Sean St Lewis is a man with a mission: to select ideal outfits for customers who often don't even know themselves what they want. He is one of three personal shoppers at the glossy Galeries Lafayette department store in Berlin's Mitte district, where designer labels rub shoulders with more affordable fashion brands.
Unsurprisingly, style-loving women are most likely to seek out St Lewis's fashion expertise. But a recent trend has seen more time-pressed men turning to this free shopping service. 'People take their trust ans place it in your hands,' St Lewis says. 'A lot of men who contact us don't have a lot of time and they want someone to come in and look for them really quickly. But many women would come every two weeks if they had the budget.'
Although born in New York, St Lewis is steeped in Berlin's fashion scene. In addition to his personal shopping role at Galeries Lafayette he is a freelance fashion stylist for two German television channels and previously worked as a magazine stylist. Describing the German capital's attitude to fashion, he says: 'Berlin is cutting-edge. It is urban-inspired and very streetwear-inspired. Berlin is 'grunge chic' because it's never upscale.'
Inside the light and airy Galeries Lafayette store it is glamour rather than grunge that greets shoppers who step into the perfume, cosmetics and accessories department at street level. The international brands that are available on the fashion floors include Agnès B and Karen Millen. A Zadig & Voltaire store-within-a-store opened on the third floor last year during Berlin Fashion Week and a Gucci store will be added this year.
The Berlin department store is Galeries Lafayette's only European outlet outside of its native France where it has some 60 branches; in addition, there are stores in Dubai and Casablanca. When its doors opened in 2006 this store was part of an exciting project to regenerate Mitte, the centre of former East Berlin. Building work started in 1992 just three years after the Berlin Wall came down and the department store stands 750 metres from the site of Checkpoint Charlie, the notorious former border crossing between East Germany and West Berlin. It was a daring move.
Today, Friedrichstrasse is a prosperous shopping street packed with big-name stores and Galeries Lafayette's proximity to the Brandenburg Gate, Checkpoint Charlie and Gendarmenmarkt makes it convenient for visitors. Vincent Senecat, director of Galeries Lafayette Berlin, explains: 'For tourists we are an attraction - a destination. There are a lot of great shops in this street and it is a very important trading point for East Berlin. Customers come to us to enjoy themselves. We are not only a shop, we are a place for living and for lifestyle.'
Galeries Lafayette's striking design by renowned French architect Jean Nouvel also makes the store a draw for visitors in its own right. A cone-shaped space, 50 metres high, runs through the store's centre, creating a striking visual core to the building and a feeling of light. Each of thefive floors is arranged around this central space. Hungry shoppers flock to the ground floor food hall where a wide range of food including fresh baguettes, fish, crêpes, foie gras and cheeses can be bought to take away. Meanwhile foot-sore customers taking a break can find refreshment at the Moët & Chandon Champagne Bar - one of the biggest in Berlin. Food is also served in the store's well-stocked wine department and in cafés linked to the food hall.
The food hall has a distinctly French feel but on the menswear floor there are Berlin brands that provide a more local flavour. High-quality silk ties from 100-year old Berlin firm Edsor Kronen are made in a factory in the city's Kreuzberg district. Meanwhile the menswear brand Michalsky, also based in Berlin, focuses on casual wear with an upscale touch.
So what should fashion fans expect to be key trends this season? St Lewis predicts asymmetric one-strap tops and dresses will be popular for women as well as loose-fitting silhouettes, the colour cornmeal and evening shorts teamed with heels. Men should look out for double-breasted blazers and slim-looking suits. In Berlin, it is likely that followers of fashion week will take these designer trends and adapt them to fit in with the city's laid-back style. 'Berlin is still cutting edge and inexpensive compared to a lot of other European cities; it's a party town and a relatively young town,' St Lewis says. 'If fashion is upscale then people here play it down to look as if they're not taking it too seriously.'