FASHION WEEK Different Cities, Different Styles

As Berlin Fashion Week plays up the German capital's reputation for trend-setting, the business end of the industry is hard at work behind the scenes in the traditional fashion center of Düsseldorf.
Berlin Fashion Week takes place in the shadow of the famous Brandenburg Gate.

It's that time of the year again, and the glitterati are gathering under a big white tent near the Brandenburg Gate for Berlin Fashion Week. From morning until late at night, it’s a spectacle of style as models for dozens of designers parade before VIPs, TV cameras, fashion photographers and bloggers.

But Berlin’s rise as trendy fashion setter comes at the expense of Düsseldorf, Germany’s long-time fashion metropolis.

“Berlin is important as a trendsetter for Germany, the second-largest fashion market in Europe after Italy,” admitted Klaus Brinkmann, managing shareholder of the fashion retailer Bugatti Group and also spokesman for promoting Düsseldorf as a fashion location. “German buyers in particular get their first impressions of new fashions in Berlin.”

That doesn’t mean Düsseldorf is out of fashion altogether. Instead, a new balance has emerged between Berlin and the traditional fashion queen on the Rhine.

Berlin is a showcase for current trends from young German and international designers, in addition to the first parts of collections by mainstream German brands, such as Tom Tailor or S. Oliver.

Large international brands continue to be conspicuous by their absence in Berlin, whether on runways or in trade-fair halls. Elisabeth Schwaiger,, Head Designer at the Munich brand Laurèl

Düsseldorf meanwhile concentrates on 800 fashion firm showrooms, where buyers meet at the end of January and order new collections.

Elisabeth Schwaiger, head designer of the Munich brand Laurèl, described the dynamic. “With the fashion show in Berlin, we achieve an enormous media impact,” she said, referring to the publicity blitz Fashion Week generates.

But business is conducted elsewhere. “At company headquarters in Munich and in showrooms at Düsseldorf, customers first see entire collections and fill out their orders,” said Ms. Schwaiger.

The division — with Berlin for shows and trade fairs, and Düsseldorf as an order platform — is unusual in the international fashion world. Paris, Milan and London, for instance, are the single predominant centers for the fashion industry in their respective countries.

The current situation in Germany has historical roots. After World War II, Düsseldorf became the fashion capital of the Western part of the divided country. It was home to the largest fashion fair in the world, CPD, which in its heyday covered the entire trade fair grounds.

But high costs for trade fairs and the accelerating tempo in fashion led more brands to invest in their own showrooms. There they can display their entire collections, and not only during trade fairs. That was the death knell for CPD.

It also meant that the German fashion industry lacked a spectacle. Beginning in 2007, Berlin began to fill that gap with two annual fashion weeks, in January and July, sponsored by Mercedes-Benz. The shows also attract a dozen larger and smaller trade fairs, held around the same time as fashion week.

But large international brands continue to be conspicuous by their absence in Berlin, whether on runways or in trade-fair halls.

For instance, the Swedish-German fashion label Marc O’Polo reduced its trade-fair presence at Berlin Fashion Week. “The share of international visitors was not high enough,” explained Alexander Gedat, head of the Bavaria-based company.

Berlin is striving mightily to attract more international visitors. “In the current calendar year, the Senate Office for Industry, Technology and Research will once again support the fashion industry with around €1 million ($1.1 million),” said Cornelia Yzer, a member of the Berlin city government, known as the Senate.

Düsseldorf must make do with less. “The city spends a total of around €400,000 to support the fashion industry,” said Uwe Kerkmann, head of economic development for Düsseldorf.

It remains to be seen whether that is enough to assure the future of both fashion locations. Textile retailers also must save money at trade-fair appearances as sales slow. Last year was the second straight warm autumn, which was bad for business.

“Initial calculations show sales stagnating at last year’s level of around €61 billion,” noted Siegfried Jacobs, deputy director of the BTE federation of German textile retailers.

So that makes it all the more important to attract international customers to Berlin. And that might take a long time, said Mr. Brinkmann, the spokesman for Düsseldorf’s fashion efforts, who nevertheless supports the German capital too.

“The German fashion industry can only acquire international customers through Fashion Week in Berlin,” he said.


Georg Weishaupt covers the luxury and fashion industry for Handelsblatt. To contact the author: [email protected]