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Boomtown. Tourist magnet. Start-up hub. Creative hothouse.
This story first appeared in the January 8, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
As much as its hipper citizens like to poke fun at the capital’s official marketing slogan, recent developments seem to have indeed made “Berlin, the place to be.”
Long at the tail end of Germany’s economic prosperity, “poor but sexy” Berlin is now outpacing the growth rate of the rest of Germany, according to year-end studies by the Berlin Investment Bank, or IBB, as well as IFO, the Munich-based economic research institute. Employment is on the rise, boosted by expansion in the service sector, which, in turn, has been fueled by Berlin’s ongoing tourist rush. In late December, Mayor Klaus Wowereit noted the number of visitors has grown by 257 percent in the last decade. When the final numbers are in, Berlin expects to have hosted 11 million tourists in 2013, each spending on average 204.70 euros a day, or about $280 at current exchange, which has also helped brighten the prospects of Berlin’s mushrooming retail spread.
RELATED STORY: Berlin’s Retail Beat >>
Then, too, there’s Berlin’s active new business scene. The city is not only the top location for start-ups in Germany but is now being hyped as Europe’s potential start-up center. McKinsey & Co.’s fall study, called “Berlin Builds Businesses — Five Initiatives for Europe’s Start-up Hub,” indicated that for every business started in Munich, there are 2.8 new ones in Berlin. Moreover, in 2012, German and international venture capitalists invested 133 million euros, or $164.4 million in average exchange for 2012, in start-ups in Berlin, compared with only 24 million euros, or $29.6 million, in Baden-Württemberg; 19 million euros, or $23.5 million, in Bavaria, and 14 million euros, or $17.3 million, in Hamburg. Berlin’s daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel reported that a new Internet company is founded here every 20 hours.
The city’s creative pull has been its main calling card for years, and the current boom’s downside of rising rents (25 percent in the last three years), stepped-up gentrification and rampant tourist infiltration hasn’t slowed the steady stream of young art, music and design-oriented people putting down roots in Berlin. Nor have intrinsic deficits dampened their enthusiasm.
When it comes to fashion, the past decade has seen Berlin emerge as the undisputed show hub of German fashion, with a dozen trade fairs and scores of runway shows being staged during the twice-yearly fashion weeks, not to mention Berlin’s growing cadre of young independent designers and hordes of students at the city’s nine fashion schools.
However, Germany’s decentralized industrial setup also means there are no large apparel producers in Berlin or established designer brands (other than Wunderkind in Potsdam) from whom young hopefuls might learn their trade. There are also few if any agents here to help them sell their wares to notoriously risk-averse retailers, nor is the local consumer market too supportive. Most Berliners aren’t big fashion spenders.
RELATED STORY: Berlin — Ones to Watch >>
While it can thus be a tough place for designers, photographers, stylists and other fashion industry associates to earn a living, Berlin’s buzz is a fertile source of inspiration and energy. The hothouse atmosphere appears to be spawning a new and quite international breed of Überlebenskünstler — or “survival artists” — who also see themselves as Lebenskünstler — those who enjoy the better things of life. And despite concerns over mounting costs, Berlin remains a relatively inexpensive place to do just that. WWD spoke to a batch of more recently settled Berliners-by-choice to find out not only what brought them to the city, but what keeps them here.
“Berlin to me is a place where everything is possible, creatively,” said 29-year-old Hermano Silva, cross-media, cross-discipline and cross-continental photographer and men’s fashion blogger known as The Gentleman (thegentleman.com.br). “You have a new generation of people coming here who like the lifestyle, quality of life, the place and opportunity to experiment. But there’s also not that much money here, so people need to have clients elsewhere.”
Silva’s are in his native Brazil and in London (where he got his master’s of arts in fashion photography), Paris and Milan, but “Berlin is very global, so when I’m here, I feel like I’m in the world. I have a good observation of Europe [from Berlin] and so can jump in and out.” Technology allows him to work whenever and wherever, he noted, and “certainly the IT and tech industries have a bright future in Berlin. This is another factor that plays a role in my decision to be based here. Like many other people of my generation, my business plan depends a lot on new technologies.
“It is perhaps not so clear to envision at this stage, because Berlin is not a [finished] thing,” he went on. “It is still going through transformations, and perhaps that is also the interesting part of being here. I want to help to shape the future, and not feel part of a ready engine into which I must fit.”
Designer Martin Niklas Wieser, 27, who left South Tirol to do his A levels in Dublin, settled here after completing his fashion studies at Berlin’s Weissensee Academy of Arts last year. “I love to travel to change life perspectives, but I felt it was a great time to stay,” he said. “The young creative scene is booming. There’s loads of input, not just in fashion. It’s all a big pot of creatives, very dynamic and mixed.”
Wieser has been building his androgynous men’s wear label for the past year-and-a-half, working directly with shops to which he wants to sell — like Primitive London, where he did a pop-up last year. “It’s a challenge, of course. You need to invest in those first years, but it’s the same all around the world. And it helps being based here in some ways. There’s real worldwide interest in Berlin, though with the Internet and our vastly globalized world, there’s almost no locality anymore. It’s more important than ever to have a unique voice, a cohesive and coherent identity and strong visual impact. It’s not about making pretty clothes anymore.”
It was purely cost of living that brought avant-garde New Zealand designer Hermione Flynn to Berlin about two years ago. England beckoned, but her husband pointed out, “If we’re in London, you’re going to be working out of a cupboard.”
“Just coming here and walking around the streets, you see so many small businesses on street level, people working out of little studios, and that was so inspiring,” she said. “I came here and thought, maybe having a shop front is actually doable,” she recalled.
Informed by social and cultural commentary, and tied to performance pieces she creates but does not appear in, Flynn’s editorial looks, which she’s also shown at Premium, have been embraced by stylists and magazines in Berlin, but not yet by retailers. While her new home in the capital city offers multiple galleries and copious creative opportunities that might be a good fit for her art and fashion, “the trendsetters in Berlin are not the kind of people to drop a lot of money on clothes,” she acknowledged, but “even if I haven’t found my target market here, I think it is in Europe.”
Australian Ezra Kinderman, 27, and Ukrainian-born, Erfurt-raised Boris Tankilewitsch, 26, are united by a common culture (ultra-Orthodox Judaism) and a contemporary masculine aesthetic informed by their love of sports. They launched their label Kinder & Tank with a small line of T-shirts made of Austrian Modal last year, and will introduce a full men’s range this month. They said New York would be their location of choice, “but right now we’re living here and enjoying the most out of Berlin. It’s a great city to start something,” said Kinderman. “People here are really willing to help each other out. For instance, we needed a model, so we got a model, and we helped him move. I don’t think that would happen in New York as much, because life there is very difficult and it’s dog-eat-dog.”
On the opposite end of the product spectrum, 31-year-old Danish entrepreneur David Munk Bogballe designs computers, complemented by high-end leather accessories. In Paris, London and Rome, Munk Bogballe studied international business with a focus on luxury goods, then held internships at Bulgari and J. Lindeberg. While in Rome, he fell in love with a German girl, and the two moved together to Berlin, where he’s currently working on a doctorate in political science at Berlin’s Free University, and doing consulting for the Danish conservative political party. What appeals to Munk Bogballe is Berlin’s experimental streak within Europe’s biggest economy. He also saw that the city held a lost luxury tradition.
“For someone who wanted to found a European luxury company making fine personal computers and leather goods [Berlin] was therefore ideal,” he said. “It was the only place in which one could build luxury on the past of a strong but partially lost craftsmanship tradition, mix in modern production and business practices and aim for the long term. One did not have to excuse oneself for not having hundreds of years of heritage, and it was not necessary to pretend as if [one did], as in Paris and London. There was space for simply focusing on making beautiful, functional products of the highest quality.”
Also upmarket in orientation, Berlin University of the Arts fashion graduate and Saarland, Germany, native Rebecca Sammler has put all her resources into her namesake fashion label and new store on trendy Mulackstrasse. With her signature furs starting at 2,000 euros (about $2,750), Sammler doesn’t exactly fit the preconceived notion of what Berlin fashion is all about.
“The city gives me a lot of inspiration, but the class of customers is not really here. Not that Berliners aren’t interested in fashion, but they want a lot for a little. And when you produce in Germany with a lot of hand-finishing, and quality is important, that makes things difficult,” she remarked.
With her sample case in the trunk of her car, she’s gone door to door to potential retail customers such as a Wiesbaden boutique to which she’s delivering, while two doors in Berlin’s Mitte district, where there’s “more foot traffic,” are poised to pick up the line. In-store, she offers special-order services, where clients “can give me a price limit and I’ll come up with the best I can do at that price,” she explained. And she’s also hosted fashion tourist tours, “talking to them about fur over a glass of prosecco. Out of 20, when one comes back, I’m happy. And until now, one or two have come back and ordered. I’ll grab at every straw to make this work,” she stated.
Korean teacher, costume designer, art director and fashion stylist-now-turned-milliner Jeonga Choi primarily finances her Jeonga Choi Berlin collection of moderately priced fascinators, headbands and small hats through sales at Berlin’s many design and holiday markets, as well as on Etsy. She also has three retail clients in Berlin, Freiberg and Hong Kong.
“I feel pretty lucky that I don’t have to work in a café. I wouldn’t mind, since you meet nice, interesting people, but I think I’m lucky I can make enough at the markets.” She also uses the market space as research for observing what suits different face and head shapes, and to see what colors and trends people like. It all informs her collection design, she said.
Australian accessories designer Rebecca Martin crafts her high-end Alpha Cruxis geometric bags, made from Italian vegetable-tanned leather, in the bedroom of her shared apartment in Neukölln. Working alone and selling online as well as at the Henrik Vibskov boutique in Copenhagen, Martin has received business and marketing consultation services from the KfW bank, which offers a reduced rate for young business owners. “There’s a lot of support in Berlin for Berlin-based business, and you don’t even have to be European. I can’t say the same support exists back home for non-Australian folks,“ she noted.
Berlin newcomer Jurica Sertic, who’s the executive producer of Croatian Fashion Week in Zagreb, is a prime example of Berlin’s club-driven culture. “I came here a year ago for a big party, where a lot of friends were playing. And then I spent “a trial two-month period here over the summer. I’ve traveled a lot in my life, but only in Berlin do I feel at home.”
Sertic calls himself a reverse immigrant. “I work two months a year for Croatian Fashion Week and then can live here and spend that money from Croatia.” With fashion week just behind him, he was simply relaxing at the moment, but does want to find something to do eventually. “My generation has a different attitude to work,” he suggested. “We’re taught to do everything, and not focus on one thing. Especially in Croatia, if you want to do something good, you have to do it all by yourself.
“I would rather live in Berlin and be a waiter,” he added, “than be in Croatia and do what I do. I’m not afraid. I can do any job. This city is both fast-paced and slow-paced, with hard German energy on one hand, and opportunity and freedom on the other — and I like it very strict and organized, after clubbing all weekend. Everyone [I know] here has come in search of a better life for themselves.”