Shortly before 1989, Thomas Mrozek was seriously thinking of leaving West Berlin.
The island of capitalism in the GDR had begun to sink in its own hype, becoming staid and boring to the costume designer, who had begun toying with the idea of starting his own fashion label.
Then the Iron Curtain collapsed and everything changed, not least in the city’s fashion scene.
“I think we were really lucky when the wall fell because the city became real,” said Mrozek, who today runs the women’s wear label Thatcher’s with his partner Ralf Hansellek.
The raw, creative energy that fused east and west Berlin together sparked what today has become one of Europe’s most exciting and innovative fashion scenes. This weekend, the capital plays host to the Premium and Bread & Butter fashion trade shows. The arrival of the two prestigious shows firmly places Berlin atop Germany’s fashion hierarchy, something city officials are eager to take advantage of.
Fashion is a business opportunity for Berlin,” Tanja Mühfans, who works in the Berlin Senate’s economics office, told the daily Tagesspiegel. “We know that we have to do something now, because the window of opportunity will eventually close.”
The city has become a magnet for young designers lured by the combination of cheap rents and a fashion-savvy populace.
”You can do pretty much whatever you want, you can dare yourself here,” said Andrea Hartwig, 24, who two years ago started the label Hartbo and L´wig with her partner Sarah Elbo. “Every week a new bar or restaurant or label is founded here and it’s contagious.”
The duo rented a storefront near Kastanienallee, one of East Berlin’s shopping miles, after graduating from ESMOD in 2002. The school is one of five that supplies the city with an annual crop of young designers. Within a few short years, Hartwig and Elbo have made a name for themselves, selling their women’s wear in Paris, Munich, Berlin, Zürich and Salzburg.
Transvestites that inspire
“Every city says ‘we are different, and innovative and original.’ But Berlin really is,” Elbo, 31, a native of Denmark who moved to the city in 1996, told DW-WORLD.
Designers say the mixture of blue-collar grit, capital city glamour and adventurousness infuses their work. Far from the refined chic and classic cuts of Paris or London, the city offers designers a laboratory in which to experiment.
When Mrozek and Hensellek first started designing clothes in their own apartments in the early 1990s, they drew their inspiration from the madness of the streets of Berlin, from transvestites or from books they had read. Nowadays, Mrozek told DW-WORLD, “it’s not so much the people in the streets, it’s the atmosphere of the city that’s in (our) work.”
Don’t believe (all) the hype
For all its creativity, the city is unlikely to join the ranks of Paris, Milan and London as world fashion capitals. Both Berlin and the rest of Germany is missing quality fashion publications run by people who follow developments in the country’s design scene and trumpet its achievements outside its borders. In addition, the economy is in the dumps, and many Berliners don’t have the spending capacity to sustain the many small labels.
”The people here don’t have €500 in their pockets that they can spend without thinking about it for two days,” said Hartwig. “And that’s tough.”
Berlin’s fashion future might be tied to the European Union’s recent expansion east. Countries like Poland and the Czech Republic, just hours away from Berlin, boast impressive economic growth rates and a post-Iron Curtain generation that is becoming increasingly affluent and fashion-conscious.
“When they become rich, the balance will change, and that is the big hope for Berlin,” said Mrozek.
For now, the city will have to bask in the glow of the hype lavished upon it from an appreciative fashion world, hoping it evolves into something lasting, and profitable.