Be Berlin: Street style markets the city to tourists but may hold some truths


Two blonde women took cover under the backside of the Brandenburger Tor as freezing rain blanketed the beige sidewalks of Berlin’s showplace street, Unter den Linden. One of the women held a large camera as the other twirled and looked piercingly into the lens. Their light pink, white and black outfits were perfectly coordinated and as they switched places to take more photos, a line gathered across the street outside a white temporary structure with the sign, “Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Berlin.” Young girls in long black parkas with fur-lined hoods looked anxiously toward the entrance ramp to see who was getting out of the black BMW’s pulling up to the steps.

Mercedes Benz Fashion Week began in Berlin on Jan. 19 and ran until Jan. 23. Berlin Fashion Week began in the summer of 2007 as a way for German designers to show their clothing lines. Since its inception, the amount of visitors to Fashion Week has nearly tripled. In 2007, only 50,000 people attended but in July 2012, 250,000 people flocked to the shows, according to Berlin Partner.

Despite the bling, many Berliners barely acknowledge the arrival of Fashion Week. Berliners are less than impressed by the showy fashions that walk down runways. They dress in their own “little worlds,” according to Constanze Bilogan, a history student studying the function of the leather jacket in “West Berlin protest cultures” at Free University of Berlin. Berlin is not a city of high fashion, nor is it a city with a unique street style, Bilogan said. Rather, “Berlin street style” is a concept used as a marketing tool for the city, according to Julia Burde, a fashion history professor at the Universität der Künste.

Berlin is a city of destruction and rebirth, having served as a major stage for much of 20th century history.

The Holocaust took an immense toll on populations across Europe and Germany – about six million Jews, 500,000 Sinti and Roma and 7,000 homosexuals were killed. During that time, much of Berlin was leveled due to Allied air strikes. Approximately 20,000 to 50,000 Berliners were killed and another 1.7 million fled the city.

After World War II, Germany and Berlin were divided into East and West. Relations between the Western Allies and the Soviets quickly disintegrated, and on Aug. 15, 1961, the Soviets constructed the Berlin Wall to prevent East Germans from fleeing the German Democratic Republic (GDR) – essentially a communist puppet country for the Soviets.

It wasn’t until Nov. 9, 1989 that The Wall came down. Germany was officially reunified in 1990.

Cities have a fashion sense that reflects its history, and in Berlin, that is expressed in the disparate non-fashion fashion seen on the city’s streets.

The city’s fashion is often rebellious, non-high fashion fashion that focuses less on exquisiteness and glamor and more on individual style created out of disparate parts.

The city’s fashion history is also characterized by rebirth as many designers have had to reckon with their troubling history. Hugo Boss, for instance, made a name designing uniforms for Nazi officers and the Hitler youth. The organization issued an apology for this in 2011. Adolf (“Adi”) Dassler and Rudolph Dasser, partners in the Dassler Brothers Sports Shoes Company, joined the Nazi party in 1933, according to Fortune. After a longtime feud, Adi and Rudloph split the company in 1948 into two of the world’s most famous sneaker companies – Adidas and Puma, respectively.

“Fashion business is to create identity or sorts of identity,” Burde said. “Identity is a product.”

“Berlin street style” is often depicted as dark and grungy – an aesthetic connected to things like Berlin’s graffiti covered apartment buildings and its infamous techno subculture.

Burde and Bilogan said “Berlin street style” is a stable concept non-natives believe in, but the city’s historic instability creates fashion that it constantly changing. There is no consistent “Berlin street style,” according to them. As Berlin and Germany have undergone massive changes in the past 100 years, the fashion is constantly changing.

Despite its turbulent history, the notion of the possibility of a stable Berlin identity and street style still sells.

In April 2014, Angelika Taschen and Alexa von Heyden released Berlin Street Style: A Guide to Urban Chic. The book documents Taschen’s sense of the essence of Berlin street style and is sold at both major retailers like Barnes & Noble, and small literary shops on the streets of Berlin. Taschen curates a list of her favorite places to shop in Berlin, covering everything from clothing to interior design to bars and restaurants.

“It is of the utmost importance to the Berlin woman that she appears nonchalant,” Taschen said in the book.

For Taschen, dressing nonchalant includes things like combining dissimilar garments, rolling up shirt sleeves and putting a leather jacket over everything.

“Berlin style has a deep, stoic relationship with the colour black – the anonymous, understated wardbrobe preference of downwardly aspirational anarchists and upwardly mobile architects alike,” Kevin Braddock writes in The Guardian.

Taschen agrees, and writes that the Berlin woman regularly wears all black outfits – “blue is considered colorful.”

Burde saw the period after the fall of the Berlin Wall as “a period of black,” during which clothing, furniture and homes were colored black. Today, many of Berlin’s techno clubs have black walls.

Bilogan, wearing a loose floral dress, a deep blue cardigan and black tights, described the image of “Berlin street style” that people have as being “grungy, underground, druggy.” The scruffier you look, the better, she said.

But Bilogan’s native Berliner friends “have a very mellow style, nothing that would strike you in any way; just normal clothes.”

Like Burde, some fashion students at the Universität der Künste, Berlin, like Mija Svartaker, a fashion student from Sweden, see the notion of “Berlin street style” as a way for people not from Berlin to feel they are assimilating into the city. People want to have an image of a city and be able to visit that image, according to Svartaker.

“The Berlin style is tourists,” Bilogan said.

Svartaker recognizes this phenomenon isn’t unique to Berlin. A national fashion identity acts as “camouflage, a security,” and as a way to maintain stereotypes about a place, she said. She noticed it at home in Sweden, too.

“[People say,] ‘Oh Swedish fashion, oh it’s so pure and clean and Nordic,’” she said.

Similarly, wearing striped shirts is seen as Parisian, according to Bilogan.

“[Outsiders] have an image of Berlin that you have to wear a knitted winter hat, a military jacket, jeans that are destroyed and find a shirt that is not a T-shirt,” Burde said.

Burde described travelers to Berlin as wearing “costumes” to prepare for having “an adventure” in the city.

Liselotte Brownstein, a fashion student from Sweden, recalls seeing her Swedish friends turn from dressing “normal” to becoming “dark.” She said people have an idea that “now I’m living here, so now I’m all dark.”

Still, there seems to be an aesthetic that is fundamentally “Berlin.”

Berliners tend to dress down – even executives don’t wear suits and ties, like they do in Paris, New York City and London.

Brownstein, Bilogan and Megan Ashton, a student from England, said Berliners tend to wear a lot of black and boots – elements depicted as very “Berlin” in the media. Second hand shops, like Humana, are also very popular. Giuseppina Lettiere, a researcher of Berlin pop music and subcultures at the Archiv der Judenkulturen in Berlin, and Brownstein both notice a prevalence of a sporty style of dress among Berliners – sneakers have become immensely popular, they said.

When Burde asked Brownstein if “black Nikes” were “Berlin,” Brownstein replied, “That’s perfect.”

Brownstein described Berlin aesthetics as being “Goth and sport dark somehow.”

While traveling from Switzerland to Berlin, Burde said she noticed travelers would wear “aggressive,” but blatantly high-priced clothing – something unusual to Berliners.

“Berlin tradition is poorness,” she said, so wealthy Berliners had to hide that they had money. Rather than wearing obvious labels, upper-class Berliners went to the opera in jeans.

Berlin has a reputation as being a hip, cheap city to live in, but “Berlin isn’t that cheap anymore,” Lettiere said. Foreigners are moving into the city, at the expense of the city’s poorest.

In 2011, approximately 40,000 people moved to Berlin. Housing costs have increased more than 32 percent since 2007 and foreigners make up 30 percent of the housing market, according to Spiegel Online.

The Joint Welfare Association poverty report found that in 2012, 15.2 percent of Berlin’s inhabitants are living in poverty. One in seven of the city’s 3.5 million inhabitants are living on less than 869 euros, roughly $992, a month. Renting a one-bedroom apartment in the city center averages 615.74 euros, around $702, per month.

Free clothing boxes are a common site on the streets of Berlin – people can take clothes if they need them and others can donate their clothes by setting a box outside their front door.

“I really like the style of [the homeless] because they just dress [in] whatever they find,” said Rosina Koch, a student from Germany at the Universität der Künste.

Koch feels the style of the homeless appears in the style of everyday Berliners.

“You try to make your look, look unfitting,” she said.

Ashton even joked that she finds her clothes “in the garbage.”

Nearly all agreed Berlin’s techno subculture – particularly Berghain, a former electric company turned into a techno club and a place the New York Times called the world’s best club – impact how people dress on a day to day basis. The “minimalistic style” of Berghain club attire can be seen on Berlin’s streets, according to Lettiere. Bilogan said some of her friends leave Berghain on Monday morning and head straight to work without changing their outfits.

Blogs advise want-to-be Berghain clubbers on the best outfits to wear to guarantee entry to the club, and their advice is not too far from the ideal “Berlin street style” and the aesthetics Berliners recognize in their fellow countrymen.

“Don’t dress too smartly or showily – this is not the Berlin way,” wrote Fergus O’Sullivan in Citylab.

Darklands – described as the “Berghain of shopping” by Daniel Jones in Electronic Beats – recently opened in Berlin, catering to DJ’s and wealthy young people. The store sells only the “blackest of the black” clothing and hosts cultural events. But Berliners, like Lettiere, see the store as the opposite of native Berliner style.

“People try to be unique in this way, by buying expensive clothes,” she said.

Whereas Darklands caters to wealthy shoppers looking to fit the Berliner and Berghain ideal, everyday Berliners dress in second hand clothing.

Berliners, according to Bilogan, largely ignore the high fashions of Berlin Fashion Week.

“[Fashion Week] is just agency people complimenting each other and eating snacks,” she said.

Bilogan said Germany is the “least fashionable country” and “people in Germany don’t even have an impact of fashion.”

“[Students] don’t have time for Fashion Week,” joked Viktoria Pichler, an Austrian student at the Universität der Künste.

From mixing clothing found on the street to stores selling all black to tiny shops found in the hofs (courtyards) of colorful apartment buildings covered in graffiti, Berliners have a style that is well-defined for tourists, but more eclectic for natives.

“I think because Berlin has changed and is changing so much in a dramatic way since more than one hundred years it was never possible to become too bourgeois or too conservative,” Taschen wrote in an email. “You had and also today have to adapt very fast to major changes. Therefore people are more free and independent minded in Berlin also in terms of style.”

Perhaps it’s with time visitors to Berlin can abandon the notion of “Berlin street style.” Svartaker said the first time she came to Berlin at 15 she brought 1920s era clothing because she thought that was “Berlin style.” After subsequent visits, however, she stopped trying to fit the Berlin identity.

“When you get used to a place, you find yourself more and more there,” Svartaker said, dressed in a loose black sweater, a small black hat, combat boots and grunge-style black jeans. A single, tight braid hung down under her hat, covering her nearly buzz cut blonde hair.