by Ares Kalandides
This is the final part of the blog series on fashion businesses in Berlin. The series was based on the final report of a 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. Part 1, that went online last Monday looked at access to funding, part 2 that went online on Wednesday looked at access to space as well as to skills & knowledge. Today’s blog is about access to markets, an assessment of Berlin as a space of resources and also offers some rudimentary policy recommendations.
d) Access to markets
The main issue for all designers is access to markets. Berlin as a city offers excellent conditions for production – affordable space and a creative milieu – but interviewees see it as a weak market. This has several causes not all limited to Berlin: Firstly, the reorganization of retail (often named “the death of the High Street”) has changed the rules of the game. The growing dominance of international oligopolies, price-dumping and e-commerce are features that can be detected all over the western world and are not a Berlin phenomenon. Not all present a threat, though: e-commerce for example may be an opportunity for small businesses to reach larger, distant markets. Second, the real average affordable income of Berliners has stagnated since 2000, which is an obstacle to growth through consumption. The latter means that if new designers are to sell more in Berlin, they will have to take a slice of the market off existing oligopolies instead of aiming at a non-existent additional buying power.
The only true knowledge of international markets that fashion designers have is through fashion fairs. That is one more reason why they consider them to be one of the most important events in their professional lives. With several of these fairs in Berlin, this threshold has lowered considerably, but the Paris ones, followed by Milan, are still considered to be the most influential ones. Local networks allow designers to access the local buzz, but most interviewees have reported that in those networks are extremely homogeneous and introverted: “Here we are all the same. Roughly same age group, live and work under similar conditions, same milieus: we never get to see the others – those who will potentially buy our stuff”.
Although the Berlin senate (again together with IBB) has put together a programme called “Access to new markets” (Neue Märkte erschliessen, s. more further below), this is not a programme particularly designed for the creative industries. Most interviewees either knew nothing about it or, if they had heard about it, they had been told that it’s too complex and not suitable for small businesses, in particular in the fashion sector.
Access to markets (i.e. increased sales) seems to be at the basis of all other resources mentioned above and paramount to the well-being and growth of fashion businesses.
As was already stated in the paragraph on space, Berlin itself becomes a rich resource upon which fashion designers can draw. All interviewees mentioned the permeability of time-space structures: leisure time can easily become work time. During e.g. a party, they are bound to meet other designers or even potential clients. Also, this way of socialization becomes a source or inspiration for their creative work: they get a feel for the local buzz, experiment (personally) on new styles and often receive first peer feedback in a non-professional context. Networking and socializing were two terms that kept appearing in most interviews, with Berlin itself as a dense fabric of interwoven networks. Thus, networks accomplish several tasks at the same time: source of knowledge; peer-to-peer feedback; professional connections; sense of community and safety net. Three of the interviewed designers, who had recently (in the past 3 years) immigrated to Berlin from other European cities, mentioned the same main reasons for moving to Berlin: a) political/economic stability, b) affordability, c) creative milieu and dense networks.
Public policy regarding fashion was viewed in general in a positive light, and although most interviewees would like the senate “to do more”, this “more” was never specified. Nonetheless, part A of this report on resources gives several hints on what fields of action may be. We tested these ideas with the interviewees and their responses confirm our own evaluation. Funding, knowledge and skills are mostly available resources, albeit not for everybody and not all the time. Yet, the lack of affordable space in the near future is seen as the major threat for all interviewees and the first one that is mentioned in all interviews. There seems to be an urgent need for the Senate to take appropriate measures to protect this unique resource, which has been paramount into turning Berlin into the creative Mecca it is today. The second field of action, upon which all others depend, is facilitating access to markets for fashion design businesses. Economic policy has long concentrated on the supply side, i.e. in assisting production, and has for the most part neglected the demand side, i.e. the way that profits are realized in the market-place. “What good is the most innovative product if I have nobody to sell it to?” as one of the most senior designers commented.