Can fashion be considered culture in a society like Germany? It was, back in the Twenties, said Christine Waidenschlager, fashion curator of Berlin’s recently reopened Museum of Decorative Arts.
“There is a cultural history of fashion [in Germany], and it used to be in Berlin,” she stated.
In the Roaring Twenties, the German capital was a center of the European apparel industry, housing the continent’s biggest department stores and myriad prêt-à-porter houses like Herrmann Gerson that became famous as exemplifying “Berliner Chic.” The rise of the Nazis, however, put an end to that chapter.
By 1949, the German fashion scene began to recover from World War II, the first fashion shows held in the ruins of bombed houses. The Fifties brought forth a whole new generation of Berlin couture with Uli Richter, Staebe-Seger and Heinz Oestergaard, who established salons in Berlin’s west sector. For an instant, Germany had a fashion moment again, with stars like Romy Schneider wearing German designs and well-known fashion photographers like F.C. Gundlach shooting editorials. But before the scene could rise to its former glory, the Berlin Wall cut it off in 1961.
“There are three major impediments to the development of fashion in Germany,” noted Alfons Kaiser, style editor of Germany’s Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. “The historical caesuras of the Third Reich and the German division, the [nation’s] Protestant mentality and Federalism.”
Indeed, in the aftermath of WWII and then the Berlin Wall, Germany’s apparel companies and infrastructure were scattered all over the country, with relaunched or newly established labels often taking names that sounded anything but German. While Berlin has emerged as the nation’s trade and runway show hub in the last decade, Germany’s capital nonetheless remains an Apple of Discord.
When Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week Berlin was forced to yield its tent location at the Brandenburg Gate to the Soccer World Cup’s fan mile last summer, Cornelia Yzer (CDU), the new State Senator for Economics, Technology and Research, poured salt on the wound by suggesting Berlin Fashion Week was “unworthy of a monument as important as the Brandenburg Gate.”
MBFWB is back at the gate this season, but it took some persuasion, and Yzer is unfortunately not alone among politicians — or the public — in her estimation of fashion’s worth in the annals of German culture, economics or society.
“Fashion design is extremely important as a daily message of our culture, and we need to know how to use it,” countered designer Wolfgang Joop. “We need to call attention with an edge. But fashion needs frivolity, and Germans are reasonable.”
Markus Ebner, publisher of the German fashion magazine Achtung Mode agreed. “Germans are pleasure deniers, and they don’t have confidence,” he said. “It’s really difficult to find well-dressed people on the streets of Berlin.”
On the other hand, he acknowledged a change: German actresses like Heike Makatsch and Hannah Herzsprung have taken to wearing local labels Kaviar Gauche and Perret Schaad on red carpets, and German blogs exhibit solidarity with young designers.
Moreover, Germany now enjoys strong popularity globally, and Berlin has become a hub for youth and creativity. As Frauke Gembalies, who launched her signature label in the German capital in 2012 after years as a consultant for Akris and creative director for Rena Lange, remarked, “Berlin has such a big sympathy factor, it can only win.”
Even public institutions have started to acknowledge fashion in a broader cultural aspect.
“Fashion is becoming important for us as a museum of contemporary art,” said Peter Gorschlüter, deputy director of Frankfurt’s Museum of Modern Art, which will present a show with Berlin designer Kostas Murkudis in the summer.
Additionally, the city’s Kunstgewerbemuseum revealed it will increase collaborations with local designers in its future programs.
Germany has always been slow, but usually steady, when it comes to renewal. And that might apply as well to the cultural perception of fashion.