This piece appears as part of “BERLIN, BERLIN” — a weekend-long virtual celebration of the city. Head here to see the full series.
Writer Adriano Sack unravels the surprisingly bright vision of the enigmatic yet world-famous Berlin boutique Darklands
Let’s start with a detour. At least it might seem like one. If you happen to drive through the Tiergartentunnel underneath Berlin central station heading North — lately there are few reasons to do so thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic and the closure of the defunct Tegel airport— you are shocked by one of the most embarrassing new neighborhoods in a city that is already chock full of architectural sins, big and very big. Right and left of Heidestraße there is a flock of medium-height apartment-buildings that were planned with a breathtaking lovelessness, houses that look like designed by a cheap 3-D-printer, with lowbrow bakeries and drug stores to satisfy the most basic needs. Is this a suburb of Hannover? No, it is the heart of notoriously overhyped, supposedly beautiful Berlin.
The almost comically tragic urban setting is even more striking because this very area used to be what people loved about the city in the first place — the “first place” being the post-reunification hype that took off in the late 90s. Half waste-land, half theme park. Not yet gentrified but definitely occupied. There were parties happening in half-abandoned buildings, but there was also a wholesale market for Mediterranean food in a rather cool, super raw-looking gym.
And there was Darklands, A fashion store with a global cult following, even unknown to many locals and therefore extra interesting. The name derives from a The Jesus and Mary Chains-song that goes: “I'm going to the darklands/To talk in rhyme/With my chaotic soul/As sure as life means nothing/And all things end in nothing/And heaven I think/Is too close to hell.”
The antagonism of heaven and hell is, you could say, a Berlin staple. The catchy contrast between innocent youth and 15-Deutschmark blowjobs in public toilets. And as crass as it sounds, there seems to be something glorious and aspirational in that dichotomy. Ask anybody in the fashion industry about Berlin references and before even uttering the name of the so-called best club in the world (more about Berghain later), they will mention Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo, the movie from 1981, based on a memoir of a girl from West Berlin who first got first addicted to David Bowie, then to heroin.
This contrast was also the basic design idea of “Darklands” in its fourth incarnation: a 660 square-meter cavernous industrial space, painted white, lit white, and filled with almost only black clothes (and a rusty steel wall reminiscent of a Richard Serra sculpture). Intimidating and appealing. There was an almost kinky atmosphere to the setting. Close the doors and the fetish party could start. Until you took a glimpse at the €800 price tag on the black cotton sweatpants, that is.
From the very beginning, it was clear that Darklands was not a place for people accidentally stuck in their “black phase,” but a serious fashion store for those with the means and the knowledge to acquire Rick Owens (godfather of luxury goth), Carol Christian Poel (one of fashion's hidden champions, who only designs when he sees fit) or Boris Bidjan Saberi (back then a shooting star on the sidelines of the fashion mainstream).
“That store was definitely a turning point”, says Campbell McDougall, a gentleman from Canada who, on the second day of talking with Highsnobiety, wears a three-piece suit in off-grey Piacenza cashmere by Geoffrey B. Small, an extra-small bandana of roughly the same color, meticulously rugged boots by Ematyte and a cleanly buzzed temples (no corona hairdo here!). We sit in the new Darklands, where he moved in summer 2019, and the change could not be more radical.
The store is now located in one of Berlin’s chicest courtyards, next to the concept store Andreas Murkudis, a handful of galleries including the legendary Esther Schipper, the boutique of fashion label Odeeh, and the hat-maker Fiona Bennett who you could call – with a dash of goodwill – the Philipp Treacy of Berlin. The location is an old apartment with a wooden floor, stucco ceilings, and some half-peeled-off but rather spectacular wall paintings, including a well-preserved portrait of Renaissance superstar Rafael Sanzio with black painter cap and drawing board, majestically placed on a royal red cloth.
The main brands in stock are John Alexander Skeleton, Archivio J.M. Ribot, and Deepti, who makes ridiculously pretty jackets. One room is dedicated to the work of Geoffrey B. Small, an American designer based in the Italian countryside South of Venice who is as reclusive he is as worshipped by his fans. It’s hard to pinpoint his style, but there is something radically artisanal in his work, like a reinterpretation of Geogie O’Keeffe’s famous kimono coat – a somewhat comic relief in the monochrome Darklands palette.
“Start with a blazer!”, Campbell would tell newcomers about Small, who is his most important designer these days. “They are almost underpriced, exquisite and very comfortable because there is no construction”. (Full disclosure: when we first met a couple of years ago, Campbell talked so passionately about the designer that I bought a black shirt with two different interchangeable collars. It was the most expensive shirt I ever bought and I have worn it only twice because I am too impatient for adjustable clothes. But it’s a very fine shirt).
Outside and inside the new Darklands is a whole different setting. A busy, culture-meets-retail neighborhood, an elegantly rundown bourgeois apartment (also with significantly less space than before). “I had my doubts about that. But the reactions of our customers were phenomenal”, says Campbell. And he has an ace up his sleeve. Across the courtyard and down a few stairs, you can enter through a nondescript steel door into the neon-lit basement of Darklands X, the new location’s younger, darker, and nightlifier brother store. Closer to the former incarnations and almost provocatively stripped-down: clothes on racks, broken concrete floor, a quirky metal chair by designer Deepti Barth (a former employee Carol Christian Poell).
Darklands X has a convincing storage space appeal. The product, however, is quite particular: a leather jacket covered with stitched-in sterling silver crosses by Maurizio Amadei’s label MA+ goes for €14,000. The store is managed by Konrad Meyer a former favorite model and co-worker of the designer, who also makes sure the soundtrack is in tune with the sinister minimal techno that is the international hallmark of Berlin nightlife.
“The hedonistic lifestyle was part of Berlin since the twenties. If not before,” says Campbell, who claims not to be a party person himself. He likes to go on bike tours instead. His store, however, was “connected to the DNA of Berlin. We sold that image to the world. Electronic music, industrial, abandoned buildings.” And part of that concept was a certain “nimbleness,” based on the assumption that nothing lasts forever.
Since he opened the store, Darklands has existed in six locations that have been fundamentally different, from a former brothel to a defunct garage to the romantically rugged location where it lives now. Except for Darklands 1.0 and Darklands 6.0, the store was always courageously distant from any sort of retail infrastructure. To get to the old metal factory of Darklands 5.0, a visitor had to make a pilgrimage to the second courtyard in an otherwise empty industrial site in the slightly rugged Wedding neighborhood to find a full-service temple of avant-garde fashion. “Traffic dropped drastically when we moved there. But we made many more Euros with fewer customers,” Campbell recalls. “They would stay for three hours and leave seven or eight grand.”
No doubt, we’re talking to a bonafide retailer. All his adult life, Campbell has worked in fashion. First at a high-end, but rather “stodgy” Canadian store called Henry Singer in his hometown Calgary, after three years starting his first store, which carried Paul Smith and COMME des GARÇONS, among others.
He also opened a restaurant called “Pong,” which served easy Asian food in a carefully designed space (according to Campbell a first in Vancouver). And he created one store that was so big and expensive that it turned out not to be in tune with his taste level. “Selling Raf Simons and Ann Demeulemeester in 1000-square-feet in downtown Vancouver is not sustainable. Since then, I prefer a more punk and DIY approach for my projects.” His next store was the predecessor of Darklands: named after the Joy Division song “Komakino,” it carried very select product and constantly changed locations.
“My pockets were not deep enough for London. Berlin seemed like an opportunity and an adventure,” Campbell remembers. Part of the Berlin story, or of any big city for that matter, is the enormous impact that “new people” have in driving progress. To sell interesting and expensive black clothes in Berlin was not a genius idea. The interesting part was to run a store like a club: Somewhat hard to find. Not overeager to please everybody. Offering something that you would not find anywhere else. It was what marketers nowadays call an “experience.”
Much like the city’s art galleries, Darklands cockily proposed its customers to participate in destination shopping. The difference, of course, is that a good gallery does not need walk-in clients — quite the opposite: a walk-in client is normally only good enough for buying a beach towel or whatever merch the gallery is offering. Then again, a store like Darklands is not for a walk-in clientele either. Campbell fondly remembers customers flying in from Moscow or Paris, coming directly from the airport to Darklands for shopping sprees that ran into five figures and then disappearing for the rest of the weekend in Berlin’s equally excessive nighttime rituals. Or go directly back to the airport to catch the next flight back.
The very refined style Darklands stands for today is far away from the black-leather style of old school Berlin, or the obscenely expensive clothes for 36-hour-parties that it become known for it in the old days. The new handwritten logo, developed by Campbell’s partner Estefania Campillo, is inspired by her collection of very old cookbooks, her favorite backdrop for the photos she produces for social media are decaying Gründerzeit-buildings. That’s about as non-clubby as it gets, but the underlying indie spirit fits perfectly into a city that still loathes anything too obviously successful Furthermore, the sculptural, chunky boots by Carol Christian Poel, with their not-too-practical dripped rubber soles, are collector’s items but would by a vast majority of self-declared fashion lovers still be considered: a) ridiculous, b) unwearable, and c) a menace to a tasteful society.
When talking to other shop owners from all over the world, Campbell is often astonished that their main concern is what the customers want. His main thought he claims is different. “What do I like? What do I believe in?” is what drives his curatorial decisions. Which of course has consequences: “You can afford this approach only if you stay small.”
The road from disruptor to classic can be slippery. You may or may not like the new direction this little universe is steering, but there is little doubt that it is a business run with passion and conviction. And with just a hint of irony (or maybe completely without) Campbell assures us the nature of his masterpiece: “It is still very dark. It’s still a vampire’s castle.”