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Berlin chic goes beyond the catwalk

Thanks to Fashion Week, young designers, and a city-wide campaign of cool, Germany's capital has remade itself as a fashion hotspot. A new book argues that the city's chic appeal is the latest chapter in a long history.

Berlin fashion from 1995

Berlin fashion has been through quite a lot

As fashion week approaches, books, special edition magazines, and guides are hosting launch parties and vying for eyes, while promising the latest tips, inside stories, and backstage photos. But the book "Berliner Chic" from Canadian cultural scholars Susan Ingram and Katrina Sark encourages readers to take the long view.

"One of the things that was important to me in this whole project was to say that this hip and 'poor but sexy' trendy Berlin - the eco-chic, the fashion week - they didn't come out of nowhere," explained Katrina Sark. "They came out of a really long important history, a really up-and-down history of the fashion industry."

Godfather of street-style bloggers

The turbulent history of the city is told through its people, and punctuated by their style. Ingram and Sark place traces of Berliner chic in some surprising places, including the work of illustrator and photographer Heinrich Zille (1858-1929) - in fact one of one of his images provided the name and cover for the book.

Zille is known for documenting the mostly working-class men and women who toiled in turn-of-the-century Berlin. His drawings and photographs shaped our image of what everyday life was like for Berliners in the early 20th century, but his documentation of street style could trace a direct lineage to the street style bloggers of today, says Sark.

Survival chic

Berlin fashion from 1954

After WWII, fashion made a quick comeback

The resourceful, resilient, and almost defiant approach to style that marks Berlin pops up early in Zille's street scenes, but is perhaps most marked decades later. What could be called a sort of survival chic emerged in Berlin's darkest hour, the post-World War II period.

"Basically the industry had been totally destroyed because of the war and because of a complete talent drain," Melissa Drier, Germany correspondent for American fashion trade paper Women's Wear Daily, told Deutsche Welle.

But Sark says she was amazed to learn how quickly fashion returned to Berlin. "If you think about the Nazis eliminating the industry in '33, 1945 was when fashion came back, basically right into the ruins of Berlin," she added.

Sark describes fashion layouts from the time, showing a model in an exquisite gown posed in front of the ruins that filled the city - a juxtaposition of beauty and luxury, with total destruction and the horrors of war.

"In the middle of nothingness you want to be fashionable," she said. "And I think that expresses something about the human spirit of ultimate survival. It's not just to survive, but survive in a fashionable or chic way."

Socialist chic

Book cover for 'Berliner Chic' by Susan Ingram and Katrina Sark

The authors are now on to other cities

This determination for design continued. While German life and culture, including fashion, was divided between East and West, there were further divisions inside communist GDR.

The official fashion was generated through the GDR fashion institute - state-sanctioned, of course, and supported by ambitious industrial ambitions. At the same time, there was a group of avant-garde designers doing it their own way.

As told in the documentary film "Ein Traum in Erdbeerfolie: Comrade Couture," (A Dream in Strawberry Wrapping: Comrade Couture), underground fashion shows featuring garments made from shower curtains and strawberry plastic wrap were daringly risky efforts to express individuality and creativity by using the only spare materials available - another example of Berlin's survivor style.

Sark points out that while the subject of socialist chic has attracted more attention lately, "it's not one of those stories that was part of the mainstream history." These days, much of the capital's fashion scene, both mainstream and alternative, has relocated to what used to be East Berlin.

But, according to Drier, resurrecting GDR style isn't necessarily desirable. "There was a moment in East Germany of incredible optimism and hope, and people looked pretty ok. And then at some point it dissolved into the worst ugly colors in poplin," she said.

Ever-changing Berlin

East Berlin fashion from 1988

East Berliners made the most out of scarce resources

Moving into the present day, Ingram and Sark also look at how Berlin has been re-branded in the last few years, and how the influx of money and a stab at the luxury market manifests into an internal struggle between a city trying to establish itself as a fashion and marketing center, and the authentic artists and designers who might not be able to come up with the actual capital to support their creative capital.

In the end, for Sark, the city's style is an evolving entity that goes beyond clothing or corporations.

"There is something that is called Berliner Chic. It carries this history. It's different from other cities but it doesn't make it any less fashionable, any less chic, any less interesting," she said. "And it manifests itself in all these different cultural ways, like film, like photography, like museums. So it's really part of life rather than being isolated from it and just something that belongs on a catwalk in a tent once or twice a year - which is what fashion is in a lot of other places, I think."

Next, Ingram and Sark will turn their critical eye on new cities - Montreal Chic and Vienna Chic are already on the drawing board.

The Berlin Fashion Week runs from July 5 - July 10.

Author: Susan Stone

Editor: Kate Bowen

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