BERLIN — Four packed days of shows and events later and it was clear that Berlin Fashion Week has finally found its feet.
In the past, the event has dabbled with a focus on sustainability and technology, it has teamed with various apparel trade fairs and changed dates several times in the hopes of fitting in with the international fashion week calendar. Local media have criticized it for only being about the “Promis” — German slang for prominent celebrities — that lounged about uselessly in the front row. Designers had bailed on it, choosing to show elsewhere or not all, because they thought it irrelevant and suffering from an identity crisis.
But now, it seems, Berlin Fashion Week has found its own groove. Its organizers have decided Berlin should do its own thing and concentrate on what the German capital does best: creativity, culture, clubbing and the fostering of independent, artistic spirit.
“It was something that I never liked before, that constant comparison, with people asking ‘why are we not like that [city] or this [fashion week]?’” explained Scott Lipinski, chief executive officer of Fashion Council Germany, which has been pushing for ongoing changes at Berlin Fashion Week.
“But when Mercedes Benz left the previous role they had with Berlin Fashion Week, we decided it was a chance to push the reset button,” he told WWD, “where we could rethink, stop trying to compare ourselves and really listen and look: What is Berlin? What’s the DNA of Berlin fashion?”
Mercedes Benz began gradually pulling out of Berlin’s fashion week from 2017 onwards and withdrew as a main sponsor in 2022. Then late last year, apparel trade fair Premium also ended its run in Berlin (a streetwear event, Seek, continues). The more commercial trade fair had always been seen as bringing buyers to the city at the same time as the runway shows although it’s hard to say if that plan ever truly worked.
Several indecisive seasons later and things are very different. “For a long time, Berlin Fashion Week was not focused on creative representation, it was focused on event management,” said Jale Richert and Michele Beil, designers of local label Richert Beil, who celebrated their brand’s 10th anniversary this year. “But the concept has now changed and we feel we’re seeing a kind of new beginning. You can already tell the crowds are getting bigger and there’s a new feeling of cohesion to the event.”
Where other similar events might count how many international buyers or important media were in the front row, that no longer seems to bother the designers who call Berlin home. The creatives that WWD spoke with were all unapologetic about the non-commercial nature of their fashion week.
“We used to show in New York before the pandemic. But Berlin is where we live, where we came from, it’s where our family is — all the models, the artists, the music,” an exuberant Nan Li, one of the cofounders of Namilia, told WWD after his label’s runway show for an audience of several thousand. “So we’re so proud to show in Berlin, to reflect the vibe of the city and also, because our fashion is also political, to talk about the things we deal with every day.”
Namilia offers a fierce conflagration of baroque Y2K-style outfits for attention-seekers to go clubbing in. That includes ball gowns in a camouflage print, leather gear with glittering slogans like “faggot” and “blowjob queen,” accompanied by giant cans of pepper spray in their own spiky leather holders. The label, which was founded in 2015, sells mostly in North America and has found favor with the likes of Rihanna, Megan Thee Stallion, Billie Eilish, Kylie Jenner and Cardi B. Late last year, Namilia collaborated with Jenner’s brand Khy, which brought it more attention.
Namilia’s was a buzzy extravaganza of a show, held over two floors in the foyer of one of the city’s central museums. More than 40 models walked to a specially composed techno soundtrack over the top of homophobic, transphobic and misogynist taunts. Guests’ outfits were just as radical and inspiring as what was on the runway and the atmosphere was raucously social. Gathering from the amount of videos attendees were shooting, it must also have been a social media marketing triumph.
“Actually we sell about 80 percent direct-to-consumer,” Li explained when asked about the commercial difference between showing in Berlin and New York. “Almost everything goes through Instagram,” he noted, adding that Namilia had brought in 2 million euros in revenue in 2023.
International buyers were not needed there last week. And other Berlin-based designers offered further, varied motivations for preferring the city’s less commercial flavor.
French designer Odely Teboul has shown at Berlin Fashion Week regularly. For her label, Lou de Betoly, she makes everything by hand from found or recycled fabrics and she told WWD she actually started on this week’s collection last April. Teboul, who previously worked for Jean Paul Gaultier, has seen her carefully crafted clothes worn by the likes of Dua Lipa and Beyoncé.
On the runway this week, Lou de Betoly’s easier-to-wear looks included mohair knits with rose and mauve petals or dripping with a tangled pearly trim. More complex outfits consisted of lace, crochet, glittering mesh, beading and weaving, all transformed by hand into a fitted, filigree statement gown. A minidress in different shades of tan made out of delicately layered stockings stood out.
Berlin’s less commercial vibe just suits her working methods, Teboul told WWD. “When I do wholesale, the buyers have to understand the way I work, that it can’t be reproduced and that with upcycling, every item is always a little different. I feel we are all a little bit overwhelmed with things [to buy] and that now is a good time to take a risk and do things a bit differently,” she explained.
Former Hood by Air designer Shayne Oliver, who quit the much-hyped brand he founded in 2006 two years ago, said he wanted to show in Berlin for another reason altogether. The artist and designer has spent more time in Berlin than New York lately, he said.
Oliver’s show for Anonymous Club, a creative collective he heads, was held on the deserted fourth floor of a disused department store, littered with old supermarket shopping trolleys, in the middle of one of Berlin’s hippest neighborhoods.
“I had sort of thought about going back to New York,” Oliver told WWD. “But I felt like I wanted to create something different here and to give back to the city and the community.”
Given the artistic vibe, the Anonymous Club looks — a highlight of the week — were predictably thought-provoking. A mashup of oversized hoodies, rubber leggings and industrial outerwear resulted in a collection that was humorous, mildly grotesque and wearable all at the same time. Giant sweatpants worn as strapless jumpsuits, rubber boots, glittering muffs and a twisted take on fisherman’s overalls all had commercial potential. Rubber leggings that reproduce the overworked thigh muscles of a bodybuilder will probably be a little more difficult to pull off on the street.
An exhibition Oliver had curated, “Mall of Anonymous,” was also there. It was installed at the Schinkel Pavillon, an exhibition space in the central city, last summer. During Berlin Fashion Week, Mall of Anonymous could be viewed on the ground floor of the empty department store. It included Hood by Air archival pieces as well as a selection of garments and accessories by designer Gerrit Jacob, who previously worked at Balenciaga and Gucci and whose distinctive graphic airbrushing on leather and mesh was recently commissioned by A$AP Rocky.
Still, looking past all the cheerleading for Berlin’s unique traits, there was another very significant reason as to why designers have chosen to show here. The Berlin city authorities support the event to the tune of 2 million euros every season. As Michael Biel, Berlin’s senator for economy, energy and industry, often points out in his speeches, there are 25,000 people working in the fashion industry in the city and the sector generates revenues of about 5 billion euros, which makes it worth supporting.
Every season, local brands apply to be chosen for sponsorship by a jury of experts convened by Fashion Council Germany. There’s no doubt the city council’s support also helps with fashion week venues — this week runway shows were held in some of the city’s most rarefied museums, concert venues and even the historic Olympic stadium and a former Cold War era restaurant, the Pressecafe.
Most of the designers WWD talked to said they were very grateful for the city council’s support. Some even conceded, off the record, that they wouldn’t have been able to put on a show here without it. This is why, for some of them, showing in Berlin, then selling elsewhere makes the most financial sense.
“We show in Berlin because we live here and all the energy that goes into our collection comes from the city,” Rosa Dahl, the designer behind SF1OG, a label specializing in genderless, sustainable fashion, with a penchant for cool, clever detailing. “But,” she continued, “I do think we need more internationals to come to Berlin. It’s very important for growing the business, to get that international attention.”
SF1OG, which presented its winter collection inside a school gym to well over a thousand guests, recently sold via a multibrand showroom in Paris, Dahl noted.
London Royal College of Art graduate Marie Lueder, whose eponymous menswear brand was on the runway in Berlin for the first time this week, has similar plans. She has previously shown at London Fashion Week and was stocked at Browns, so she’s well aware of the commercial difference between the two events. “But this was the right place to show, it had the right energy,” she told WWD. “For the sales, we’ll go to Paris.”
“You do have to make additional efforts elsewhere — in our case that’s Paris and New York — where you can use an already functioning infrastructure,” the Richert Beil designers agreed
But what if the Berlin Senate decides not to help fund Berlin Fashion Week any longer? How would the event continue then?
Fashion Council Germany is completely aware of all these concerns, the organization’s Lipinski told WWD. “Political situations could change in the future, the interest in the event could change,” he conceded. “But we don’t believe that should endanger Berlin Fashion Week.”
To that end, the strategy is to gradually bring on more sponsors again, Lipinski said, but without compromising the creativity of the brands showing or overshadowing the event’s energy. Fashion Council Germany also plans to gradually ramp up the numbers of international buyers they invite and host but have first focused on inviting media, Lipinski said.
“We wanted to be really careful and to have a kind of cleansing phase before inviting a lot more partners on,” he explained the timing. “I think you’ll start to see some additional partners coming onboard from next season — but that’s all I can really tell you for now. And,” he concluded enthusiastically, “I think if we stay true to that strategy and to the DNA of Berlin, then it’s all going to be perfect.”