Berliner Chic – One Year Later

Media and messages: 

Berlin is the city for new and non-traditional media. It is becoming increasingly apparent that just as for city-guide publishers, it may be a futile project to put anything about Berlin in print. The city changes daily, renaming its streets and metro stops, replacing old buildings and establishments with new ones, and generally moving the sand from one “beach-bar event” to another.

Berliner Chic emerged as we simply followed the changing mediascapes of the city. Since its publication earlier this year, in February 2011, several stores we mention in Chapter 7 no longer exist (Berlinomat, CUBE, Black Roses Berlin), some have moved, others re-conceptualized. This illustrates that Berlin is not only still “condemned to always be changing, and never to just be,” (Karl Scheffler) but that it also has become a city of and for new media – books may no longer be the adequate medium to keep up with the changes.

What is Berliner Chic? 

We open our discussion of Berliner Chic with the argument that Berlin managed “in the age of globalised turbo-capitalism to turn its image as “poor but sexy” into a successful brand and to become, in the process, a fashion showplace that attracts the young, hip, and creatively industrious as well as increasing numbers of tourists” (Berliner Chic, p.16). As the man behind the notorious phrase, Klaus Wowereit, is campaigning for re-election in September 2011, Berlin is perhaps no longer poor. But will it still be sexy? Will it withstand the sweeping gentrification and its own increasing popularity in the world (to be magnified by the completion of the new international airport)? Or will it become just another global metropolis?

“As Nadine Barth remembers in her 2007 documentation of the city’s fashion scene: ‘here was where ‘real life’ was filmed, a new living arrangement tested, the beginnings of reality TV. With barbecue parties on the roof, visits to the club Tresor and creative discussions about behaviour, friendship and style. In the evening the crew would go to ‘Fruit and Vegetables,’ a bar in the Oranienburger Straße, across from it the Tacheles held its first wild art exhibitions.” However, just as the Fruit and Vegetables bar had once been a store that sold fruit and vegetables, by the end of 2007 the bar had again changed, this time mutating into an “awful tourist dive with tropicana cocktails and heat lamps by the door,’ while the creative scene of interest to Barth crept progressively northeast up Kastanienallee, before decamping for the newly hip Kreuzberg-Friedrichshain areas” (Berliner Chic, p.188).


What is Berlin fashion?

Berlin’s fashion, to this day, is ready to wear (pret-a-porter) rather than haute couture. As we pointed out, “in Berlin one rather finds the fashion of industrialization; that is, fashion understood as a modern culture industry that has been formative for both Berlin’s history and its image” (Berliner Chic, p.16).

Today, Berlin fashion is mostly eco-friendly, comfortable, yet innovative and stylish, avant-garde and daring. Often it has playful names, or features “Berlin” in its title or logo (for example, ic! Berlin, Lala Berlin, etc).


Where is Berliner Chic? 

Over the past few months I found myself giving the “Chapter 7 Tour” of Berliner Chic to several friends, journalists, and fashion professors. At some point, I started longing for a “Berliner Chic app,” which unfortunately I don’t have time to build myself.

Most of the boutiques regularly frequented by locals and tourists alike are spread in the areas between Alexanderplatz, Hackescher Markt, and Rosenthaler Platz, and stretching north along Kastanienallee. This is where today’s Berliner Chic is crafted and consumed. Of course Bergmannstrasse in Kreuzberg, and several streets in Friedrichshain also deserve their own fashion maps.

“Potsdamer Platz, Friedrichstraße and the Hackesche Höfe are three attempts to develop lifestyle-oriented centers of consumption that, in order to achieve sustainability, cater to well-heeled, lifestyle-seeking visitors as much, if not more, than locals. What success Berlin has had is due to its establishing itself as a “cheap, yet cool, destination for holidaymakers” (Berliner Chic, p.188).

Some boutiques are easier to find than others. “The store satirized by Ralph Martin in his first Berlin novel, is called Apartment and is located at Memhardstrasse 8. From the outside, the building looks like an empty gallery. Owner Christof Rücker seems to be avoiding walk-in customers on purpose, and it is precisely this image that has succeeded in garnering his store a reputation that can now, thanks to Martin, be considered emblematic of Berlin’s new fashion scene, and which will live on in Martin’s work as such” (Berliner Chic, p.202-03).

Why Berliner Chic?

The Children of the Fashion Zoo: As we all know, the fashion world can be quite the circus and the zoo – with its unnatural habitats and caged-in environments (like the shows, press rooms, VIP rooms, etc.), its giraffe-like creatures, with its postures and poses, with parodies of reality and unrealistic projections, with spectacle, fetishism, voyeurism, exhibitionism, and with a lot of people watching all around the world…

Perhaps this may seem as a harsh critique from someone who co-wrote a book on Berlin fashion and culture, but I want to take this opportunity to define and differentiate “Berliner Chic.”

What interests me in the (Berlin) fashion world are the histories, stories, and imaginaries, the way in which the various fashion (hi-)stories of (Berlin) fashion are told and shown, and how it relates to and affects people’s lives in a city (like Berlin). I find it important not to limit fashion to the elitist world of limited-access catwalks and showrooms, and ridiculous diva-esque designers dictating their tastes and celebrating their vanities, but to approach the whole concept of fashion differently, as an integral part of a city’s culture, of people’s identity, and as a cultural heritage that transcends market capriciousness. As Susan Ingram and I pointed in our book, Clio, the ancient muse of history, is our woman for this project.

      La Donna

Clio & Co.

“Clio, the Greek muse of history, is not only a Romantic. As Theodore Ziolkowski implicitly established in his work on German academic historiography, she is also a Berlinerin” (Berliner Chic, p.67)

In his welcoming address, printed in the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Berlin Magazine, Klaus Wowereit, the mayor of Berlin, announced: “Right where the Berlin Wall once stood, hip neighborhoods are buzzing with life. The city’s optimism and can-do attitude have inspired talented young people from all over the world. And they come to Berlin to make the most of their opportunities here… Fashion “made in Berlin” has become a trademark in its own right, and Berlin Fashion Week is its most important showcase” (Nr. 12, Spring / Summer 2012, p.5).

Connecting Berlin to its history in light of fashion is a clever way to capitalize on Berlin’s historical and cultural heritage. History and culture promote fashion (they become brands), and in turn, fashion promotes culture (by way of tourism). What becomes apparent from this cultural policy is a strategy to capitalize on culture industries, in a process of what we called “branding Berlin” in our last chapter.

“Part of the painful lessons of history that Berlin’s past represents is a deeply developed suspicion of power, both social and political, that has become part of the city’s global mystique” (Berliner Chic, p.213).

All Butter and no Jam

Looking for “Berliner Chic” at Berlin Fashion Week proved at times frustrating and exhausting. All the main-stream events were stressful and rather unpleasant (with a few exceptions, like the In Fashion Berlin trade show at Radialsystem, and the Modeschule Berlin-Weissensee fashion show at the House of World Cultures).

Berlin Bread and Butter confirmed what fashion professionals around the world still suspect – Berlin is for partying, Paris is for business. The theme for the BBB anniversary party concept was “Back to the Future” – an attempt to reference (consciously or unconsciously) Berlin’s anarchist, freedom-seeking, empty, un-reconstructed, punk past, while simultaneously looking into its increasingly commercialized present and future. The result had a rather unpleasantly chaotic effect, and could perhaps be described as a nostalgic acid trip, re-imagined by someone too young to have been there and to have witnessed it all first hand; i.e. second-hand nostalgia. The event felt like a mix of what one imagines to be typical German things: a street festival beer and sausage, a sandbar on the Spree, electronic music, and underground art one imagines to have originated in a former squat. Fashion, not to mention chic, fell by the sideways. Spectacle, kitsch, and commerce reigned above all else.

Who’s poor? Who’s sexy? 

“Whether the historical weight of the country’s self-image as ‘a socially caring, morally cohesive democracy enshrined in the post-war consensus’ (P. Anderson) can counterbalance its capital’s new “poor but sexy” image enough to sway Berlin’s financial fortunes remains a question. However, it seems doubtful that fashion of the luxe variety will eventually manage to put an end to Berliner Chic in all of its historically charged modern glory. Because of that history, it is difficult to imagine Berlin as anything other than a “uniquely politicized…historical minefield” (Ladd 3) that is not just the epitome of the modern city, but also a city of survival, an imagined environment conducive to unglamorous but appealing forms of living and moving on” (Berliner Chic, p.214).

Wowereit and his think-tanks and campaign managers are doing their utmost best; they invested into culture, they got the “creative classes” (Yuppies) and their “creative industries” (start-ups) and a whole lot of talent and creativity in-between – the capital and investors will follow (right after the international airport completion). But the question on everyone’s minds seems to be “at what cost”? The term used to express this anxiety in light of looming change is “gentrification” – how does one raise the wages, generate profits, and provide for the young and the old, without sacrificing freedoms and comforts? This is a question for future economists and sociologists. In the meantime, Berlin is caught somewhere between nostalgia and exhilarating progress. And it’s a fascinating journey. The future trajectory of Berliner Chic, its media and its messages remains to be seen. Stay tuned.

View from the Dome on former Palace of the Republic, Berlin, 2009, photo by K.Sark

This entry was posted in Berlin, Books, Cultural politics, Design, Eco friendly, Fashion. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Berliner Chic – One Year Later

  1. James says:

    GREAT words. The rest of us bloggers are only skimming the surface of Berlin, so it’s good to have someone getting deep into it. Keep it up… and linky swap?

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