There are some who would suggest that the Berlin bear is not only an appropriate mascot for Bread & Butter, but an apt reflection of the fair’s founder and prime mover, Karl-Heinz Müller. He’s been known to be a teddy at times, a grizzly at others, but always a force to be reckoned with. Hibernation, in his case, is not part of the program. Nor is dancing to any tune but his own.
This story first appeared in the June 21, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Ten years ago, Müller and two partners from outside the fashion industry decided to stage a new kind of trade event for the jeans and urban streetwear market. They were after a show that suited the culture of the brands, and spoke to the lifestyle and values of the consumers they were trying to reach. That meant fun. Coolness. Edge. The start was innocent enough — a self-proclaimed “off show” in an out-of-the-way venue — but sooner than anyone could imagine, “off” had indisputably turned into “on.”
WWD spoke with Müller about the twists and turns of Bread & Butter’s first decade, where the show has been, and where it’s going.
WWD: Are you ever surprised to find yourself doing what you do — running a “monster” trade show for some 600 denim, street and urban fashion brands that draws an estimated 90,000 visitors? (We know you stopped counting, officially…)
Karl-Heinz Müller: Yes. I don’t think anyone in the beginning expected it to develop like this. Sometimes I think this can’t be — we’re a fair that attracts people worldwide. But it’s fun every day, no matter how much work it is. People have been very good to us. We’ve been very lucky.
WWD: But let’s go back to the beginning of Bread & Butter. You had 20 years behind you in the industry — doing sales for Levi’s, Big Star, Marc O’Polo, heading Pepe in Germany. In 1999, you switched channels, opening the denim fashion store 14 oz. in Cologne. What in the world provoked you to start your own show?
K.H.M.: During those 20 years, InterJeans was obligatory. We always showed there. But then I became a buyer — though I was also doing a small distribution with Le Coq Sportif, so I was also a potential exhibitor. But I realized that as a buyer, the fair was not interesting to me.
In April 2001, Adidas started with Originals and invited 50 potential customers to a weekend meeting. Because I was in the industry so long, I knew everyone. We kept the hotel bar open, and everyone said “We don’t see each other anymore, but we’re not going to Cologne. We don’t find anything there. It’s not interesting.”
That night, I had a dream — filled with partners from the industry. I saw jeans, apparel, sneakers all around, there was food, chill-out areas. I woke up and said I’m going to make a fair. And it has to be different. I called an acquaintance, Krystian Geyr, who had contacts for a hall. So that’s how it started. I dreamed it, even in detail. But Adidas was definitely the spark.
WWD: That first Bread & Butter in July 2001 had 50 exhibitors and 5,000 visitors. A lot of the big boys were there with their special lines — Levi’s with Levi’s Vintage, Adidas, Tommy Hilfiger Denim, Lee. But they were hanging out in overtly low-budget and open stands of 300 to 1,000 square feet, in a gritty, unrenovated old warehouse. Many said this was more of a party than business. What were you trying to accomplish? What did you accomplish?
K.H.M.: The idea was always to bring people and business together in a type of infotainment event. That was what we wanted. I don’t believe any big company writes at a fair — maybe in America because it’s so spread out — but there’s a broad showroom network in Germany. This is a people business. People have to come together, and the most important thing about a fair is providing pre-order information. And that is business. But the homework is then done in the showrooms, traveling, wherever.
It’s important to let people experience the culture of the brands in their world. Atmosphere is crucial. If you give people something good to eat, you know they stay longer and then drink a coffee, maybe a Champagne…whereas with McDonald’s, it’s in and out. It’s fast food. We didn’t want fast food. And we did the music with good DJs, because if everyone is dancing to the same rhythm, a community can develop. We were animators in a way. Everyone liked it: the brands, the visitors, press, the creative agencies.
WWD: Edition two in January 2002 doubled in size, and you told WWD: “It won’t get bigger. This is a show for selected brands and it should remain selective or the flair will be destroyed.” But it did get bigger. Edition three in August 2002 had 180 exhibitors and 10,000 visitors. The show’s slogan was charging uphill, fighting its way ahead. What was the fight about? Was the industry changing? Was Bread & Butter changing?
K.H.M.: When we hit more than 100 exhibitors, I don’t think anyone expected it. And I was more than satisfied. We had this little fair and it was working. The idea wasn’t to make money, I had the wholesale business. And I’d found a house in Cologne. I planned to stay there. But then the problems in Cologne began. We didn’t get the permit [for the venue].
Kristyan [Geyr] was pushing for Berlin after the first show, but it was too soon for me. But when the problems started, it was like an inspirational flash …and that if we went to Berlin we’d need the big brands or the little ones wouldn’t be able to exist. We realized we’d have to be big, but we also decided to keep the style and feeling of the show, which we have.
WWD: The next thing we knew you were driving madly around Berlin searching for a space.
K.H.M.: We thought we have to go to a city that’s international, a big metropolis and one that wasn’t already taken like Paris or Milan. Berlin had a club scene, lots of young people, all very unconventional no matter what they do, and you need that for an event. Even if things had worked out in Cologne, I don’t think it would have worked. I think Berlin is a big part of our success.
In Cologne, they fought us. They told us “No” some weeks before the show. Whereas in Berlin, after we sent a letter to the mayor, we were invited by the Wirtschaftsförderung [Economic Development Council] to the Ludwig Erhart house and there was this big screen saying “Bread & Butter: Welcome to Berlin.” We thought, wow, we’re in heaven. They asked us what we needed, and we said a big hall that will be approved by the building authorities.
We had appointments all over town, and then we got a call about the Siemens Kabelwerks. We saw it and decided that’s it, but it wasn’t so easy. The Siemens people in Berlin wanted to give it to us, but the Siemens board in Munich also had to approve it. We’d said we’re going to Berlin but when people asked where, we couldn’t say. We hadn’t signed anything. Things got really tight. It was Oct. 31, 2002, and the show was scheduled for the end of January 2003.
Then an Italian guy called up and said, “Müller, are you crazy? There’s Ispo, InterJeans and Igedo at the end of January, and you want to do Bread & Butter at the same time in Berlin?” I said, “You’re right,” and though we were so late getting set up, we moved the show up two weeks to mid-January. That was a turning point — we were alone, the first show. And the big brands as well as the independents all understood we have to stick together. And that’s how we landed in Berlin.
WWD: Doing things your own way seems to be in your character.
K.H.M.: I had to. I grew up in modest circumstances, I became a father early and had to earn my way. But it’s not so complicated. You have to have something you believe in, be hardworking and trust yourself. I’ve never been afraid of anything. I’ve always had good experiences with people and I always did what I wanted.
When I decided to do the first B&B, I didn’t have one exhibitor six weeks before it was to open. One of my partners got cold feet and pulled out, another said we have to put it off, but I said no, we’ll get it together. I was a big customer of Levi’s and I called my contact there and said you have to do something for me. And his best friend worked for Nike, so we had two brands. Then I called my old boss at Carhartt…and then I invited others.…You simply have to do things. If you don’t, something worse is sure to happen.
WWD: Spandau — that was a trip! To the farthest reaches of Berlin. From today’s standpoint, would you do it again?
K.H.M.: The first event went very well. We were happy with the hall, but the first big mistake was that while we knew catering was very important, we had so many applications in the end that the space reserved for catering was already sold. So we decided to build a raised gallery — in a space we were renting! What came in for stand rental was all spent on that gallery.
Half a year later, in the summer, the halls weren’t big enough, so several brands showed outside in our Luna Park. And then the traffic situation started to get brutal. Plus Siemens decided they didn’t want to rent anymore and said we had to buy it. We didn’t have too much money, but on Dec. 23, 2003, we bought the hall.
We thought OK, everything’s fine, we’ve managed it. And then the building authorities came and said you’re the owners, you’re having a show, you need sprinklers. That cost a million euros and nearly killed us. And at the same time, we saw we couldn’t grow in the existing space. By January 2004, we already had the Superior area in the neighboring Pirelli Hall, and in summer 2004, 60 percent of the space we used we had to rent.
WWD: And then, like Christopher Isherwood, it was “Goodbye to Berlin.” Or perhaps “A Tale of Two Cities” is more appropriate. Barcelona and Berlin.…What really happened? One too many gray Berlin winters? Or did Barcelona make you an offer you couldn’t refuse?
K.H.M.: Pirelli called to say they’re not renting anymore, we had to buy the hall. It was a huge area in question and they wanted more than 12 million euros from us. We knew what kind of safety measures would be required from us as owners. It would take 25 million euros, which was completely unthinkable.
We hoped to push them down, win time regarding the necessary construction work and also hoped Berlin would stand surety for us. In the end, Pirelli wouldn’t go down, and it was just not possible for us. I told the Pirelli guy we’re so international, we’re such a strong brand we can take place anywhere. I got up and left the meeting. Kristyan said you just screwed our company. Then we went to dinner together, and had the idea of a concept following the Olympic Games, which move from city to city. Kristyan and Wolfgang [Ahlers, the third partner] had been working in Barcelona for some time, they knew the city very well — so we arrived at Barcelona quite quickly. I set up a meeting there, and they were more than open.
WWD: And Bread & Butter’s exhibitors?
K.H.M.: At the end of 2004, we invited 300 to 400 people to Barcelona to show them the new location. The city gave us the Mies [van der Rohe] pavilion for the presentation. The weather was great, it was Dec. 13 and people were standing outside. That evening we had dinner with the 100 people who stayed over at a restaurant in a tower on the beach. It was dark, I took the microphone and said, “Look out the window. There’s the fair,” and suddenly a firework went off. Kristyan was standing next to me — he did it via cell phone. No one noticed. And then I pointed out the Ramblas, and more fireworks. Then the beach. Fireworks again. We sent up four rockets. People were screaming. It was a good landing in Barcelona. Everyone said yes.
But there were three groups of exhibitors. One said, great, keep moving. Next city, next market, because Spain was new for many. The second group said no, we want Berlin. We don’t want to leave. People like Adidas, Boss. And a really big portion said why not both? So we did. We did the first international event, the early-bird fair, in Barcelona, and the second, more nationally oriented event, in our hall in Berlin.
WWD: Was it a nightmare doing both cities?
K.H.M.: B&B Selected in January 2005 was the last Berlin-only show and it was a huge success. But we also had a total collapse. There were 42,000 visitors, and people had to wait so long to get in and the traffic infrastructure completely fell apart. It was so awful.
We never imagined we could ever have more people than that. And then next season, the first show in Barcelona in July drew 45,000 people — with no structural problems. And then I thought, who is going to go to Berlin? I started getting worried about what would happen in Berlin.
We did Berlin and Barcelona together three times. The first round had 26,000 visitors in Berlin versus 42,000 the season earlier, and didn’t get good press write-ups. But just the same, 26,000 was super. Other shows didn’t have more and they were great. And then with the last Berlin show in summer 2006, the first exhibitors started canceling and I made a big economic mistake. I definitely wanted to hold onto Berlin. I rebuilt the small KA128 hall for about 1 million euros and completely renovated the Superior hall. Premium was a strong competitor there. They were pro-Berlin, whereas we were in two cities, and there were local patriots.
The January 2007 show was going bombastically in Barcelona. Eighty percent of the space was sold, while we only had only 20 percent booked in Berlin. Then at the end of 2006, [Berlin mayor Klaus] Wowereit awarded me the city’s order of merit, and two weeks later I had to cancel the Berlin show. He was disgraced — through me — and it was horrible. Many people in Berlin attacked me, verbally. It was really heavy.
But then we decided to do Kraftwerk in Berlin [in January 2007]. We said we’ll do something different, something creative. It cost us a lot of money, and we still had the hall and a lease on the rest for another three seasons. It was really hard, but when things get hard I have extra energy.
So we concentrated on making Barcelona stronger.
WWD: Was Barcelona instrumental in setting the ground for today’s B&B?
K.H.M.: We started active guest management, got rid of the entry price, went on the offensive and raised the stand prices by 30 percent, but we were bringing the exhibitors their visitors. We had 30 native speakers in guest management, people got their tickets in advance with pre-information, and over the next year, we managed to attract almost 100,000 visitors — 80,000 of which were really business visitors. A fair of this size hadn’t yet existed in Europe.
We’d never had many Spanish, Portuguese or even French buyers in Berlin as visitors, and through this swerve to Barcelona, we finally managed the international breakthrough. The Germans and Scandinavians knew us but now southern Europe got to know us. Also, in the former set-up in the small hall and with the complications of Pirelli, we couldn’t have economically continued for much longer.
Through the strong attendance and the large spaces we had at our disposal in Barcelona, we could build up our volume, and despite the double shows, our company became economically healthy in this time. And that was because of Barcelona. Plus, we learned international business. It gave us an international outlook. It really moved us ahead.
WWD: What brought you back to Berlin? Are you here to stay?
K.H.M.: Our friend from the Berlin economic development office called to tell us Tempelhof Airport was being closed down. I told her we were very happy in Barcelona, but she said “There are hangars. Come look.” Another person we knew said “Come look. You never know.”
Two years before we signed the contract — we looked. We had a tour, and saw every hole in Tempelhof, the restaurant, the halls, it was all full of stuff and we couldn’t imagine something could happen there. And then Tempelhof really did shut down, and I thought, Wow! Tempelhof. Somehow in Barcelona I always thought something [bad] could happen. I had a funny feeling. But I didn’t know how to get to Wowereit. Relations weren’t so friendly since we’d left [Berlin].
But he was always open to fashion and said he’d support it. For the rest, we dealt with the BIM, the Berlin Property Management, which manages many public buildings, including Tempelhof. So we came to Tempelhof. And we’re extremely happy because we have limited space, which forces us to take only the very best people in our segment. The space is such that we can work well from a financial point of view but we’re forced to be selective. Which is our concept anyway.
Having changed locations four times, I’ve also wondered if it’s dangerous to stay in Tempelhof, but I think we have to be steady for our people. They have to be able to plan. At the same time, we work very, very hard to make sure things don’t stand still. I can’t afford to stand still. We have so much more to do.
Like the expansion in retail — which helps me, for one, better evaluate the brands. It’s important that we see live how the brands perform.
WWD: You couldn’t stay away from retail and opened the new 14 oz. in the Hackesche Markt area in summer 2008. How do 14 oz. and Bread & Butter go together?
K.H.M.: I always say 14 oz. is the mother or the father of Bread & Butter. Without 14 oz., I would never have made a show. Through becoming a buyer, I felt uncomfortable at InterJeans. As an exhibitor, it was OK. But there wasn’t anything cool. Sehm in Paris wasn’t much better, and MAGIC was very conservative. But without the store, I wouldn’t have had the need.
And that’s why I have the store again. Earlier, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t be in Berlin and have a store in Cologne. But I always said when I find a nice space in Mitte, I’ll do it. Honestly, it came two years too soon. We couldn’t really afford it, but now everything is fine and we’re working on expanding our red concept into blue, because I want the experience of working with relatively normal jeans brands. In streetwear, there’s a new movement toward a bit more dressed, cooler look and I need a younger concept for that, but I also want to round out the concept in the upper direction, which is why I’m also doing a store with Closed.
Retail is very important to me, and I think when you do it well, you get a lot of recognition from your retail partners. You’re one of them, you can talk to them, you understand their problems.
Honestly, with the fair — we do it well. But I need a certain amount of stress. You get into a certain routine. We don’t have that much fluctuation in our exhibitors — we change, sure, but if I’m not in stress, I’m not good. Which is why it’s better for me to have more to do than I can manage.
WWD: What are you most proud of when you consider these 10 years?
K.H.M.: Proud is a difficult word, but I’m happiest or most satisfied with the knowledge that in our segment of the fashion industry, I could always count on our community. Always. We’ve always been supported by our community, and that’s not only the exhibitors but the visitors, the p.r. agencies, many, many press people who work with us. And that makes me proud. I don’t have business partners but friends I can work with, and that’s the most beautiful thing.
WWD: From an industry standpoint, were there major changes you’ve experienced over the last decade?
K.H.M.: One thing that was perhaps unobtrusive but when you think back was quite big is that when I was in Cologne and we still had the German Mark, normal 501s from Levi’s cost 99 deutschmarks. Maybe not in the most wonderful washes, but they were OK. When I opened my [Cologne] store in August 1999, I think I was the first in Germany to have Levi’s Vintage, which started at 300 to 400 DM. That’s 150 to 200 euros [$220 to $293 at current exchange] and at that time, the customers, especially the younger ones, said I was crazy and an extortionist…In just 10 years, I now easily sell jeans for over 500 euros [$734]. Today I got a sample from 45 RPM that cost 1,279 euros [$1,877]!
When I was young, we wore jeans to show “I’m against.” In the last 10 years, jeans, and also sportswear and urbanwear, have really become a luxury segment of sorts. There’s no article besides sneakers that’s more democratic than jeans, and sneakers have had a similar development. But jeans are now overtaking designer pieces in terms of price. It’s very interesting.
But I’ve always insisted that Bread & Butter is not exclusive. We are inclusive. Because there are only two reasons that you’re exclusive: The first is that you’re so expensive that everyone can’t have access. The second reason is that you’re so bad that nobody wants you. Exclusivity makes one lonely and that’s why Bread & Butter never wanted to be exclusive. There are colleagues of mine that say, “oh well, they make a jeans and sneakers fair.” And I say sure, that’s what we do. I don’t want it any other way. Jeans and sneakers are what revolutionized everything in the young urban segment. For me, if you say I’m making a jeans and sneakers show, it’s a big compliment. But anyone who knows me knows that there are other things that now belong to jeans and sneakers, like a good jacket, a good shirt. It’s been an evolution over the last 10 years.
WWD: In your opinion, what makes B&B unique?
K.H.M.: It’s not B&B that’s unique. It’s the people. It’s the B&B community, the energy from the people. The power is unbelievable.
WWD: Where do you go from here?
K.H.M.: There’s a certain danger in the digital marketplace — but also an opportunity. Retailers have to learn how to use it and not fight it. I’m no fan of Zalando when I hear they’re having a sale of 70,000 shoes for 80 percent off. When something like that happens, you can be sure not a pair of shoes get sold elsewhere in the city. It’s not funny when these people have too much power. And customers are actively out there searching for the best price. But good retailers — and we’re in the process of building our Web site — provide a service online so that their customers can reach them wherever they are.
Retailers have to rethink. We have to talk to people and try to influence how things proceed. But it’s like ecology, which is extremely important but you have to approach it in a down-to-earth way.
I’m a brand man. I worked for Mars, and it taught me that the consumer has to trust something, and a brand stands for trust. A brand is so crucial, and its added values have to be clear. What is its goal, its vision? Without that, you have no chance, and the same goes for a fair or a store.
Actually, I have two brands, 14 oz. and Bread & Butter. There have been many temptations. It may sound pathetic, but Bread & Butter is like my baby, and nobody is allowed to touch it. We will never give a Bread & Butter license. We’ve had many offers, but when a decision is made, I’ll be the one to decide.
Bread & Butter can only be authentic in Berlin. We learned with Barcelona and Berlin not to become our own competitor. There will only be one Bread & Butter and that’s in Berlin, as long as I head the company. We still have 18 years on our Tempelhof contract. I’ll be 72 when it expires. But it’s great to have a brand that’s not diluted. I love pure brands. And I love Bread & Butter.