In an industry where a
T-shirt can cost as little as five or as much as 500 euros, perception
plays a role that should not be underestimated. The image of Berlin Fashion
Week and the role of the German capital in the fashion world seem to have
especially suffered over the past years. But is Berlin really declining in
relevance as an international fashion destination?
After an apparent drop in visitor numbers in July, the five Berlin fairs
including Panorama and Premium are working hard to appeal to visitors
during Berlin Fashion Week from January 13 to 17. The streetwear fair Seek
will have panel talks for the first time as its owner Premium Group is
bringing the FashionTech conference closer to its other events. Panorama is
moving to a new location at the discarded Tempelhof airport for its January
edition with menswear show Selvedge run; the once mainstream-oriented fair
is also simultaneously rebranding. Neonyt, a separate fair dedicated to
green fashion, has also decided to move to a bigger location at Flughafen
Tempelhof because the number of exhibitors are growing.
Less visitors, less significance?
Whereas the five German fairs were once at separate locations, meaning
visitors would have to move from Panorama in the West to Premium in the
East of Berlin, the recent moves to the same location will significantly
reduce travel. The new location Flughafen Tempelhof is in fact an old one,
which still evokes a tone of nostalgia; the almost legendary fashion fair
Bread and Butter was held there at a time when physical fashion retail was
Since then much has changed. Last summer, the image of Berlin Fashion
Week seemed to have reached a new low – fewer notable designers and brands
showed their collections on the catwalks, one blog even declared the
“death” of Berlin Fashion Week. Even from a commercial aspect, the fairs
suffered, counting noticeably fewer visitors. The trade fair operators no
longer provide figures, but the city of Berlin estimates that around 70,000
people visit Berlin Fashion Week each season.
While the figures are not statistically comparable on a one-to-one
basis, if you look at other European trade fairs, the German capital may
not be in such bad shape. The men’s fashion fair Pitti Uomo in Florence
recently counted 30,000 visitors, and Who’s Next in Paris, which claims to
be the leading international trade fair for womenswear, counted 50,000.
The past rise of the Berlin fashion fairs
From a historical perspective, Berlin’s fashion reputation is painted in
a different light. The current chapter of the city’s fashion history began
in 2003 upon the arrival of fashion trade fairs Bread & Butter and Premium.
Around 270 brands exhibited in Berlin 17 years ago, and by July 2019 there
were almost 1800 exhibitors – that is if you add up all fashion fairs
including Panorama, Premium Group and Neonyt.
image: Premium | Move the bar in the middle to see how the
exhibition areas have changed.
“There is no other location in Europe where you can find such a diverse
range of fashion, contacts and matchmaking potential twice a year as in
Berlin. The industry wants a strong platform, dialogue and physical
encounters,” said Jörg Wichmann, managing director of Panorama, during an
interview in Berlin last July. His trade fair started in January 2013 with
359 brands, six years later around 600 brands were exhibiting.
However, the upheavals in the global fashion industry are also
affecting trade fairs as proven in Berlin last season. After Panorama
reported a record number of visitors during its January 2019 edition with
an increase of 20 percent, the two major Berlin trade fairs, Panorama and
Premium, became quieter in July. In the days of Bread & Butter, which went
bankrupt in 2015, there was also mention of more than 100,000 visitors in
Victims of their own success
“Today we are living in a state of complete structural change. When
Bread & Butter was launched in Berlin in 2003, there was no Facebook, no
Instagram, and no e-commerce,” said Wichmann. The rise of online shopping
and the expansion of vertical clothing companies have made life difficult
for established fashion companies and physical retailers. Struggling
companies are sending fewer employees to trade fairs or staying away
altogether. Trends can be followed online on channels such as Instagram,
and their cycles are accelerating due to social media. Which begs the
question: does it still make sense to go to trade fairs twice a year?
The rise of the once leading trade fair Bread & Butter – a fair which
was closely linked to the arrival and subsequent growth of the streetwear
trend – and constant efforts by the Premium Group have established Berlin’s
standing in the commercial fashion world over the years. Today, Berlin’s
trade fairs still have international relevance, even if this has been
declining in recent years. More than half of the visitors to the
sustainable fashion fair Neonyt in January 2019 came from abroad, and the
proportion was slightly higher at 60 percent for the Premium Group. At
Panorama, a quarter of the visitors came from non-German-speaking
Due to their growth over the years, Berlin’s fairs must now be careful
not to fall victim to their own success. Many fashion fairs start out small
– almost guerrilla-style – and become more popular as visitor and brand
numbers increase, Katharine Smith, commissioning editor at trend
forecasting company WGSN, said by email.
However, trade fairs often lose their appeal simply because attendees
begin looking for something new and fresh.”This homogenous feeling at the
fairs, coupled with reduced budgets across the industry, means that those
who travel are likely to choose one location and possibly try a new place
every season to combine research trips in this way,” Smith explained.
Berlin is searching for its identity as a fashion destination
Since 2007, Berlin has also been hosting a Fashion Week, which takes
place in the same week as its fashion fairs. Despite initial ambitions,
Berlin has not been able to establish itself internationally in the same
league as Paris or London when it comes to designer fashion. Major German
brands such as Hugo Boss or Escada have migrated to show collections in
cities like Milan and New York. Even young and successful Berlin-based
labels like Nobi Talai are showing in Paris where they’re more likely to
meet new faces. “We have acquired the first customer from China and also
from Russia there. When it comes to sales, Paris is important,” designer
Nobieh Talaei said after her Spring/Summer 2020 show in a Berlin church.
The German market is notoriously difficult – consumers shop
conservatively, are very price-conscious and are not keen to experiment.
Nevertheless, the German economy is Europe’s largest, and Berlin Fashion
Week remains a relevant event for brands expanding into the market. Many
brands choose Berlin trade fairs for their launch in Europe or Germany as
the country’s journalists, influencers and bloggers gather at shows and
parties in the German capital during the week. Brands such as Marc Cain or
Marc O’Polo may not show at the fairs, but they still use the week to
invite clients and press to their fashion show or for breakfast.
Despite many complaints that the runway lineup in Berlin has become
thinner, that doesn’t mean there aren’t any intriguing talents coming from
Germany. You only have to look at the Berlin Showroom, which brings German
fashion designers to Paris every season. But their common presence in the
German capital is missing after the end of the Berliner Salon that used to
display German fashion designers from 2015 onwards – the same year the
German Fashion Council was founded. The lobby group represents German
fashion design, promotes young talent and makes the case for federal
support for the sector. Until now, fashion as a cultural asset has been
promoted regionally in Germany but not federally. The city of Berlin is
currently investing 450,000 euros annually in its fashion
Berlin is on the radar of trend watchers like WGSN because of its street
style and the green trade fair Neonyt, said Smith. There are fashion-tech
start-ups like Zyseme, tailoring shirts with the help of algorithms, or
Lukso, which is working on a blockchain for the entire fashion industry. If
there was one place currently where the entire German fashion industry
meets, it would be at Berlin Fashion Week.
Berlin’s diversity is both its greatest strength and weakness. It
appears difficult to find a fashion identity for the dynamic city that
would be valid today. Only when looking to the future of Berlin does
everyone seem to agree: “Berlin stands very, very clearly for
sustainability and technology. There is no fashion week or trade fair
location that can match Berlin,” said Thimo Schwenzfeier, head of the
sustainable fashion fair Neonyt in Berlin.
The set-up of events such as shows and fairs is also changing, along
with the entire fashion industry. “We believe that classic fashion weeks
are a thing of the past,” said Anita Tillmann, managing director of the
Premium Group. It’s not so much about looking at collections as it is about
inspiration and networking. In order to bring fashion and tech together,
she is also organizing the FashionTech Conference. “Large companies look
for contacts and inspiration here in order to translate these into
lucrative business models. Does all this fit into the old image of a
fashion week? No. Berlin stands for permanent change and freedom,” she
Picture: Stefan Knauer Neonyt Show Spring/Summer 2020