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Business

Designs for Hard Times

The world's largest fashion trade fair is under way in Düsseldorf and designers from 39 countries are looking for ways to sell their wares in troubled times.

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Walking the catwalk in Düsseldorf.

Bankers, brokers and business executives across the spectrum are feeling the squeeze these days as reports of tight times flourish.

Whether it’s the collapse of international giants such as WorldCom or more local concerns about bank branches being shut down because of declining business – the economy is clearly a major issue.

So what’s a fashion designer to do?

For the past few days, top international designers and fashion industry execs have gathered in Düsseldorf for the world’s largest fashion trade show, the Collections Premieres Düsseldorf (CPD), to answer that exact question.

Mensware added to the runway

Put on by trade fair organizer Idego Co., this year’s extravaganza includes menswear for the first time in its history. And, according to organizers, a good dose of optimism designed to counter the economic doldrums.

“The fashion concepts for summer 2003 are perfectly juxtaposed to counter the "bad news" in our daily newspapers,” fair organizers said in a press release about the show, which closes on Tuesday. “Colors, fabrics and styles exude optimism and vitality.”

This flourish is an attempt to counter what Manfred Kronen, Idego chief since 1970, calls the weakest period he can remember.

In late July, for instance, Germany-based Hugo Boss AG released its second profit warning in two months, saying it expected a net profit of 70 million euro ($69.01 million) in 2002. In late May, the company had dropped its expected profit to 95 million euros.

The company said in May that it expected annual revenue to match the 1.1 billion euro figure of 2001. The number was revised downward from an earlier prediction of 3 to 5 percent growth this year.

Where are the shoppers?

German retailers are complaining that even strong price discounts aren’t enticing shoppers these days. And the federal statistics office reported a 5.4 percent drop in retail sales of clothing and shoes in the first half of 2002. Clothing sales account for more than 40 billion euro annually, according to the trade publication Textilwirtschaft (Textiles Industry).

For the 60,000 visitors expected at this year’s Düsseldorf fashion fair, those are sobering figures to have in mind as they wander through the 2,000 stands featuring wares from 39 countries.

“The zeitgeist entails a different way of "handling" fashion,” organizers said. “The point is no longer to imitate celebrities or to seek likeness with specified idols. The point is to find your own, very personal style of expression.”

Among the exhibitors seeking to sell their own personal style are a group of young Turkish designers who have already caused a stir in France and the U.S.: Özlem Süer with her avantgarde haute-couture creations, Ümit Ünal with recycled fashion ideas and Evrim Timur, the master of draping arts.

Long history in fashion

For outsiders, the idea of Germany hosting such an international fashion event may seem strange on first glance. But the country has a long history in fashion, stretching back to the 1800s when Berlin grew into a city known in part for clothing production and exports.

Prior to World War II, many of the country’s top fashion firms were run by Jews, who were forced to abandon their businesses in the course of the war. As a result, the city's importance for textile and clothing manufacturing dwindled.

In the post-war period, German designers such as Karl Lagerfeld, Jil Sander and Wolfgang Joop entered the international fashion market and began making a name for German designed clothing.

Young German designers, however, are still likely to head abroad to seek their fortunes. Consider Lutz Hueller, who studied at London’s St. Martin’s College of Art, worked as an assistant for Martin Margiela in Paris and then launched his own line in that city three years ago.

“Fashion is simply not part of German culture,” Hueller told the German newspaper Die Zeit. “Fashion is not taken seriously. If it is, then it is only as merchandise with which to earn money.”

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