Mentioning the words “techno”, “nightlife” or “Berghain” to members of Berlin’s fashion community risks them rolling their eyes. As the single most obvious pillar of Berlin’s cultural landscape, they’re asked about these subjects all the time. Connections between Berlin’s burgeoning fashion scene and the dark romanticism of its dance floors are constantly drawn, but there’s a growing tension between the industries.
For the most part, nightlife feels synonymous with the city’s visual identity. “Berlin is often considered somewhere absent of boundaries, a kind of contemporary bohemia,” says Mumi Haiati, founder of the fashion agency, Reference Studios. “In nightlife, a sense of liberation is tangible, which of course makes for a great foundation for creativity.” Photographer Vitali Gelwich agrees, “It’s not top secret. Clubs like Berghain are huge cultural institutions at this point, and I assume are interesting and influential to every successful creative here, in some capacity.”
Cast under the lingering shadow of the Berlin Wall, the city was long seen as an “undesirable” place to live by outsiders thanks to its rundown neighbourhoods and lack of financial opportunity. Following the Wall’s destruction, it became a cheap living destination and therefore a haven for alternative lifestyles: artists, musicians, intellectuals and renegades have flocked to the war torn city for decades in search of freedom and affordability. “The wall came down and it was like the wild west for creatives,” explains Maria Koch, the co-founder and lead designer of 032c Apparel. “There was no establishment, only space, and you could define things for yourself. That’s why it ended up not being a place of glamour, but rather like a club, a place of freedom for certain ways of being.” Even after the West absorbed the East, the city retained its leftist spirit, which played a key role in the creation of its famed, hedonistic venues.
And so Berlin’s nightlife and fashion scenes, assumed to be allies, may actually be enemies. The rise of “fashion with a capital F” – the kind that’s profit crazed, status centric and mass produced, can feel at odds with its heritage.
The contemporary character of Berlin and its nightlife was built on anti-isms: anti-corporate, anti-press, anti-sleep. Fashion, as an industry associated with Western capitalism and glamour, is no different; it was never an intentional part of the equation.
“When I moved here, no one really cared about fashion,” says nightlife photographer Maxime Ballesteros about the changes he’s seen in the past decade. “It’s all very new and escalated very quickly. I remembering going out in sweatpants and hoodies, because if you dressed up more, people would notice as if something was wrong with you. Everybody was equal and that was really beautiful, no matter how you dressed. Nobody cared and that’s what kept me here.” GDR values still linger over the reunified city, where wealth and attention to physical appearances are taboo, making “fashion” somewhat vilified.
Designers Benjamin Alexander Huseby and Serhat Isik are part of GmbH, a collective known for paying homage to their techno roots via vinyl pants and mesh panelled compression pieces. “Berlin’s dominant club culture is unique,” they tell me in a joint statement. “It developed from an underground and political angle, while scenes in say London or New York, though maybe originally have been that, very quickly merged with fashion and media.” It’s true that in the US and UK, the legacies of progressive nightlife spaces are recounted by their impact on style: an impact which we still feel on runways today. What do we remember most about Studio 54, CBGB’s and the Blitz? The clothes. And how do we know about the clothes? The pictures and the press.
While those venues were designed to be seen in, and remembered, a lot of the best clubs in Berlin don’t want outsiders peering in. Not only does the citywide, strictly enforced no photos policy allow half-naked ravers to gurn and hook up in peace (read: without fear of their boss seeing it on someone’s Instagram story on a Monday morning while they’re pulling a sicky to slack off work), it also combats commercialisation. So maybe the style bred in Berlin clubs isn’t about extravagance, but rather utility, catering to the LGBT+, fetish and techno communities. “Berlin has an anti-capitalist spirit and that will always trickle into its fashion,” says Honey Dijon, who was born in Chicago and lives in Berlin. “There’s a sense of style here that’s not so much about fashion. It’s not brand related. It’s sportswear, combined with fetishwear, combined with vintage.”
While most of the Berlin fashion creatives who reference nightlife actually actually participate in it, the same probably can’t be said for the massive companies that take cues from them. Last season, collections from Christopher Kane, Gucci, and Givenchy all contained overt references to gay and fetish subcultures.
“It’s not cultural appropriation of the clubbing scene if the designers actually live it,” says Thibaud Guyonnet, head of buying at Berlin’s Voo store. “But you do have bigger brands watching what they’re doing and emulating it. We saw Berlin clubbing gear in collections last season. Obviously, when it comes from a big French luxury brand, it has very little impact. We don’t buy anything that we don’t feel is authentic.”
Many clubbers feel that attention on Berlin’s fashion scene is eroding the authenticity of its most influential venues. Cem Dukkha, the DJ and co-founder of renowned Berlin gay party Herrensauna explains: “With techno being such a sensation and so commercial, there’s this misconception that everyone has to wear wannabe fetishwear, even though they’re not engaging in anything fetish. It’s just for the look, like Halloween. In many instances in Berghain now you’ll see these muscled up guys in harnesses and it turns out they’re just straight dudes protecting their girlfriends from anyone talking to her”. Herrensauna are set to make their own venture into the fashion world, realising a rubber shirt with the Herrensauna logo, designed in collaboration with an established fetish shop in Schöneberg. Although the Herrensauna parties are well established, they’re prepared for a bit of flak. “In Berlin, there will always be haters,” says Dukkha’s Herrensauna partner Nicolas Endlicher.
GmbH elaborate on the trickle-down effect: “12 – 10 years in ago in Berlin, [we] would say the way of dressing was a form of anti-fashion, but now people come here dressing the way they think Berlin clubbers dress. You can see them in flocks in shiny new high street starter packs of harnesses and fishnets, totally negating any sense of its origins. It’s a kind of meta feedback loop look, created based on how people think they should dress to fit in, while originally these spaces were exactly for people who didn’t desire to fit in.”
Fear of the city’s hard door policies has made party tourists think that stereotypical Berlin clubwear will help them gain entry. The inevitable hours spent waiting in Sunday queues of techno clones in Adidas track pants, bomber jackets and misplaced leather are opportunities for philosophical musings: exactly how freeing is this? And needless to say, uniform imagery in Germany – even for partying’s sake – is still uncomfortable territory.
“People don’t understand that it’s about originality! That’s what’s truly important,” says designer and musician Patrick Mason, a proponent of harmony between the two industries. “If you are authentic, you don’t have anything to worry about. Bouncers usually have an eye for people who dress to the occasion. You can’t just put on a costume and gain entry into a community, that’s not how it works.”
Rachael Rodgers, fashion director of Berlin’s INDIE Magazine, tries to avoid the clichés of boots and bomber jackets in her styling. “It’s not a bad look, but industry people in Berlin are tired of being associated with this singular identity,” she argues. She also points out that projecting a party persona could mean risking professionalism. “Fashion people work hard, or at least the good ones do, and a lot of club kids get caught up in the party lifestyle and lack ambition, so it can be seen as undesirable to be too closely associated with nightlife.”
“I feel there is no real underground anymore,” says 032c’s Koch, “the last real youth culture with music and aesthetic was the early rave time in the ‘90s. The idea of underground is just an alibi for when you’re not good enough.” Those who feel Berlin nightlife is still in any way protected or isolated from the mainstream, she argues, are mistaken.
But if the political potency of Berlin nightlife isn’t what it once was, the true culprits are bigger systemic issues like gentrification and globalisation, not the work of the city’s small fashion scene. It seems the tension between the industries is more a case of conflated identity than it is mutual harm. Any maybe, at this stage in its cultural evolution, the city deserves to be known for more than hedonism and techno raves? “What you should never forget is that Berlin is so much more,” says Gelwich. “When looking at the club scene, you’re only seeing a fraction of the beauty.”