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The best department stores in Munich


Munich’s department stores are combining solid tradition with modern innovation to achieve 21st-century appeal, writes Josh Sims

Josh Sims
Josh Sims,

It is not every window dresser that invites local graffiti artists to give the displays an edge and then within a few weeks changes them to evoke the exotic bazaars of an ancient Arabian city. And fewer still might follow that with a theme inspired by the cover of the Beatles’ Abbey Road album of the four at a zebra crossing. Such creativity might be expected only of the world’s most famous international stores – Selfridges, Bloomingdale’s or Galeries Lafayette perhaps. But these displays appeared at Ludwig Beck in Munich last year. It is, as it were, one in the eye for Berlin, much touted as Germany’s new shopping hub.

‘The fact is that, while Berlin is a very trendy place for sure, Munich draws more tourists who spend more money,’ counters Christian Greiner, Ludwig Beck’s CEO. ‘They love the traditional but also modern lifestyle here. In fact, the number of people who are actually moving to Munich rises every year.’

Strength in numbers

Traditional but modern perhaps sums up the combination that lies at the heart of Munich’s retail scene: other cities pride themselves on a rapid turnover of pop-ups and super-cool boutiques but Munich offers an unusually high number of venerable department stores. There is, for example, Galeria Kaufhof, the Cologne store founded in the 19th century which has been trading in Munich now for 40 years; Karstadt, which occupies an entire block between Karlsplatz and the train station and is considered one of the most comprehensive stores in the city; and Oberpollinger, opened in 1904, acquired by Rudolph Karstadt in 1927, burnt down in 1945 and, following an €80m investment, renovated a decade ago this year to provide a characterful, premium store over seven floors. In 2009 the German Retail Federation – based in Berlin, one might note – even nominated Oberpollinger as its store of the year.

Heritage appeal

Even Munich’s ostensibly mono-brand stores often come with department-store dimensions: Lodenfrey, for example, one of the most famous names in the city, has six floors. The company’s founder, Johann Georg Frey, set up shop in the city as a cloth weaver in 1842. His son, Johann Baptist Frey, developed a water-resistant loden cloth in 1872, which led to the development of the classic loden coat and ultimately a full clothing range. The store also now carries clothing from fellow German brands such as Bogner and Talbot Runhof, as well as international names that include Max Mara, Ralph Lauren, Brioni, Givenchy and Tom Ford.

‘Many German cities used to have many department stores which were operated by families,’ explains Greiner. ‘Unfortunately over recent decades many of them have not survived the ever-faster changes in the industry. But in Munich the traditional retail environment was strong and innovative enough to sustain and is today is more successful than ever.’

Greiner argues that, while many such family businesses pride themselves on service, it is the scope and variety of the goods that it is possible to offer within the department store format that has allowed it to continue to flourish in the face of internet shopping (even if last year saw the launch of Ludwig Beck’s online beauty shop). ‘Consumers still want to visit real shops, and experience lifestyle products in a lifestyle environment – shopping that is entertaining and innovative,’ he points out. ‘Department stores offer exactly that experience. It’s not necessarily the interesting product they buy – it’s the interesting experience.’

Modern mode

Not that Munich’s department stores are all cast in a conservative mould. Pool, for example, began as a clubwear-cum-record shop opened by a local DJ almost 20 years ago. In 2005 it reopened on Maximilianstrasse, one of Munich’s most prestigious shopping streets, in a site five times the store’s original size, and now sells a mix of fashion, cosmetics and homewares.

Pooling style

‘It is like a mini department store, although they call it a concept store these days,’ jokes Pool’s owner Pete Hannewald. ‘Many of the department stores in Munich were, to our eyes, rather traditional, so we wanted Pool to be have the same format but a more easy atmosphere.’ And Hannewald has something to say about rival Berlin too: ‘In Munich, unlike Berlin, the people who live here are really into fashion and lifestyle. They love shopping. It’s why our department store concept works here. It perhaps wouldn’t work in any other city in Germany.’

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