core group keeps growing, with relative newcomers such as Perret Schaad and Michael Sontag joining somewhat more seasoned players like LaLa Berlin, Kaviar Gauche, Michalsky, Mongrels in Common, Esther Perbandt and C.neeon, among others. But all, like Berlin Fashion Week, Bread & Butter and Premium as well, are less than a decade old, and there are scores of others not merely waiting but now emerging from the wings.

More designers than ever are showing this season on the runway and in presentations around town and are boosting the city’s image as a fashion center and building its momentum. Getting started is easy, suggested Livia Ximénez-Carrillo, who founded Mongrels in Common with Christine Pluess in May 2006.

“There’s always a big, big interest in everything that’s new, and Berlin is all about creativity and newness. But after a few years, it gets more complicated. It’s an art to keep going, especially without an investor,” she said.

Mongrels in Common and other Berlin labels have managed to keep growing more sophisticated and professional, like Berlin Fashion Week itself. “You can see the improvement season to season,” said LaLa Berlin founder Leyla Piedayesh. “I appreciate what’s happening. It’s important to work on the [Berlin] network.”

At the same time, however, LaLa Berlin and others are taking a multipronged approach to building their business via their own brick-and-mortar and online stores, and participating in showrooms and fairs internationally.

“You have to go after it,” Piedayesh stated. Founded in 2005, LaLa Berlin is now carried by about 60 doors in Germany and another 40 to 50 around the world. Scandinavia is the label’s largest export market (LaLa long has showed in Copenhagen), followed by Japan. “The next step is to focus on U.S. distribution,” she said. “We have someone working on sales in New York, who’s written 10 new shops including Ron Herman. We’ll also be at The Coterie. And there’s also the U.K., where we have a couple of nice shops, such as Brown’s Focus.”

For Berlin-based Kaviar Gauche, the decision to start showing on its hometown runway after participating in London Fashion Week significantly changed its business. “Japan dropped us after we stopped showing in London,” Kaviar Gauche co-founder Johanna Kühl noted. “Lots of labels start with Japan financing them, but our style changed a bit more in the European direction. Here, you need to be perfect, pretty and yet somehow interesting. As for the avant-garde, very few shops here want it.”

Kaviar Gauche’s biggest wholesale market is now Germany, “which is quite the opposite from two years ago. But when you think of how many good shops there are now in Germany, and how the buying itself has changed, they’re much more into fashion,” Kühl said, pointing out that sales in Germany, Austria and Switzerland are developing consistently, she said, and she sees further potential in the U.K. and U.S. “We always have a few shops internationally that buy our collection.” As for the Berlin catwalk, “it’s so much easier for us. Everything is here — including buyers. There really are buyers at the shows,” she said.

Banking on strength in numbers, Berlin press and sales agent Arne Eberle has pulled together 11 designers under one roof in Collect Showroom, now going into it second season. The response last July was largely positive, but fell short of retail attendance expectations, he said. “There was some order writing, but we had more press visitors than buyers. However, we’re better known now and there have been many queries, so I’m confident for January,” he noted. “I do feel more German retailers are coming to Berlin. I only hope the designers aren’t viewed so much as German designers — it still sounds like being something of a poor relation.”

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