By Nancy Truman
I am a people watcher, and what better place than a fashion district to openly practise this sport? I arrived at Hackeschen Höfe in the heart of Berlin’s fashion district, 30 minutes before my appointed time to meet Nina, my GoArt Berlin guide. The half hour goes quickly as I acquaint myself with Berliners’ sense of style. It seems they are subtle in their couture, favouring clean straight lines, neutral colours and natural materials. Three hours of touring the fashion district were enough to teach me just how subtle these closet fashionistas can be.
Located in the Mitte district at the Hackescher Markt S Bahn station, just a short walk from Museum Island, Hackeschen Höfe was built in 1906-07 as a live-work space for craftsmen, officers and civil servants. The complex underwent a massive restoration in 1995-96 after falling into disrepair during the Soviet era. Today, Berliners and visitors stroll the eight courtyards shopping (or window-shopping depending on your wallet-size) Berlin’s better-known designers.
If you are looking for an affordable, unique souvenir, drop into The Ampelmann boutique, where the hat-wearing child-friendly traffic-light figures adorn everything from wine gums to home accessories and T-shirts. The “walk” and “stop” traffic symbols, conceived in 1961 in East Berlin by a traffic psychologist, have been translated around the world, but none resemble the Ampelmann.
The area known as Hackescher Markt, or market, was laid out in 1750, under the direction of the town major, Hans Christoph Friedrich Graf von Hacke, in a marsh north of the city walls, at the request of the Prussian King Frederick II. It wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that it became known for its prêt-à-porter, or ready-made fashion industry. And by the start of the 20th century, Hackescher Markt was a world-renowned fashion centre that rivalled Paris right into the Roaring Twenties.
In the scarred buildings that line the streets of Hackescher Markt, you will find the truly cool, avant-garde designers.
The Nazis changed all that with their intolerance of the brazen fashions of the 1930s, and the predominantly Jewish designers who made them. You need only look beneath your feet to see how many Jews inhabited the apartments here. At the entrance to the Hackeschen Höfe, in particular, I noticed the modern-day memorials known as “stumbling blocks” — bronze plaques bearing the names of the families who lived here and were deported to the camps and their death — scattered about the cobblestone streets.
After the war, the market underwent a short-lived revival in the 1950s, employing 40,000 Berliners, and seeing designers such as Heinz Oestergaard and Uli Richter stride on to international runways. That was cut short when the Berlin Wall went up in 1961, cutting the designers off from the seamstresses in East Berlin and scattering the industry to Munich and Dusseldorf.
While not yet a full-fledged design and fashion centre, Berlin’s fashion industry is seeing a rival, with about 1,000 talented graduates coming out of nine fashion universities each year. But don’t look for haute couture. In the scarred buildings that line the streets of Hackescher Markt, you will find the truly cool, avant-garde designers. So cool, for the most part, they are hidden out in the open.
You have to know where they are to see them, Nina said, as she guided me into the Apartment — so-named for its early days of selling out of apartments — via an empty, white-washed storefront at the corner of Memhardstrasse and Rosa-Luxemburg-Strasse and down a spiral staircase in the centre of the floor. The cellar bulges with a collection of men’s and women’s urban streetwear: jeans, T-shirts, casual shoes and accessories.
Around the corner is a vintage designer shop, Cash, which shares owners. Rosenhöfe by Andreas Murkudis houses a collection of designers, some more famous than others. Few tourists would recognize this dilapidated storefront at Münzstrasse and Alte-Schönhauser, with its racks on wheels bulging with clothing, as a place to shop for designer clothing. It’s existence is marked only by a small bronze plaque to the f
ar left of the door at the mouth of the alleyway.
Why so secretive? I asked Nina. The designers hope being hard to find will make Berlin’s fashion district stand out from Milan, Paris, New York and London, she replied. You don’t shop Berlin for a bargain, rather you go to get something you can’t get anywhere else.
That was true for most of the shops we visited, among them Mykita, an award-winning designer of aluminum eyeglass frames featuring screwless hinges; Claudia Skoda, who first sold her knit suits and dresses, which truly have the wow factor, from a shop in SoHo in New York City and chose to return to Berlin when the Wall came down; Firma on Mulakstrasse, which sells those clean simple lines Berliners wear so well; and many more, from hat designers, to menswear and Blush’s blush-inducing lingerie.
There’s plenty I didn’t mention, so go explore, go into the alleys and discover the courtyards’ treasures, be they boutiques, bullet-riddled walls left in remembrance of the Second World War and, my favourite, a Vietnamese teahouse and garden, Chén Chè Teehaus, just off Rosenthaler Strasse.
On the edge of Prenzlauer Berg, the former East Berlin borough, we stop for traditional kaffee und küchen (coffee and cake) at Café Fleury. My wild blueberry tarte has a flakey buttery crust any French pastry chef would be proud to claim.
Afterwards, we move on to discover the raw designs of the up-and-comers of Berlin’s fashion scene. Along the Kastanienallee, wedged between sought-after refurbished apartments and squatters’ pads, we browse shops filled with Berlin-designed coffee cups, cutlery and school bags made in bold coloured plastic and metal. Others display grunge jeans and T-shirts or simple knit tights and tunics in neutral tones.
After an afternoon of scouring the fashion districts of Berlin with Nina, I figured I was ready to shop without her, if only I had the energy.
This article appeared in National Post in December 2010
Note: Some shop may no longer be in the Hackescher Markt, but there will be others just as cool.