What do you think of when you hear terms like “Haute Couture” or “Pret a Porter”, when you imagine super models on glamourous catwalks and sophisticated, if a bit pretentious audiences admiring extroverted creators of high fashion…? Does this scream “Düsseldorf, North Rhine-Westphalia” for you?
It should! The city on the shores of the River Rhine has become a major player in the international fashion world, leading even the German capital, although Berlin works hard to catch up. The Berlin Fashion Week was established in 2007, going head to head with famous events like the fashion weeks in Milano, New York or Paris.
Trade fairs in Düsseldorf are less flashy and target a different audience: The “Interessengemeinschaft Damenoberbekleidung IGEDO” ( Community of interests for women’s outerwear) organises fashion fairs like the “Verkaufs- und Modewoche Düsseldorf” (Sales and Fashion Week Düsseldorf), which at times were among the biggest in the world.
Until 2018 one of the leading events for German textile producers and clothes afficionados was the aptly named “Bread & Butter” tradeshow. It combined music, art and fashion for a hip, young audience and companies that target this group. Sports fashion companies like Adidas, Nike, Vans and Eastpak created exclusive products for the event. No hint of Haute Couture, no wealthy socialites, no super models anywhere.
Real clothes. For real people.
It is the Pret a Porter part of the art of fashion that makes German creators famous. “Mode von der Stange” (or in English: off the peg) might be less glamourous, but its influence on what people actually wear is nevertheless much higher. Even the biggest names among German fashion artists focused strongly on the ready to wear part of the industry.
This includes the legendary Karl Lagerfeld, whose extraordinary career combined German purism and the idea of hard work and reliability with the creative madness that is stereotypically connected with high class textile designers. When he passed away a few years ago, the fashion world did not only mourn the loss of his outstanding personality, but also the lack of interest in the German public. His exentricism, his genius was not valued the same way as it might have been in other countries. Instead, criticism of his lifestyle and many of his very opinionated statements overshadowed the obituaries.
This illustrates a typical German mindset. The creative genius, the high-flying mind of an outstanding personality, is often met with a certain level of suspicion. To be a fashion designer in Germany, the correct way is to become a properly educated craftsperson first. Learn the trade of a tailor, then move on to study design – not art, but tradesmanship is at the centre of the career. Well-established schools like the “Deutsche Meisterschule für Mode” in Munich educate the new generations of creators.
They make sure that German fashion focuses on substantial qualities: Timeless design that lasts longer than one season, high quality materials and rather reserved design language that emphasizes the wearer’s features rather than attract unduly attention. German women are known to prefer “sportive-casual” clothes styles, with feminine details being welcome, but not too much details that feel “in your face”: Too many curves, too much elegance would be disturbing.
The bottom line: German contemporary fashion aims to impress with high class materials and comfortable cuts that visually support the body’s silhouette. And if this all sounds a bit cloudy and artsy, here is a quote by German style icon Wolfgang Joop: “No matter the back and forth in fashion, at the end the head is on top. That’s tradition.”
The power of tradition
Looking back into history, there’s a clothing chasm between fashion and traditional garment. Germans know an own word for heritage textiles: Tracht, regional clothes styles that go back hundreds of years. As a German living abroad, these can be a bit haunting, since everybody around the globe seems to know Bavarian Lederhosen and Dirndl. If you don’t, you just earned a special place in my heart.
Before they turned into folkloristic nostalgia, traditional garments were often practical, hands on everyday clothes used by the average people, while the upper classes had a tendency to rather focus on what we know as fashion today: Trends that were surprisingly international for centuries, especially throughout Europe. It is hard to distinguish German upper class clothes from those worn in England or France. Fashion differences seem to have emerged rather among lines of class, which makes sense also because in the olden days the ruling classes took care to make people distinguishable by what they wore. Fashion documented status.
France dominated fashion in the Western world for centuries after 1650, the reign of Ludwig XIV, while Britain took over in the 19th and 20th century, when the industrial revolution changed the way people dressed. In the early 1900s, the US began to set global fashion trends by introducing the Knickerbockers. World War I brought the Trenchcoat, and in the aftermath especially male dressing styles turned to the military for inspiration. The British Empire and the rise of fascism in huge parts of Europe supported this trend. Huge fashion companies like Hugo Boss started as uniform designers and producers. Boss was responsible for dressing the German Wehrmacht as well as creating the notorious SS uniforms.
After the second World War, this changed massively. Civilian life came with new freedoms. The mini skirt was born, jeans and t-shirt became fashion when long hair in men was suddenly acceptable. Clothes fashion might even be to not wear textiles at all: Germans are still huge supporters of FKK. The bulky abbreviation stands for the term Freikörperkultur, in plain English: nudism.
The 20th century also brought a very own revolution that Germany had a huge part of: Sports wear. Nike, Reebok, Adidas create clothes and shoes today that can be worn in everyday life, and idea that would have been unthinkable in the first half of the 20th century.
Today, German Adidas is the second largest sportswear company on the planet, right after American Nike. British iconic Reebok brand became part of Adidas in 2005. In Germany, Adidas competes heavily with Puma. Both companies share the same location of their headquarters in the city of Herzogenaurach, for good reasons: The two giants of sportswear came from the same garage owned by Adolf Dassler’s mom, where the later billionaire started producing shoes together with his brother Rudolf in 1924. The siblings fell out with each other in 1949, leading to the split into Adidas and Puma. Adolf and Rudolf both were active members of the Nazi Party, with Adolf even being the official sports ambassador in the Hitler Youth, and it was only thanks to Adolf’s wife that their factories were not destroyed by US Forces in 1945. She convinced the allied commanders, that the only interest of leadership and employees of the Dassler’s textile company was to produce sportswear, and that they had provided Jesse Owens with his winning shoes during the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
And one more thing…
If you visit Germany and want to have a closer look at this topic, here is our travel tip: The Fashion Museum at the Ludwigsburg Residential Palace in South Germany. If you ever have to decide between Neuschwanstein and this pearl of architecture and landscaping, consider giving the disney-esque option in Bavaria a pass.