Berlin may be famous for its tolerance, but when it comes to fashion, the rules are strict – and vary by neighborhood. Metropolitan chic in the German capital is a much more complicated style guide than you might think.
“I don’t know what to wear,” a friend of mine lamented when we were invited to a party in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district. I had the same problem. In fact, this is everyone’s dilemma in this city.
It may sound like a perfectly normal situation for any fashion addict before going out, but she was absolutely right. If you go to a bar in Kreuzberg, your outfit should not look like something you would wear in Charlottenburg.
On Planet Berlin, the fashion laws are strict and well-defined. Rule number one: Each district has its particular style. Rule number two: You have to stand out, whether your outfit is fancy or trashy. But be careful, because the perfect fancy/trashy combo can only be achieved by a real connoisseur.
I saw one of those connoisseurs at the Alexanderplatz metro station the other day. He was wearing a classic suit, black slim tie, sneakers, hat, holding a leather bag, had a goatee and a sizeable ring in his nose, and was nonchalantly reading an economic daily.
The epitome of paradox. He must work for one of the city’s thousands of design firms, I thought.
More than 12,000 Berliners work in fashion, design, architecture and visual arts, according to UNESCO. Obviously, the creative ones can’t afford to inspire others, while having an uninspiring look themselves, right?
The further east you go in Berlin, the crazier it gets. Although people say that the extravagance is slowly conquering the western side of town, too. The guy from Alexanderplatz is most likely a resident of the Mitte district in the city center – an East/West blend.
In Berlin, be fancy or trashy – but be something
The woman wearing ripped purple tights, boots that look like her grandma’s and three layered blouses in three different shades is not color-blind – she knows exactly what to wear to fit in.
And she probably lives in the central-eastern district of Prenzlauer Berg, because you would never see such a combination in Zehlendorf, for instance. And vice-versa: You won’t spot anyone in Kreuzberg showing off Christian Louboutin pumps. But in the central Mitte district, everything is possible and anything goes.
Past is always present
Berlin also has a conspicuous penchant for second-hand. Used shoes from the 1950s are more fashionable here than in practically any other city on earth. In fact, they’re so treasured, that they sometimes cost much more than new shoes.
No wonder that one of the well-known vintage stores in the German capital chose to call itself “Made in Berlin.” A closer look between the stuffed racks might lead you to 40-year-old Burberry coats worn by some bygone celebrity, a Lacoste T-shirt that reminds you of Tom Hanks in “Forest Gump,” or another well-hidden secret of fashion paradise.
A few weeks ago, I met up with a rock singer I know from university. “I’m having a concert tonight and I need a second-hand suit,” he told me. “Why second-hand?” I asked. “Well, because it wouldn’t be cool to wear brand new things,” he replied. Case in point.
A few years ago, I wouldn’t have understood this mentality. But now, after my long-time relationship with Berlin, I do. And I like it.
Those who know Berlin can’t deny that it oozes decadent romanticism. Sometimes you find it in a run-down building that serves as art gallery, sometimes in a Sunday brunch at a former factory. But it often hides where you expect it less – in a pair of shoes, in a vintage belt from Dior that hugged many waists, or in a Burberry coat, discovered at a flea market and shamelessly paired with H&M accessories.
Berlin is a paradox in any respect. And that’s exactly what I love about it.
Previously published on www.dw.com/english