BERLIN – This week, the German capital will once again host live runway shows, as Berlin Fashion Week begins on Monday. The event is taking place in March for the first time and will also include better-business workshops, artistic installations, panel talks, a summit focused on sustainability, several festivals and general-public-pleasing clothing sales.
“After two years of pandemic, the longing for real exchange is huge,” said Tanja Muehlhans, director of the Berlin government’s Projekt Zukunft (in English, Project Future) which supports creative and digital industries in the city. It is supporting this Berlin Fashion Week to the tune of 790,000 euros.
There will be something for everyone at Berlin Fashion Week, Muehlhans told WWD, even if the shows and events are overshadowed by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“We have developed a fantastic sense of community and are involving creative people from many different disciplines, from music and art, to sustainability and technology,” Muehlhans enthused.
Behind the scenes though, there’s been something of a contest going on between three different fashion events in Germany, all of which would doubtless like to claim the title of “the” fashion occasion that Germany should be paying attention to.
The rivalry began just under two years ago when, in June 2020, an important part of Berlin Fashion Week — the three trade fairs that did the bulk of the actual business and attracted international buyers to the city — announced it was moving to Frankfurt .
Two of the trade shows were run by Berlin-based company, Premium Group, and the third, the sustainable fashion fair Neonyt, was managed by Frankfurt Messe, one of the biggest trade fair organizers in the world.
It was all about reinvention and synergies, executives from Frankfurt Messe and Premium Group explained in 2020.
There’s no doubt the move shocked Berliners. After all, Premium had been putting on trade fairs in the capital since 2003.
After the initial surprise faded, reactions varied.
Some welcomed Premium Group’s departure, saying it would allow Berlin to do its own, more creative and non-commercial thing. The Berlin event would also be able to specify its own timetable and make itself more attractive to international buyers and media, who would usually have been in Paris for menswear or couture shows when Berlin was on, they said.
Others were worried about a potential lack of commercial interest. The city’s statistics suggest that the trade fairs helped Berlin Fashion Week bring about 70,000 visitors and 240 million euros worth of business to the capital annually.
Questions were also raised as to whether Frankfurt, a smaller, wealthier and more conservative city that’s better known as Germany’s financial capital, was really the right location for a fashion week.
Nobody ever got to find out. The COVID-19 pandemic meant that Frankfurt Fashion Week was never really able to prove itself. It took place in either hybrid or purely digital formats in 2020 and 2021. And the Premium Group trade fairs never happened there.
Then, in January of this year, another shock: Premium Group announced it was moving back to Berlin. The fairs won’t be part of this Berlin Fashion Week. Their next iteration will take place between July 7 and 9. Those dates in Berlin directly compete with July’s Frankfurt Fashion Week, already scheduled for July 4 through 8.
Rumors abound as to the reasons for Premium Group’s unfaithfulness to Frankfurt.
“We heard that a lot of the brands didn’t want to show in Frankfurt straight away,” a source at a major online retailer told WWD off the record. “They were interested but wanted to wait and see how it all worked out. So they [Premium] couldn’t get enough exhibitors,” the source suggested.
“It was all about the money,” a person working in fashion communications gripped.
Frankfurt Fashion Week was to receive 10 million euros over three years from city and state authorities. Previously, the former Berlin senator for economy, Ramona Pop, had said similar, claiming Frankfurt had lured Premium Group away with money.
Anita Tillmann, who heads Premium Group, dismisses all the gossip. It wasn’t about the money, she said. “If only I could make money by changing locations,” she told WWD, laughing. The new Berlin senate has simply been more business-friendly and open to Premium Group’s needs, Tillmann said, offering to rent her company one single location that suited all of the trade fairs’ needs.
Nor was it about a lack of exhibitors. “Of course, you have those discussions. It would be a lie to say we didn’t have those discussions. And some people are risk-averse,” she conceded. “But in the end, all of the major brands all confirmed [for Frankfurt].”
Tillmann said she was still on good terms with the organizers at Messe Frankfurt too, despite Premium Group’s unexpected departure. She explained the move as simply a matter of timing, the result of the evolution of international trade fairs and the COVID-19 pandemic, which basically shut in-person events down for two years.
“Everybody’s looking for a reason and I think that’s fair,” she continued. “But really, we had an idea [for Frankfurt] — and it’s one I actually still think is amazing — but it didn’t work out. It’s nobody’s fault. You can believe it or not, but if there was one reason, it was the coronavirus. It really changed everything.”
A statement from Olaf Schmidt, vice president for textiles and textile technologies at Messe Frankfurt, who is also in charge of the fashion week business, seems to confirm this. “From our point of view, there was never any doubt about prospects of our concept and the potential that the site in Frankfurt has,” he said in an emailed interview with WWD. “It was only the pandemic that kept stopping us.”
Although the local industry is awash with suggestions that this summer’s Frankfurt Fashion Week will be canceled after the Premium trade fairs’ departure, Schmidt insisted it will be happening. It is also to include the sustainable fashion trade fair, Neonyt, which had become increasingly important in Berlin over the last few seasons.
“We will announce details shortly,” he confirmed.
But of course, this leaves Germany with three major fashion events, something that could well cause uncertainty and potentially even damage local business.
It probably does cause a bit of confusion in the market, conceded Magdalena Schaffrin, a sustainability expert and organizer of the 202030 fashion summit, part of Berlin Fashion Week. “But I am sure it will be settled after the next one or two seasons.”
“Perhaps this confusion is needed in order to have a sharper and more concrete identity in the future,” added Carina Bischof, a Berlin-based designer and one of the organizers of this week’s Fashion Open Studios initiative, with a focus on sustainable design. “I think right now we are in a very important transformation process. Worldwide the face of fashion weeks is changing.”
“There is a certain irritation about the German situation,” the Berlin city council’s Muehlhans admitted. “But let’s not forget that the fashion industry is altogether in a state of change and rearrangement.”
Discussions on reincorporating the more arty Berlin Fashion Week events with Premium Group’s trade fairs are planned. All the Berlin Fashion Week organizers and WWD participants spoke with welcomed the return of the trade fairs and said they could imagine everyone working together again.
It’s just better for Berlin’s international image, Bischof explained. “Tea [Premium Group] decision to move back to the capital is a positive sign.”
The Premium Group’s announcement was made when this Berlin Fashion week was already planned, Muehlhans noted. “We trust the organizers, and we will do our best to unite the stakeholders and to avoid having separate fashion week and trade fair dates.”
Tillmann was more non-committal though, emphasizing her company’s independence and noting that attendees at her fairs often don’t have much to do with Berlin Fashion Week events. This summer the company will also launch a new direct-to-consumer event in Berlin called The Ground, she said.
“At the end of the day, it’s about the target audiences and whether there is a good business case to be made,” she argued. “For me, it’s not about either/or. Fashion weeks need to be defined in a different way — and so do trade fairs.”