It is a city of contradictions. Historically Berlin is the place where East meets West; it’s the capital, but is poor in an otherwise wealthy economy. Having survived dramatic ups and downs the city, it appears, is equipped for anything. Berlin’s unique character particularly appeals to up-and-coming fashion designers: they bring their potential to the city, and in return the city gives them the freedom to be creative.
Vladimir Karaleev was born in Bulgaria and has lived in Berlin for a decade. Now 30 years old, he has wooed the fashion world with his draping artistry, weaving masterfully around the female silhouette and using contrasting fabrics. The designer, whose creations have been sold in branches of Topshop, a major UK retailer, enjoys taking each form apart and ingeniously piecing it back together. He calls it re-formation, which is also the name of his spring/summer 2012 collection. And it’s all done by hand.
Why did he choose Berlin? ‘I always thought Paris was boring,’ he says. ‘There is no young design scene there, either you work for a big fashion house or you can forget it. It’s the same for Milan, the established names rule. But when you’re young, you need creative freedom. I can get this in Berlin, I can be creative and spontaneous. I know how much I need to produce commercially to get by, and the rest can be an experiment.’
He is also attracted by Berliners’ attitude to fashion. ‘What I like about the Berlin woman is that she doesn’t make an effort. She’s spontaneously attractive. In Paris, women are obsessed with certain trends and labels: they are like a tribe, with everybody looking the same. In Berlin people don’t have that kind of money, so they are more selective, and I find that very inspiring.’
Although Berlin is not the wealthiest region in Germany, the local government is keen to advance its creative potential by organising events and awards. One new initiative is a design competition, Start Your Fashion Business. The winners in 2010 were Johanna Perret and Tutia Schaad, with their collection for women. They make up a truly multi-cultural duo: Perret is half French, half German while Schaad was born in Vietnam and raised in Switzerland.
‘There’s a good fashion infrastructure here, but what’s really great about Berlin is that the women here are versatile, like the city, and that goes well with our understanding of fashion. We don’t consciously think about creating a look that’s Asian or French, it comes naturally and blends in well with the environment. We do not want to create a certain look, but for women to build their own worlds with our help,’ explains Perret.
The items in the Perret Schaad line use powerful colours and elegantly laid-back cuts. ‘Berlin is a little grey and this modesty of colour serves as a great companion to our style. We love to work with contrasts,’ says Schaad.
Dawid Tomaszewski, whose latest collection features flower prints and sparkling crystals, is also passionate about Berlin. ‘I feel good in many cities, but Berlin is my place to be. Every time you take a walk, you discover something new, even years later.’ Tomaszewski is Polish and was educated in London, saying his style is not specific to one culture, ‘just European’.
Berlin undoubtedly shapes the work of the people who live here, but they are also re-inventing the city. Berlin fashion is best described as unpretentious and cool with an emphasis on wearability. A perfect example of this can be seen in the designs from Derya Issever and Cimen Bachri. Although both women were born and bred in Berlin, they use their immigrant backgrounds for inspiration. Issever’s parents come from Turkey while Bachri’s family is from Greece. Last year, while looking through old pictures of their fathers and grandfathers who had come to Germany as guest workers, the women discovered that although their relatives had been poor, they were strikingly well-dressed. The pair decided to take this understated elegance to the streets of Berlin with an Issever Bahri collection ruled by masculine cuts set against soft fabrics.
This season, the duo reflects upon old workmanship. ‘We crochet a lot,’ says Issever. ‘People might find this very old-school, but we think it’s intriguing to take an old technique, which is very important in many cultures like ours, and give it a modern spin.’ Expect artful pieces which have been crocheted using strips of leather, and lace flowers stitched to sharply contemporary cuts and fabrics, including neoprene and silk.
As for the pair’s take on the city: ‘New York is business, Paris is chic, Berlin is contrast,’ says Issever.