Fashion Businesses in Berlin – Resources and Challenges (Part 2)

Origami hat by Vasso Consola. Photo: Vana Cotsia

Origami hat by Vasso Consola. Photo: Vana Cotsia

By Ares Kalandides

This is the second part of the final report of the small research conducted by INPOLIS in association with the UK AHRC CREATe Project. Central question was the role of intellectual property in the work of fashion designers in Berlin. Based on the assumption that intellectual property cannot be envisaged separately, but that it is tightly knit together with the way they see their work as a whole, we tried to understand the multiple challenges that designers face in their day-to-day life.  We have grouped the responses in two categories: a) access to resources, that includes the major challenges that small fashion designers in Berlin face on a day-to-day basis, b) Berlin and public policy, which is the interviewees’ assessment of the broader urban context including some policy recommendations. Part 1, that went online last Monday looked at access to funding.  Today’s blog is about access to space as well as to skills & knowledge.

b) Access to space

Berlin, for all interviewees, had always been identified with available space. For some the availability and affordability of space was the main reason they originally moved to Berlin (the second being the creative atmosphere). This includes affordable residential or commercial space, but also occasionally refers to non-built or green space – and more generally the lack of urban density. Many of them complained about the increasing costs for space and the new crowds (newcomers) that invade “their” space.

Most designers try to separate working from living space, but still keep them close together: e.g. most have extra space in their flat, which they dedicate to work. It is hard to distinguish, whether this is for reasons of cost or a decision to balance their work and private life. Others consciously prefer a clean-cut separation even if they cannot afford extra space: one designer mentioned that she shares working space with others. Only two of the interviewees have their own shop and both combine shop and work space. This is mainly due to the small size of their collections and the unaffordability of ground-floor space.

The sharp rise in rental prices, as it can be observed in the past 4-5 years, but more generally the rise in the cost of living, is experienced as a serious threat to all businesses. Both areas, Schöneweide and Neukölln, were chosen by the interviewees mostly because of the low rents (Neukölln with the additional advantage of possessing a creative milieu). In general, decisions on where to live and work are shifting more towards “where can I afford it?” rather than “where would I rather live to be among other creatives?”As the profit margin of all interviewees (even the most established ones) is very small, a rise in rent takes away all that’s left. One of the designers has even decided to move into the countryside and work from there.

Yet, the choice for Berlin for all interviewees was not just dependent on prices: Berlin offers a “dense infrastructure”, “fantastic leisure opportunities”, “like-minded people”, “space for experimentation”, and the possibility to “escape the parochialism of provincial life” (s. also part B). Yet, in our interpretation, these are advantages of large cities in general and may only be more pronounced in Berlin. In that sense, an expensive Berlin, could be interchangeable with other large cities around Europe.


c) Access to skills & knowledge

Most interviewees stated that they started off with a single idea, i.e. a single product. In most cases it was something they could produce themselves without the need for large sums of investment. The idea, rather than the wish to make money, is at the centre of most narratives, though some interviewees combine the two. This gives their venture the freshness of “amateur” work, but also creates serious problems for its survival and future growth. What fashion designers often lack is knowledge and skills at different levels:

a) What most designers originally lack are business skills. They may know what fashion is, but not how to run a business. Simple business skills for most are obscure and distract them from the creative work. Such skills may include simple things such as accounting or writing a business-plan, but even more applying for some grant, legal knowledge or participation in a project. Intellectual property and copyright have not yet been an issue for any of the interviewees, though two (the most advanced ones) mentioned that they’ve had cases of “friends” imitating (“stealing”) their ideas. Yet, they both believe that intellectual property laws are too complex and they cannot protect such small companies. One interviewee went as far as to call the whole branch “unprofessional”. The Berlin senate, in cooperation with the IBB, has put together a programme to train creative ventures in business administration skills. Yet, only two of the interviewees mentioned having made use of that offer. For them the threshold is still extremely high. On the contrary, they were all very grateful for short seminars on business skills offered by the Nemona network. Answering our question on why they didn’t team up with a business person they mentioned that they either didn’t know any, they didn’t trust them or the profit margin was so small that it couldn’t be shared.

b) At a second level, and only in ventures that have been in business for a longer time, what they seem to lack is innovation. As mentioned above, most ventures start from a single idea (e.g. somebody re-interpreting traditional knitwear), which they then set to put into action. If and when this becomes successful, they need to pass into a second phase of producing something new, coming up with different ideas and also expand their product range. This could be by further development of the existing single product (though it will have a very limited impact on the market) or by adding more products to their collection. Because of the small size of all interviewed businesses, the commercialisation of their products and the development of new ones are in a constant conflict. E.g. fashion fairs around Europe (mostly Paris and Milan) define cycles of new collections. In the months before the fair, fashion designers are so immersed in the new collection that they find no time to look after their business in other ways. Some designers mentioned that they did not “look at other people’s work to get inspiration”, but that fairs were their main source for new ideas. One of the designers, who has been in the market for over 10 years, often used the word “research” in our interview: “I always do research on material, colours and forms before I start anything new”. In general, though, most fashion designers seem stuck in the original idea and initial single product.

c) For new products or new collections, fashion designers are often confronted with another limitation: the lack of adequate skills. New products need different techniques that go beyond the simple sewing together of pieces of fabric. The more sophisticated the product, the more complex – and rare – the skill. In that case designers will tend to use specialized skilled workers. There are two main difficulties with that: Firstly, that these skilled workers are rare and cannot be found easily in Berlin and second, every time a fashion-designer subcontracts somebody else, there is a risk that the second one will “steal” the idea: “I saw somebody wearing the exact same knitwear I had designed. I found out that it was produced and sold by the same person who had once knitted it for me”.

On Friday: Part 3 (end)– Access to markets as well as Berlin & Public Policy.

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1 Response to Fashion Businesses in Berlin – Resources and Challenges (Part 2)

  1. Pingback: Fashion Businesses in Berlin – a Designer’s Answer | Places.

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