Fashionable Berlin

Berlin is a fashion city. Even if Zara makes you think of "Zoro" and Pull & Bear sounds more like a circus act than a clothing shop, if you live in Berlin then you know that fashion retailing and fashion design are an important part of Berlin's reputation, economy and culture. 

The marquee event is the Mercedes Benz Fashion Week, held every summer since 2007. This is in addition to the Bread & Butter fashion trade show and numerous other smaller showcases. Beyond the events, Berlin's retailing sector is booming and it is home to more fashion designers than any other city in Germany. In 2008, the last time I could find official government statistics, there were at least 800 fashion designers with their own labels living in the city.

Last year, I worked in a project team that tried to figure out why Berlin had become such a fashion hub. Why Berlin and not, for example, Hamburg, Munich, or Frankfurt? Those cities have a stronger economic base, plenty of cultural industries, and weren't split in half for the better part of 60 years. Why Berlin? Why now?

At the outset of our research, we had a few ideas as to why there might be so many designers here in Berlin. The city's reputation as a counter-cultural and hip environment would be naturally appealing to young designers. Its low rents and cost of living make it easier to set up a business - particularly in contrast to Munich and Hamburg. We guessed that direct state support through subsides, grants, and other mechanisms would be important in fostering creative fashion talent. And finally, we theorized that the fashion events are crucial to fostering the design scene here in Berlin.

By the end of the project, we found that all of these factors play a role in supporting Berlin's fashion industry, but not in equal measure and not always in ways that we expected. What follows is a brief explanation of each of our hypotheses, and the ways that our views were confirmed, refuted, or altered.

  Berlin is Creative, Berlin is Fun

In a previous blog post, I talked about creative industries (i.e. industries in which creativity plays a fundamental role). There are lots of creative industries in Berlin, and at the outset of our research we assumed that the presence of other creative industries would be enticing for fashion designers. We found that fashion designers are drawn to Berlin by the opportunity to live in a city that they believe to be vibrant, dynamic, and diverse. One designer decided to move from Spain to Berlin because “Berlin is...really attractive for people who don’t know what to do...[there is] so much creativity.” Another designer said he decided to start his label in Berlin because Berlin “is the most creative and vibrant city in Europe and I wanted to be as close as possible to this development.”

Of course, it's not just the other creative industries that make Berlin an attractive place to live. It's also the bars, restaurants, and clubs. Berlin boasts several fashion design schools, including University of the Arts and ESMOD Berlin. The city's many nightlife activities are a big selling point for the students. One university official told us that "bars and clubs are not the only thing, but they are important."

Berlin is Affordable

In just about every interview that we conducted, people told us that Berlin's affordability was key to its rise as a fashion hub. One designer noted that “we moved [our headquarters] from London to have more space – literally.” Berlin's affordability in relation to other major fashion cities like London, New York and Paris is a key competitive advantage for Berlin-based designers. Designers don't have to sell much to pay the rent. It's easier to be poor in a city where one of the most popular eateries is a Kebab stand selling meals for less than three euros. 

The Missing State

This being Europe, we initially assumed that the concentration of designers in Berlin would be at least partially related to high direct government subsidies. We found, though, that most fashion designers in Berlin do not receive any direct governmental support. The responsible governmental body is the Senate Department for Economics, Technology and Research. Support is funneled through the Senate mostly towards bigger, already-successful brands. In other words, the government hates to take risks on little-known and small-scale designers.

In our interviews, the lack of state support was both frustrating and more than a little confusing for those in the industry. Almost all of the city's marketing materials include references to the fashion design scene in the city. From the designers' point of view, the big talk isn't backed up by big money. Or rather, the big talk isn't backed up by little money  in the form of grants and loans to small designers.

From the designers' perspective, this is a concrete need that the city government is in a position to address. Whether this is because the city can't or won't extend financing options depends on whom you talk to. The Senate says that it provides support to the industry as a whole and that money is available for those who need it. Designers say that outreach is poor and financing options are unclear. You could say, in other words, that the relationship between designers and the city is a bit muddled. 

Fashion Fairs are Fabulous

One of the most surprising aspects of the fashion industry in Berlin is that designers here sell almost nothing to German consumers. Apparently, there's more solidarity between the former East and West Germanys than there is between German buyers and their homegrown designers. 

Designers in Berlin compensate for the missing domestic demand by focusing on foreign markets. Several designers told us that they sell as much as 70% of their products to Asia. The rest is sold to other Europeans and the occasional eager tourist from the United States.

How do Berlin designers network with Asian buyers? In large part, through the Mercedes Benz Berlin Fashion Week. Berlin's Fashion Week isn't as well known as other major fashion weeks, but it serves a critical function by putting Berlin designers in front of an international audience. Designers told us that without Berlin's Fashion Week, there would be no such thing as a Berlin fashion design industry. Clothes will always be sold in Berlin, of course, but without Fashion Week's direct exposure to foreign buyers, designers would be forced to relocate to other major fashion cities like London, Milan, New York or Paris.

Fashion and the Future

One question I kept hearing from people outside the fashion industry is what, exactly, fashion design brings to the city. Isn't the city wasting resources on a relatively small industry? Even more, aren't the workers in the design industry the kind of people who are gentrifying neighborhoods and driving middle and lower class families towards the edges of the city? That's a fair question, but it's also overly simplistic. Fashion design workers bring tangible benefits to the city, both in economic activity and creative energy.

One fantastic example is an organization called NEMONA, located in Berlin's Neukölln neighborhood. NEMONA addresses two different problems. They recognize that designers in Berlin need highly skilled textile workers to fabricate clothing. They also see a huge population of women in Berlin, many of Turkish descent, who have these skills but who do not have contact with the labor market. NEMONA brings these two groups together, connecting designers with highly skilled seamstresses. The designers get skilled labor at a good price; the seamstresses get work they would otherwise not have.

 I won't argue that fashion design is critical to Berlin's continuing economic growth. High-end fashion design is never going to employ the thousands of Berliners who've lost their jobs over the past decade. But I do think that having fashion designers in a city brings a certain creative and entrepreneurial energy that cities crave. This creative energy represents a resource that cities can harness, if officials have the capacity and desire, in order to bring social benefits for all city dwellers.