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How the Nazis destroyed Berlin's thriving fashion industry

Shlomit Lasky
July 10, 2023

It is often forgotten that way before Berlin Fashion Week, the city used to be a major hub for the industry, with ready-to-wear clothing pioneered by Jewish entrepreneurs.

Women in black dresses smile next to a rack of clothes, with one man in a suit at the front of the row
1932: Designer Erwin Scharlinki with models working for Leopold Seligmann's company, one of the largest clothing manufacturers in Berlin at the timeImage: Uwe Westphal

Even though Berlin Fashion Week  takes place twice every year, in January and now from July 10-13, the German city doesn't exactly hold the title of the capital of fashion

That's why even Berliners are surprised when they find out that their city used to be a thriving fashion hub before World War II. And it was mainly thanks to Jewish entrepreneurs who were pioneers of modern fashion in Berlin.

How the Jewish fashion industry all began

The clothing industry took off in Berlin in the 1830s. Industrial sewing machines introduced in the 1850s were a game changer: A shirt could be made in one hour instead of eight.

Amid this industrialization process, Germany's social and political context allowed Jewish entrepreneurs to set the tone. 

For centuries, Jewish people living in Germany had been suffering from legal restrictions that affected their ability to make a livelihood and pushed most of them into poverty. Many were peddlers trading in haberdashery and second-hand clothes, while wealthy Jews traded in fine fabrics, explains Uwe Westphal, a freelance journalist and author of "Fashion Metropolis Berlin 1836 - 1939. The Story of the Rise and Destruction of the Jewish Fashion Industry."

Westphal, who has dedicated almost 40 years to researching, lecturing and writing about the forgotten Jewish fashion industry in Berlin, points out that the Industrial Revolution in the mid-19th century was followed by the foundation of the German Empire in 1871, which enshrined new rights for Jews in its constitution, allowing the German Jewish population  to thrive.

In 1871, there were just over 800,000 inhabitants in Berlin. By the 1920s, the German capital became a metropolis with a population of over four million, 4% of which were Jewish.

Jews flocked from rural areas to the big city to look for opportunities. "Amongst them were tailors, seamstresses and entrepreneurs such as David Leib Levin, who came from Köningsberg. He opened a factory for women's coats, and in 1840 was one of the first to use fixed prices for his wares," says Westphal.

A 1920s fashion illustration which reads Hermann Löb & Levy, showing two women standing next to a coffee table with a large  lampshade.
Design by Lissy Edler (who later took the name Alice Newman) for the Loeb & Levy fashion company, 1920sImage: Uwewestphalarchives

Berlin becomes a ready-to-wear fashion hub

Fashion trends from Paris, especially haute couture, were too expensive for the middle classes and white-collar workers, who were nevertheless increasingly interested in looking fashionable. So the Jewish entrepreneurs "came up with the idea of producing cheap fashionable clothing according to standardized measures," explains Westphal. "The demand was there, and the industry grew rapidly."

Berlin's fashion industry reached its height in the roaring 20s, with more than 2,700 fashion companies predominantly owned by Jewish families. Names such as the Manheimer brothers, David Leib Levin, Nathan Israel and Hermann Gerson were synonymous with the new and growing trend of ready-to-wear fashion. 

Jewish entrepreneurs quickly adapted to the new needs of the industrial era: "They had a feeling for what people liked and they had international connections to fabric producers," Westphal says.

The garments were sold in glamorous department stores, which were mainly owned by Jewish families too.

Berlin's fashion industry also enjoyed international success and exported to the US, the Netherlands, England, Scandinavia and Argentina. Berlin offered cheap, stylish and high-quality day-to-day clothing. The ideas for designs were copied straight off from the Parisian couture shows. Business was booming.

The downfall of Jewish-made fashion

Antisemitism and envy of the Jews' success in the industry existed from early on. But with Hitler's rise to power in 1933, the Jewish-owned businesses suffered massive blows, starting with the boycott against Jewish stores established on April 1 that same year.

The companies of Jewish fashion manufacturers were then systematically taken over by members of the Nazi party: "Jews were soon forbidden to take out bank loans. For the clothing companies, this was a disaster. You couldn't have fashion shows without bank guarantees," explains Westphal, which is why Jews were forced into making Nazi party members partners in their companies to have access to funds, and finally transferring ownership at ridiculously low prices. 

Cover of 1938 German magazine 'Arbeit und Wehr' showing a woman smiling, her hands on her hips.
Cover of a magazine boasting the 'Aryanized' German clothing industry, from 1938Image: Uwe Westphal

In the November pogroms of 1938, groups of Nazi supporters stormed hundreds of companies on Hausvogteiplatz in the Berlin district of Mitte, which was the city's center of Jewish fashion. They destroyed everything they could get their hands on: "Of the 2,700 Jewish fashion companies, only 24 were left, and they too were confiscated by 1940 at the latest," says Westphal.

According to Westphal, the Nazis' main interest was the real estate around Hausvogteiplatz, because the party was looking for new offices.

Later, forced laborers worked in fashion workshops set near concentration camps.  

Seamstresses at the Auschwitz concentration camp working with sewing machines during WWII
Seamstresses at the Auschwitz concentration camp working with sewing machines during WWIIImage: Yad Vashem Archiv

Josef Neckermann and Hugo Boss are just two prominent names among several owners of companies who profited greatly from the Nazi forced hostile takeover of Jewish businesses. "They oversaw production of clothing and military uniforms," points out Westphal. 

Berlin fashion designers in the 1950s and 60s were content to have no Jewish competition. But by then, West Germany's fashion industry had moved from Berlin to Düsseldorf and Munich, due to the division of the city. The East German state had no real interest in fashion. By the 70s, Germany had became a minor player in fashion, Westphal explains.

Berlin shies away from its history

"Everything that fashion once was, especially in the 1920s — fashion schools, the overarching culture between fashion, architecture, the Bauhaus, music, the film industry and the visual arts in general — all of that was completely destroyed," says Westphal.

"What I find scary is that since 1945, nobody wants to remember this fashion culture. There's no commemoration of the many Jewish fashion designers. This stands in stark contrast to many German companies that were deeply involved in the Nazi state and have tried to make good since then," says the expert. 

In the early 90s, Westphal's frustration led to campaigning for a memorial at Hausvogteiplatz with the support of the Jewish community in Berlin. In 2000, the memorial was inaugurated with funding by the Berlin government.

A memorial made of outsized dressing mirrors
A memorial commemorates Berlin's forgotten fashion industry at Berlin's Hausvogteiplatz Image: Uwe Westphal

Berlin's traditional Jewish fashion industry is long gone, but as part of the upcoming Days of Jewish Culture festival, a fashion show of contemporary Jewish and Israeli designers will take place on September 7. According to Westphal, it is the first Jewish fashion show in the German capital since 1939.

Edited by: Elizabeth Grenier