The Germans may not have invented the concept of the department store, but they are certainly learning how to run them in the 21st century. Take the Kaufhaus des Westens (KaDeWe) in Berlin, the biggest department store on the European continent. Some customers shop at KaDeWe solely because of the legendary customer service. There is always a personal shopping consultant at hand who will guide you swiftly through a sales area of 60,000 square metres, and even the porter at the entrance is able to tell you the way to any of the 380,000 products on offer – in seven languages.
When the KaDeWe opened in 1907, Germans were already familiar with the concept of the department store, but going there was still considered something of a frivolity. Only in Munich was shopping deemed an aesthetically and emotionally pleasing pastime, which helps to explain why Germany’s first department store was founded there in 1861 by trimming-maker Ludwig Beck. For this, he earned the status of purveyor to the court of Ludwig II, the eccentric Bavarian king who was quite a man of pleasure himself.
In general, however, Germans considered shopping a necessity that allowed for no distraction as offered by an unnecessary quantity of goods. In fact, this is still apparent in the use of German language today. Germans ‘make a purchase’ when they go out to buy something’ when they go ‘shopping’, they refer to a stroll through a shopping area which doesn’t necessarily have to result in the purchase of a product.
How times have changed. Today every major German city has a department store famous for its interior design, luxurious product range and a carefully chosen brand portfolio. Hamburg’s Alsterhaus, Düsseldorf’s Carsch-Haus or Stuttgart’s Breuninger are only some examples of department stores which, even if part of a chain, exude an individual feel.
This wasn’t always the case. In the 50s, department stores proved an effective way of reviving the centres of those cities that had been damaged during the war, both commercially and socially. Architects created innovative structures that were copied in many cities. This, and the fashion for cladding entire buildings in uniform façade elements (the most famous one, the Horten tile created by Egon Eiermann, has become a collector’s item), meant that many stores looked the same. Department stores were seen as faceless and even windowless environments where the sales assistants often had to ask the customers about the weather outside.
Until the early 90s, if you went to a department store, it was either Hertie, Horten, Karstadt or Kaufhof, all looking more or less the same – and increasingly dated. They failed to modernise and cater to the more individual and more style-oriented demands of a new generation of customers, and so a lot of them closed. Today, there are only two big chains left: Karstadt and Galeria Kaufhof, formerly Hertie, and actually the company with the longest heritage as it goes back to the first German store chain founded by Leonhard Tietz in 1879.
Just when it looked as if it might be the end of the road for the department store in Germany, however, something happened that caused astonishment in the world of finance and, indeed, shopping. When Karstadt was threatened with insolvency in 2010, Nicolas Berggruen, son of the famous art collector Heinz Berggruen and a real estate magnate, stepped in, bought the company and committed himself to a major investment. When asked about his reasons for such a bold move, he claimed he wanted to sustain culture and tradition but also said that Karstadt’s stores needed to renew and refresh themselves.
And this is exactly what German department stores are doing, with pop-up stores, avant-garde fashion collections, exhibitions or late night-shopping events: in short, creating shopping environments that are aesthetically and emotionally pleasing. Galeria Kaufhof recently appointed German designer Wolfgang Joop as their new creative consultant. Joop, whose latest collection for his own label Wunderkind was praised by fashion critics all over the world, is involved both in the selection of goods and the interior design of the stores, down to the window displays. And whereas a successful fashion designer might not consider decorating shop windows a career upgrade, Joop, who is still considered one of Germany’s most creative visionaries, could actually become the founder of a new shopping era at German department stores.