The bold and the beautiful descend on Berlin today for the opening of Fashion Week. Visitors to the city’s iconic Brandenburg Gate can’t fail to notice the huge white marquee and the scores of photographers and German celebrities.
There won’t be many big international buyers, however, and illustrious names like Armani, Gucci, Dior, Burberry and Dolce & Gabbana don’t show in Berlin. Such fashion houses prefer more established fashion weeks, like Paris, London or Milan.
The scene by the Brandenburg Gate is much more low key. Berlin is, after all, a young fashion metropolis. But it is showing signs of growing up.
“Berlin is becoming more significant as a fashion and creative center for young designers,” said Philip Beil, senior partner and retail expert at Roland Berger in Munich.
This year’s Fashion Week will see a number of initiatives to help newcomers get started. The online platform, Zalando, is showing young designers in the former department store, Jandorf, in the center of Berlin together with Not Just A Label (NJAL), a platform for talents from the United States. And the city’s new shopping mall, Bikini Berlin, is launching a trade fair for young designers.
“Closer cooperation with the retail sector is essential for the long-term success of fashion designed in Germany,” said Christiane Arp, editor-in-chief of the German edition of Vogue. Ms. Arp has set up the Berliner Mode Salon and secured Berlin’s legendary department store, KaDeWe, as a partner. KaDeWe, a luxury store, will be selling items created by 25 designers for six weeks.
One of the designers is Johanna Perret. “It’s wonderful for us,” said Ms. Perret, 33. She sees it as an opportunity to reach new customers with her Berlin label, Perret Schaad. “We would never have managed that on our own.”
New designers have a difficult time making their mark. “Not enough retailers are prepared to add new brands to their product range,” said Adrian Runhof. As a young man, it was a struggle for the joint owner of the Munich-based brand, Talbot Runhof, to establish his range of evening dresses in retail outlets. But now the 52-year-old designer has his own flagship store in the center of Munich.
Berlin’s Senate is also trying to help newcomers, investing around €1 million every year in fashion. “Every year we support two shows and two studio productions of young designers, in cooperation with the trade fair organizer IMG,” said Cornelia Yzer, senator for business, technology and research of the state of Berlin.
But it has become harder for newcomers. Only a handful of the 1,000 graduates of German fashion schools pouring into the market every year manage to survive with a brand. Many of them lack a clear brand image and a sound financial foundation. They also don’t have the industry contacts they need to succeed.
It is not an easy market. German textile trade revenues have suffered as business was slow in the fall and winter. On top, vertically integrated companies like Zara and H&M make life difficult for newcomers.
Video: Selected moments at Berlin’s fashion week in early 2015.
That has led many promising designers to leave the country, disillusioned. “German designers like Markus Lupfer, Marie-Christine Statz or Damir Doma had to emigrate to pursue their dreams and make a career abroad,“ said Mandie Bienek, chief executive of the Pressfactory agency. To hold onto other talented individuals, she set up the Fashion Council Germany (FCG) in Berlin in January together with others, like Vogue editor in chief Ms. Arp and Karen Heumann of the creative agency thjnk. Its aim is to provide young designers in Germany “with intelligent support, make them more competitive and provide them with contacts in the industry,” Ms. Bienek said.
Ms. Bienek and her colleagues are still developing the approach for FCG but she is modelling the council on similar associations in the United States and United Kingdom which have helped up-and-coming fashion designers to get established in the business.
The industry is ready. “The Fashion Council will finally give fashion designers a voice,” said successful German designer Dorothee Schumacher.
It remains to be seen how far this new council can draw the attention of big international fashion buyers to Germany’s ambitious designers. Mr. Runhof said, “We should really be taking the Berliner Mode Salon to Paris to make German fashion visible there.”
Georg Weishaupt is an economics and finance journalist at Handelsblatt. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org