By Quynh Tran
with contributions from Cathrin Schaer
 on January 19, 2019
BERLIN, GERMANY - JANUARY 15: A general view at the Group Presentation during 'Der Berliner Salon' Autumn/Winter 2019 at St. Elisabethkirche and Villa Elisabeth on January 15, 2019 in Berlin, Germany. (Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images for Der Berliner Salon)

BERLIN A noticeably slenderized Berlin Fashion Week was again testament to German fashion’s struggle to find direction. Running from Jan. 15 to 18, myriad events by different organizers spread over the entire city must have seemed like an undecipherable labyrinth to anyone not familiar with the set-up.

To start with, there were six different trade fairs with a three-day run from Jan. 15 to 17. They included Panorama for commercial apparel and Selvedge Run, a “trade show for quality garments and crafted goods,” which was acquired by the former last September, located at Messe Berlin. Premium Group hosted upper mid-market fairs Premium and Show&Order at Station Berlin, as well as streetwear show Seek at Arena — their other show, Bright for skating apparel, was skipped this season — and the Fashiontech conference.

Green Showroom and Ethical Fashion Show by Messe Frankfurt at yet another location were merged into the new Neonyt fair and convention for sustainable clothing. A new consumer-facing community event, called Schuhs for special edition sneaker trading, was launched Jan. 19 after the end of Fashion Week by Hikmet Sugoer, who is considered a sneaker pioneer as the founder of specialty sneaker store Solebox, now part of Snipes, and has since moved on to design shoes himself.

The trade shows have been and remain a focal point to access the German market, although most orders are written at a later date in showrooms in other cities. But the fairs remain a communication platform and research tool — also to understand the market mentality.

“The [German] market has become attractive because it’s the most populous economy in Europe with one of the highest purchasing powers. It’s stable, but that also means it’s stagnating,” said Achim Berg, global leader of McKinsey’s apparel, fashion and luxury group.

But the environment is difficult, if not hostile for emerging brands in the upper price segment. “The German consumer is price-sensitive and responds to discounts and value rather than to fashionability. This creates big [sales] turnovers but the margins remain low,” he continued.

“The German customer most responds to easy, casual, yet feminine looks. When we entered the market, we took our whole collection and had a difficult time. Four years ago, we restructured and are only taking our denim and casual White Label. Within three years, we almost tripled our turnover on this market from 5 million euros to 15 million euros,” said an executive at LiuJo at Premium, which attracted international brands expanding in the German market and the bulk of important German buyers.

Yoshihisa Fukuchi, a sales manager at Japanese A-net Group — which was also present with its brand Plantation — said: “Germany is a very difficult market as it is very conservative, it’s less accessible and less responsive. It takes much more time until the consumer understands. We were very strong in the late Eighties, but then the zeitgeist became more commercial and louder for a long time. But sustainability is coming back and this helps our brand as we’ve always been focused on this. Being in Berlin is important if you want to access the German market, but the really internationally oriented German buyers are elsewhere.”

Seek celebrated its 10th iteration this season but the anniversary didn’t bring any radical change. Both exhibitors and retailers reported a busy first two days, with a more relaxed pace on the third. Larger German retailers attended and growing interest from Eastern European buyers was noteworthy, as was the lack of mid-sized and smaller German retailers. Seek exhibitors — including the likes of Element, Clarks Originals, Ben Sherman and Helly Hansen — said they picked up a handful of new accounts but that mostly they were meeting existing clients.

Many retailers noted they were satisfied with the business-as-usual vibe but some also worried that there wasn’t a great deal new to discover. The one exception appeared to be the specialized Trade Union area with smaller, more exclusive brands like Thomas, Dutton and Thorowgood, which generated new clients, according to their agent Rope Dye.

The new Neonyt format for green fashion presented a more curated selection that offered a number of innovative, yet fashionable sustainable brands and apparel-related companies, like Swedish Stockings, the first stockings entirely made of recycled materials, or Spinline, a company that developed a waterless dyeing process.

“Sustainable fashion has developed remarkably: It has reached a critical mass and outgrown the niche. A conversation about fashion that doesn’t include matters of sustainability has almost become unthinkable. And at the same time, sustainable clothing have reached a level of fashionable design that can compete with the fashion market,” said Detlef Braun, executive director of Messe Frankfurt.

Across the fairs, sustainable matters around water and waste had momentum, as did tech start-ups like veee.com, a digital marketplace for independent labels, and Sizolution and ZyseMe, both fitting applications. At the end of the week, Panorama revealed it will move to Tempelhof airport, the former grounds of the much missed Bread & Butter that was turned into a consumer-facing event that for now has been halted by e-commerce company Zalando. Panorama’s executive director Jörg Wichmann stated that he wanted to rally the other fairs to join together in one trade show site.

Besides the trade shows, a number of runway shows and events were hosted by different institutions, among them Fashion Council Germany and MBFW, the format launched by Mercedes-Benz after the car manufacturer parted from IMG and changed the concept for Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week.

When Berlin Fashion Week started 12 years ago, the expectations were high. After all, Germany is the most populated market in Europe with a high purchasing power and was — and still is — rising as a global political leader. But financial and political strength don’t guarantee a lead in fashion, and Berlin Fashion Week didn’t capitalize on the appeal of Germany as the different organizers have failed to get together to create an accessible proposal that would attract buyers and media from outside the country.

Many of the hopefuls who showed at the beginning, among them Michael Sontag and Vladimir Karaleev, are no longer on the runway calendar. Others like Achtland and Perret Schaad have since closed their businesses. Only a handful of the midmarket German brands plus Marc Cain and Escada’s Laurèl line, as well as a few designers with noteworthy collections like Dawid Tomaszewski, Odeeh and William Fan were present, but most of them have yet to face an international audience.

Berlin is generating its share of local heroes, even if they show elsewhere: Emerging labels that reflect the counter-culture edge like Dumitrascu, GmbH and Ottolinger have attracted international attention in the last years. Plus designers like Ximon Lee and Stefano Pilati are working from the city.

Within the domestic realm, Berliner Salon and Vogue Salon have carved a niche as showcases for German design that could develop into a promising platform, if handled correctly. This season’s edition saw usual suspects like PB 0110, Horror Vacui and Stiebich & Rieth, but also an extended selection of interior design that was an exception to an otherwise eventless week.

Three years after its launch, Fashion Council Germany is also becoming more visible: Besides the mentor program and the H&M Fellowship for young designers, the new FCG German Sustain Concept was launched with the support of the Federal Environment Ministry and Messe Frankfurt’s Neonyt to support sustainable brands for 24 months. The first round of winners included Lara Krude, Often by Ashley Marc Hovelle, Phylida and Working Title, four labels to watch that, as is the rule, gained more response outside the country than in their home market.

“We are a lobby group that has to communicate in all directions. We want to build a strong network across different industries. We’ve been working for it since our foundation and are now gaining more and more public attention,” said Christiane Arp, Vogue Germany’s chief editor and a founding member of FCG.

She also noted that German consumers have changed and are much less conservative than is the stereotype, an opinion backed by Philipp Bree of PB 0110, which has more than 100 retailers worldwide: “We don’t have many retailers in Germany, so our customers don’t really get to buy us, but we still perform well in our home market because of our online business,” he said.

German retail, it seems, is slower than the demand of their customer base. “Over the last few years customers have been more and more fashion driven. There is a young crowd of men and women who are obsessed with labels and very knowledgeable about the pieces they want to buy. Balenciaga, Off-White and now Celine are top of the list for these new young customers,” said Emmanuel de Bayser of The Corner, one of the first concept stores in the German capital, which has relaunched its second, sharper edited unit in the city’s west end in collaboration with French patissier Ladurée.

There also is an indication of the industry trying to take the lead, with the official launch shortly before Berlin Fashion Week of the German Fashion Designers Federation, with financial backing from Mercedes-Benz and German skin-care stalwart Dr. Hauschka. The group’s board includes Renate Künast, a member of German parliament for the Green Party.

These are small sparks in a wide field of untapped potential, but Berlin remains interesting as a location. Bettina Haussmann, head of brand entertainment at Mercedes-Benz, noted that criticism of the nature of the German fashion weeks should actually be seen as a kind of accolade. “Every fashion week has its own atmosphere, and the controversial and young profile suits Berlin. It’s a good premise for medium-term establishment. We think it’s positive that it’s smaller, more scattered and a bit finer and will continue engagement in our home market,” she said.

As German consumers are becoming more interested in fashion, the market needs Berlin as a fashion hub — but how? That’s a question the multitudes of organizers have failed to address to a sustainable degree. The recent scattered Berlin Fashion Week reflected the state of the industry in Germany. There is a lot of potential, especially for brands that serve the intersection of fashion and technology, sustainable brands and niche concepts. German politicians have only recently discovered creative industries as a high potential segment. Support peaked with Chancellor Angela Merkel visiting FCG last season, and politicians at a local, national and European level continue to support the fashion industry.

“But fashion doesn’t traditionally have a cultural standing here, hence the lacking infrastructure, and you can’t change that fast track,” concluded McKinsey’s Berg.