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As the popular saying goes, Berlin is a city that’s always in the process of becoming. That’s more true than ever for the German capital’s role as a fashion and trade show magnet this season.
Last-minute developments on the local end, ongoing jitters in the euro zone, mounting financial pressures on big and small players alike and a weather-related dip in German apparel retail sales are likely to make their mark on the upcoming Berlin Fashion Week. Nonetheless, with about 60 runway shows and presentations in the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Berlin tent and assorted off-site venues, fully booked editions of Bread & Butter and Premium, plus eight other trade fairs running concurrently, July 4 to 6 promises to be an action-packed three days in Berlin.
There’s change in the air, with some show organizers, designers and brands cooking up new strategies and initiatives to meet domestic as well as international challenges.
When possible, that is.
The unexpected May announcement that Berlin’s new airport would not open in June as planned scratched Panorama, Germany’s new, more volume-oriented platform, from the show list this season. The fair, set to open with 200 exhibitors at the Airport Expo Center, attempted to find temporary quarters, but faced with having to turn away a significant portion of its participants, decided to wait until next January to jump into the Berlin fray. Panorama would have significantly broadened Berlin’s brand outlook, adding midmarket and wide distribution specialists to the city’s current contemporary and streetwear focus. It would also have spread out the Berlin Fashion Week map, as the new airport is a solid 40-minute ride from the city center.
Trade visitors to Berlin will get to see enough corners and landmarks of the city as it is. In what seems to be an ongoing game of musical tents, the MBFWB show and presentation venue has been shifted farther down the Strasse des 17. Juni in Tiergarten, now nestling up against “Golden Else,” as the Siegessäule, or Victory Column, is affectionately called.
In another venue shift, Capsule is moving into the Postbahnhof off Ostbahnhof, adding another postal railway station to a fair location lineup that already includes a landmark airport, two power stations, an iconic Fifties café, the former Stasi headquarters, a sports hall and a five-star hotel literally all over town.
As for the commercial landscape, Germany’s consumers remain favorably inclined, according to the latest GFK consumer sentiment survey. In fact, May found them even more optimistic and inclined to buy than in April, and European surveys have the Germans pegged as the most buoyant on the continent, mirroring the nation’s economy. Yet another recent study by the marketing research institute Forsa countered old stereotypes by revealing the German consumer as “spontaneous,” especially when it comes to buying clothing, which leads the list of unplanned purchases.
Germany’s apparel retailers, on the other hand, had strong 2011 figures to beat. Uncooperative weather lead to slight declines in May sales and most likely flat to somewhat-lower sales for the first half of 2012.
“The trade won’t be in a particularly good mood” in Berlin, predicted Jürgen Dax, director of the German Apparel Retailers Association, nonetheless adding, “but it’s not a catastrophe compared to 2010 or 2009.”
The biggest problem for the nation’s retailers is declining traffic in the stores, he said.
“Many stores are having a hard time, but others are not. There are midsized stores generating a plus, and those that communicate well with their consumers via events to bring them into the stores will profit. Still, we’ve noticed in the last few years that customers may be coming into stores less frequently, but they’ve been buying more or more expensive items,” Dax reported. “The average sales check has been higher than before.”
However, consumers are fed up with the glut of merchandise, he warned. “So perhaps we will start seeing a move toward smaller sales spaces” where retailers can create stronger and more profiled presentations.
With close to 2,500 brands converging on Berlin for fashion week, some say it’s petty to harp on those staying away. But with no-shows including Levi’s, Lee, Diesel, Replay, RL Denim & Supply, Meltin Pot and Miss Sixty, it’s hard not to react.
“First of all, I have to respect what firms decide,” commented Bread & Butter founder Karl-Heinz Müller. He suggested some brands are no longer in the position financially to take part, or are having generational conflicts.
Some brands, like Levi’s, say they’re concentrating on their own stores and “more consumer-facing activities,” while still others who’ve lost traction in Europe are instead concentrating on new markets like China.
“Bread & Butter mirrors the market and I regret Levi’s and Diesel are not participating,” Müller said. “But I’d rather spend time with people who are motivated than try to convince them.
“A fair,” he went on, “is not here to present what happened yesterday, but to show what’s going on now and where the trends are leading tomorrow. I personally believe the denim industry is facing a big change, and that there will be a new and different denim wave. And that’s what I’m investing in. The future.”
Müller’s investment, in the form of a 29,000 square-foot Tempel of Denim, is expected to run about 1 million euros, or more than $1.2 million at current exchange rates. The blue-roofed construction will feature all manner of special presentations by denim’s “opinion leaders” as well as two daily fashion shows (for an additional cost of about 500,000 euros, or $625,000) to be staged on an almost 400-foot table in the middle of the space that can seat 700.
“I want to bring everyone to the table,” he said. “There are so many religions of denim today: more tailored, authentic, heritage, women’s, body conscious…and that’s what we want to demonstrate [in the temple]. Deciding which religion, which brand — that’s what’s exciting for the retailer.”
There will also be some MIA’s on the MBFWB runways, such as LaLa Berlin. Its designer, Leyla Piedayesh, said that, as her collection gets larger, being finished by early July has become next to impossible. Moreover, acquiring additional international clients is now the sales focus, which has her considering doing a future show in Paris instead.
Mannheim-based Dorothée Schumacher, on the other hand, said Berlin’s timing has turned out to be a boon. “We weren’t sure at first if we were ready for it, as it’s so early and you need to know that you can sell what you’re showing,” she acknowledged. “But getting the collection prepared, having great photos and creating so much emotion, all by such an early date, has helped the sales team, all our partners, suppliers and most importantly, our retail clients.”
As for international impact, she noted “the runway photos are online immediately and reach a wide audience, plus we do invite international clients who love to come to Berlin. The city’s got such a hype, plus buyers get to see the whole Schumacher world here, on the runway, at our stores, in KaDeWe. We make a product we sell all over the world, but we love to show in Berlin because we want to show where we come from.”
One drawback has been the tent’s seating limit of 600, which Schumacher hopes to virtually solve by means of a 360-degree camera placed in the first row. Consumers, buyers and other brand associates will be virtually invited, as well as picked up and brought to their virtual seats in the front row where — in reality, seated at their computers — they’ll be able to witness the whole show experience, moving their mouse on the images to get a full 360-degree view. She said retail partners like Engelhorn and Breuninger plan to do public viewings with their customers.
It’s been a last-minute season for a lot of smaller, independent and up-and-coming designers, who, less than three weeks before fashion week, were still scrambling to find sponsors and funds for their spring presentations. One solution: teamwork, as illustrated by Berlin designer brands Mongrels in Common and Liebig, who will be hosting a dual presentation of their spring collections on the roof terrace of the recently renovated Jewish Girls’ School.
“It’s two collections, two sets of designers, but one presentation with two little installations that work together,” Mongrels codesigner Livia Ximénez-Carillo explained. “We thought the labels were a good mix, as they fit well together but don’t directly compete.” Mongrels is hoping to make some new sales contacts via Liebig and vice-versa, and moreover finds the nonrunway route a good opportunity to “have more contact with our clients, talk to them and personally show them some details.”
Big ready-to-wear brand Marc Cain is also eschewing the runway for its first Berlin showing. Selling to 58 countries, “we have too many customers, and a defilé for 600 guests would be counter-productive,” commented Norbert Loch, director of distribution and marketing. Noting Berlin Fashion Week has become a meeting place for the press, including a growing number of international journalists, Marc Cain has instead opted to stage an installation in the ballroom of the five-star Hotel de Rome.