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Fashion July, 17 2014

Is Berlin Fashion Week Facing Crisis?

With the dust now settled on another week of shows and parties, ask any one of the tens of thousands of people who poured into the German capital last week and they’ll probably tell you the same thing: Berlin Fashion Week isn’t quite like other fashion weeks around the world.

For a start, it’s much younger. In its current form it has been going for less than a decade, while some of its major European counterparts have been in existence for more than six times that. Secondly, bar a smattering of big German names, it’s almost universally overlooked by the major runway fashion houses; Chanel, Versace, Givenchy, Dolce & Gabbana – you won’t find any of them here. Even Hugo Boss ducked out of this summer’s event to a chorus of eyebrow raising.

No, Berlin Fashion Week – much like the city that hosts it – seems content to be a little different. Berlin itself has no less than eight schools of fashion, so what you’ll find here in place of the usual mega-budget production and headline-grabbing theatrics are two things: collections by smaller names, the majority of whom either work or were schooled in Germany, and trade shows. Lots and lots of trade shows. It’s on the strength of these two areas that Berlin has managed to claw its way to the top of Germany’s fashion table. But exactly how secure is that seat and what happens if one of the legs begins to crumble?

For many years following reunification, Berlin was locked in bitter competition with both Munich and Düsseldorf over who could claim the title of Germany’s fashion capital. With its faltering economy and lack of an established high-end market, Berlin was not the obvious choice. However, several tense years of rivalry were finally settled with a two-strike knockout blow. The first of these came in 2003, when fashion show Premium held its first ever event and Bread & Butter (B&B) – Europe’s largest casualwear and denim tradeshow – relocated from Cologne to Berlin. The next was in 2007, when the first ever Mercedes Benz Fashion Week was held in the city. The combination of two such high-profile victories sealed the deal for Berlin, allowing it to move forward and claim the crown uncontested.

And some crown it is. While Berlin Fashion Week may not be punching the same weight (or even in the same ring) as the likes of London, Paris or Milan, a study by the Berlin Investment Bank into the event’s economic impact in 2011 found that it brought some €119 million of revenue, with €16.6 million going directly to the city itself. With its abundance of major trade shows (Bread & Butter, Premium, SEEK, Panorama, Bright and Capsule are just six that take place twice a year), Berlin Fashion Week has a unique selling point that generates real international pull, even without the involvement of major runway names. This has obvious knock-on effects for the domestic fashion industry, helping it support and employ more and more people every year.

But – as the saying goes – that was then, and this is now. And just last week there came some big news that may well impact the status quo for the city’s flagship fashion bonanza: from 2015 onwards Bread & Butter, cornerstone of the tradeshow circuit, is moving to Barcelona for its winter installments. That might not sound like much on the face of it; after all, the event made exactly the same move in 2007, returning to Berlin in 2009. However, at that time it was widely considered that the return was a signifier of Berlin’s increasing importance as a major fashion hub; this latest act of indecision throws that notion into fresh doubt.

Of course, Berlin Fashion Week is far more than one event. While Bread & Butter is the go-to destination for many major stores and retailers across the continent, featuring everything from young brands like OILL and Polar to long-established names like Lacoste, Calvin Klein and Karl Lagerfeld, there are a number of other shows across the city catering to more specific markets. SEEK, for example, is the primary spot for streetwear – a major industry in a city like Berlin – while Premium caters to a more high-end market. However, the key difference between many of these smaller shows and B&B is that several of them visit other European cities throughout the year, making their appearance in Berlin less of an exclusive occasion. With an estimated 90,000 attendees, Bread & Butter was the mothership, and now it has (at least partially) decided to blast off – rather fitting, given that it was held in a former airport.

The move leaves a gaping hole in the tradeshow landscape – potentially a massive opportunity for Bread & Butter’s competitors to capitalize on. But far more than an opportunity, it’s a serious wake-up call for Berlin Fashion Week as a whole. Is the prospect of five days of shows filled with lesser-known designers and a series of traveling tradeshows really enough to keep pulling people from across the continent to visit the city? Only time will tell. But one thing’s for sure: Berlin shouldn’t take its newfound place as a perennial stop on the global fashion circuit for granted. It’s worked hard to get here, but it’s going to have to show just as much grit and tenacity if it wants to avoid it all come crashing down like the Wall that once divided it.

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