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The Wild West

A creative center develops with an eye for business.

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Germany’s creative hothouse, Berlin, is finally getting down to business.

The nation’s fashion industry is about to get a much-needed shot of catwalk-driven glamour and sparkle — at least, that’s the aim of the first Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Berlin, set for this Thursday through Sunday.

International designer “friends of Berlin” like Vivienne Westwood (with her Anglomania line); leading German fashion labels Hugo, Strenesse, Puma and Michalsky; German progressives Prototype and Annett Roestel; young Berlin designers Smeilinener and Sisi Wasabi, along with the four New Generation Award finalists, Macqua, Kaviar Gauche, Talkingmeanstrouble and Lala Berlin, have gathered for this debut event to be staged in front of the Brandenburg Gate.

That won’t be the only fashion action in the city. Premium will be back with its 10th edition at The Station, and will showcase 700 international men’s and women’s collections, including 60 designer newcomers and the new “Green Lifestyle” area. One hundred international avant-garde designers will again be taking up residence at Ideal Showroom in Café Moscow, and a number of other satellite shows, presentations and events are planned throughout the city.

Hugo will kick off fashion week, organized by IMG, on Thursday night. And with its motto “Your game. Your rules,” Hugo Boss’ cheeky fashion brand comes straight to the core of what makes Berlin such a magnet for the young (and not so young) creative types that are creating the city’s buzz.

According to local government figures, 114,000 people work in the city’s creative sector, a jump of 50 percent since 1996; a 10th of all creative professionals in Germany are now based in Berlin. And of the 6,000 designers in the city, an impressive 3,000 work in fashion.

Not a bad level of productivity for a city traditionally viewed by the rest of Germany as a high-spending, low-earning welfare case: the country’s naughty teenager who never buckles down but somehow always manages to have a good time. (It’s not exactly an endearing quality in the eyes of hard-working taxpayers in Hamburg, Munich or Stuttgart.)

But it looks like those days are on the wane. Unemployment rocketed in the Nineties, as previously state-sponsored industry moved out and the city lost 60 percent of its full-time traditional jobs. And while the numbers remain high, June 2007’s unemployment level of 15.6 percent was the lowest on a seasonal basis since 1997.

Berlin is rapidly becoming Germany’s creative hub. According to the local Senate, the creative sector in Berlin produced an annual turnover of 18.57 billion euros, or $21.2 billion at current exchange, in 2005 and is growing twice as fast here as in the rest of Germany. A lot of this growth is due to local government support. Between 2000 and 2004, the state provided 200 million euros, or $272.4 million, in financial support to local governments, mostly in the form of grants. Forty percent of this went to the creative sector.

The cool kids who once came here to party are now in their 30s and are getting down to work. So what brings them here? “It’s cheap” is the blunt answer most people give you. And, certainly, low rents are a major attraction for any young creative who has struggled with the housing market in New York, London or Paris. Paying 400 euros per month, or $545, for a decent-size, centrally located apartment, and even less for a small atelier, certainly makes new and not necessarily profitable projects much more doable here than anywhere else.

There are exceptions, of course. Residential rents have risen dramatically in very gentrified areas such as around Kollwitz Platz in Prenzlauer Berg, and commercial rents around Hackescher Markt, also in former East Berlin, are now among the highest in the city. In fact, a study by the real estate broker Engel & Völkers identified Hackescher Markt as Berlin’s most dynamic retail neighborhood.

But there must be more about the city than its low cost of living. After all, cities like Milwaukee or Youngstown, Ohio, are also cheap places to live, but that doesn’t make them international creative hubs.

“Berlin is an open, liberal, urban, cosmopolitan city that offers freedom and space,” believes Diana Kaufmann, director of Create Berlin, a private initiative of Berlin designers for Berlin designers. “And in comparison to other major cities, it’s not set; it’s not finished. Change is ongoing — not just in a historical sense, but in terms of people who believe change is possible.”

For many, it is this freedom to do what they want — and the space to do it in — that is Berlin’s major calling card. The city’s been broken up and messed around with so much by history that there are no models to follow, either figuratively or literally. What makes other metropolises tick just doesn’t cut it here. It’s not money — there’s not much to speak of in this “bankrupt but sexy” town, to quote the mayor. Nor is it status, which was never a big draw, either pre- or post-Wall. The so-called “society” certainly isn’t “high” here and lacks the panache, self-confidence or sheer interest to set standards or make waves.

Even power is unlikely to impress Berliners much, who have a natural distrust of authority and hierarchy of all sorts, fashion included. Overdoing flashy, designer labels is likely to earn more derision than respect.

“Bling-bling would be laughed out of town,” explained Elizabeth McGrath, editor in chief of a soon-to-be-launched fanzine BangBangBerlin, which covers the city’s subculture, “and labels are considered desperately tragic. You do not walk around Mitte swinging a Gucci or LV bag, or people think you are a spoiled brat.”

This hasn’t stopped either Gucci or Louis Vuitton from successfully operating two stores each in Berlin, plus in-store shops at major local department store KaDeWe. And according to Josef Voelk, co-owner of The Corner and former director of Quartier 206 Departmentstore — both international designer-powered, luxury shopping destinations — there’s a growing appetite for high-end purchases.

“You don’t see the original Berlin look — jeans, T-shirts, the whole underground thing — quite so much anymore. People have gotten a bit tired of it, and the style of the city has definitely changed,” he commented. “It’s more mature. There are more people coming to Berlin with money, and Berliners themselves are becoming more aware of international fashion trends.

“We’re very pleased with business. And we’ve also been very surprised, as everybody always says there’s no potential in Berlin,” he continued. “Not that we do that much with Berlin designers, but maybe with the New Generation finalists, we’ll find something for us and that will change.”

Andreas Murkudis, Berlin’s concept store pioneer with four shops on Munzstrasse in the Hackescher Markt area, has also noted a style shift.

“More people are discovering style and there’s more openness than there used to be,” he said. He credits this to the surge of tourists visiting Berlin since the capital became a center for cheap international flights. “The style here is very mixed, with lots of Scandinavians, Italians and Spaniards. On weekends, it’s like a mass migration.”

But he also thinks Berlin is becoming more professional. “We now have shops opening like The Corner and Strange Fruit, or hotels like the Hotel de Rome on Gendarmenmarkt. The interest is there, though in Berlin, change always comes in very small steps.”

“Having Berlin as a base has helped me a lot,” said local designer Leyla Piedayesh of LaLa Berlin. “This all wouldn’t have happened in London, Paris or New York. It’s a huge city with an amazing creative network, but because rents are so cheap, you have enormous creative freedom….And in Berlin, you have freedom of choice about what you wear. Today I might want to wear a cocktail dress, tomorrow run around in sneakers. People here don’t judge you on your clothing.”

The result of all this iconoclastic freedom is a thriving and cross-fertilizing hotbed of art, music, nightlife and design. And unlike more established urban centers, where the embedded hierarchy means cultural influences filter down from the top, in Berlin most of the important influences come from the bottom, percolating away in the city’s hyperactive subculture.

For Sumi Ha, owner of the concept store Best Shop and initiator of Ideal Showroom, this intersection of so many different cultural influences is a constant source of inspiration. “When I came here eight years ago, all the people I met appeared to be doing their own independent, creative thing. That inspired me to do my own thing, too, in a way I would never have had the courage to do somewhere else.”

Berlin’s unique history has also fueled the creative boom, by providing gaps and holes that young people have been able to fill.

“There was a massive rupture as soon as the Wall fell [in 1989], and suddenly there was a whole unknown world in the East to discover,” Ha said. All the free spaces and buildings seemingly owned by no one spawned all sorts of art projects and new bars, she pointed out. “And that feeling is still in Berlin today.”

The art scene is thriving, with new galleries opening constantly. The city’s already large artist population is getting bigger all the time. New York art dealer Robert Goff opened a Berlin branch of his gallery Goff + Rosenthal last September. His take on the city: “Berlin’s special because it’s got the energy of a city in which artists can actually afford to live. They’re part of the daily life of the city, not like Manhattan. And it’s not just artists, but young creative types of all sorts who are moving here, and it snowballs into a great vibe.”

It’s also a “fun city. A decadent city. And there’s not a better place to go out,” he noted. “I didn’t experience New York then, but everybody tells me Berlin feels a little like New York in the Seventies and Eighties. But you don’t necessarily have to go out. It’s a process of cultural osmosis. You feel it in the air.”

Specializing in international emerging artists, Goff said he was well prepared for business in Berlin to be slow due to the city’s overall economic climate and relatively slim collector ranks. But that being said, he added, sales have been surprisingly good. “Everyone comes here. We have American collectors coming two to three times a year. They’re even buying apartments here because they have the opportunity to meet with artists, visit their ateliers and cut better deals. It’s less competitive.” Plus, like everyone else, “they like the vibe.”

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