Interview : "Berlin will never be like Paris"

Bread & Butter boss Karl-Heinz Müller and designer Michael Michalsky have been working hard to make Berlin a fashion hotspot for years. Here they tell us how you can set the trend even in your forties – and what buying clothes has to do with democracy

Stark wie zwei. Ohne Michael Michalsky (re.) hätte es die Bread&Butter vielleicht gar nicht gegeben, sagt Karl-Heinz Müller. Sein Traum, eine Messe zu gründen, kam ihm 2001 nach einem gemeinsamen Barabend in Herzogenaurach.
Stark wie zwei. Ohne Michael Michalsky (re.) hätte es die Bread&Butter vielleicht gar nicht gegeben, sagt Karl-Heinz Müller. Sein...Foto: Georg Moritz

They are a vital part of Berlin’s fashion scene: Karl-Heinz Müller, Bread & Butter’s boss and owner of the 14oz. store in Neue Schönhauser Straße, and designer Michael Michalsky, who will present his new collection at the Tempodrom on Friday, and who shaped Adidas’ design during the millenium. They have more in common than you might think.

What brought you two together?

Karl-Heinz Müller: Michael Michalsky is actually to blame for bringing B & B into existence. When I opened my shop 14oz. in Cologne in 1999, premium denim didn't even exist. Michael, who back then was Global Creative Director at Adidas, organised an event in 2001 to present Adidas Originals. There were 50 select customers and I knew them all because I used to work in foreign trade. In the evening there was a party - and Michael was right in the thick of it. After that we went to the Adidas Sports Hotel in Herzogenaurauch, sat at the bar and the subject of the tradefair just came up. We were all pretty dissatisfied. I had a dream that night to found a tradefair. I woke up in the morning and knew that I was going to run a tradefair.

Michael Michalsky: We had a lot of dreams in Herzogenaurach. I dreamt that I would do a collection with Yohji Yamamoto at some point.

KHM: On my way home I phoned my friend Christian Geyr and said I’m going to do a tradefair, do you want to join me? So the first Bread & Butter took place in July 2001 in the rotunda at the Cologne exhibition centre.

MM: People were completely gobsmacked because they hadn’t seen anything like it before. It was the first tradefair that showed jeans, sportswear and workwear. Highfashion still looks down it, but it's the fashion of the 21st century.

KHM: A lot of people ask when will Berlin catch up with Paris or Milan. But it’s a completely new culture here. The youth culture from the past doesn’t exist anymore. In the past, people at some point in their life changed from jeans to a suit, because they could afford it. Nowadays people buy a pair of jeans for 300 Euros.

KHM: In the past 20-year-olds set the trend. Today there's nothing unusual in the fact that trends are set by people like Michael, he’s 43 years old. I’m 53 and we hang out in the hippest clubs. Today it's nothing to do with age, it’s more about an attitude.

MM: I think our generation will do the same things they’re doing now in ten years time. In the past I thought that my life would completely change once I hit 30. But I’ve come to call us „the eternal target group“. We really were the first generation to experience how fashion, marketing, music, internationalisation and trends all joined up. The ones who came after us already had it all. When I was a teenager I had to go to the bookshop at the train station and order a fashion magazine from London. Today I know within five minutes if anything has happened in Tokyo. And our professional lives have changed completely, a lot of people here in Berlin have jobs that didn't even exist in the past. That's why I hate the question when will Berlin be like Paris. It will never happen. Berlin shows what's relevant and there's no other place for that.

KHM: Fashion has become much more democratic, more people have access to it. It’s grown into a huge business sector. Berlin represents this part of the industry. Once companies have understood that Bread & Butter, Premium and Mercedes-Benz-Fashion Week are here to stay I’m sure we will see the first headquarters of a major brand here soon.

MM: I’m still surprised that no one has actually opened a design department here. What I find annoying is the impatience. I’m now doing my ninth show. I have a lot of respect for all my Berlin colleagues who are also setting up shows, because I know how difficult it is. It’s all moving in the right direction but we can’t imagine how it’ll all look here in five years time.

KHM: We are a country of pessimists but if something works here it means a lot too. But Berlin isn’t only supported by Germans. Fifty percent of the exhibitors are from abroad.

Which trends are you spotting from the brands at Bread & Butter?

KHM: At the moment the brands are turning to a heritage style. People want to slow down, they have a need for sustainability. You see a lot of Woolrich parkas here on the street, a great conventional product. I have an entire hall in the tradefair just for these brands.

Doesn’t it matter that everyone has products like that?

KHM: People always look different in them, even if the products are the same. That’s the individuality I like – that’s modern. I also really like the stories of the brands. That’s becoming more and more important. Nobody today is interested in people who’d like to be hardcore-individual with piercings and tattoos. Today you’re far more individual if you’re wearing a tweed jacket and used-looking jeans which you’ve had for more than 20 years – that's far more extreme. That’s also my ecological aim: Buy less, but buy quality. It’s kind of weird that you can buy a shirt at Takko store which has the same price as my dry cleaner.

MM: But just because we live in this world of fashion and buy these things doesn't mean that everybody can do that. The products Karl and I are dealing with are already luxury products for a lot of people. You shouldn't lose your perspective on that.

KHM: You don’t buy a whole look from head to toe anymore. It’s part of a democracy that some people can afford more than others.

MM: So, to close the circle, that's why Berlin is so cool. It’s the combination of Bread & Butter, Premium at Gleisdreieck and the fashion shows on Bebelplatz. I think what’s happening now will be really important in five years time. The independence of Berlin fashion week should finally be recognised.

KHM: The industry has recognised that street and urbanwear...

MM (interrupting): I’m really fed up with this term, it’s actually streetwear, but the term is so overused.

KHM: But you have to create a term. If you say „Haute Couture“, everyone knows what it means. We’re talking about fashion for modern people, who go to work during the day and to a club in the evening, and also to the theatre or to a reception. That’s why the range of brands has increased so much. I have to change brands from time to time because I haven’t got enough space for them – and we also want to have an area where new young companies can try out things. There are lots of solid brands. Michael also has his fixed place during the fashion week: Michalsky shows on Friday.

How do you view each other’s brands? You both are really recognisable in Berlin.

KHM: Right now I’ve got Michalsky in my own shop. Usually I wouldn't have any designer stuff in my shop, but the shirts by Seidensticker are great. I have a lot of respect for him, he’s very grounded in what he’s doing. And we like each other as people too. And Michael is a pioneer for Berlin, like us and our colleagues from Gleisdreieck.

MM: We’re all on the same wavelength.

KHM: But actually you have to ask first what a brand is. I’m from the food industry. In the past a stock cube was a stock cube but then at some point it became Maggi or Knorr. That’s how it works in fashion, jeans became Levi’s. You are a brand if you’ve got a profile. You can only be that if you do things differently from all the others.

MM: And you have to communicate. I can’t afford big advertising campaigns, so I have to get my message out in a different way. It’s almost impossible to become famous as an independent company, that’s why I admire my colleagues such as Kaviar Gauche or Lala Berlin. They can also see that things happen on the street.

KHM: The range of brands at Bread & Butter has an enormous economic power. That’s what I always like to tell our mayor. There are lots of jobs in the world.

Do you feel like missionaries because you had to always talk about the development of Berlin as a fashion city?

MM: It’s becoming less. I’m not here because I want to be a missionary but because I think that I’m right for Berlin. I do it because I have a firm conviction and not because I’d like to ride like a crusader with Michael through Berlin Mitte. I think we’re asked because we’re here and can articulate ourselves. I’m not being paid by the city of Berlin and I’m not trying to say only good things. I’m here because I can see the bigger picture, from the jeans brands to Berlin’s designers such as Mongrels in Common and Kaviar Gauche. I’m convinced that this is the fashion for the 21st century.

KHM: But we’re not pleading people to come here. They all come voluntarily. Bread & Butter is the tradefair with the most visitors from the textile sector worldwide.

MM: The city is completely booked out – it wasn’t always like that.

In summer there will be a Bread & Butter Youngstars, an independent tradefair just for children’s fashion. Why?

KHM: Fact is that a lot of brands that are already participating at Bread & Butter have their own kidswear brands. It’s actually the same culture that we have in the adult sector. There’s also street and urbanwear in the kidswear sector. Initally, we had combined this with the Bread & Butter tradefair but we’ve noticed that it is very difficult, because there’s no focus on it. That makes advertising really difficult. There’s actually a platform missing in Germany. There’s no international kidswear tradefair in the whole of Europe and I think that Germany is a good place for an international tradefair, not only for the textile sector. And we’ve already got connections with many of our clients who also do kids fashion, and then there’s the other proper kidswear brands. Brands such as Adidas and Diesel also do kidswear and are building up a brand. So we’re doing exactly the same. The difference is that we are now separating it. We have this fantastic location and we can use the existing infrastructure twice. We are in the process of putting a team together now and then it’s all go this summer.

Is this how the next „eternal target group“ will be raised?

KHM: I can remember that even as a child I told my mum what I’d like to wear. My three-year-old tells me quite strongly which t-shirt he wants to wear. That also matters to adults and they educate their children. That was already the case much earlier in countries such as France and Italy. It’s about being cultured about clothes. And having good expert knowledge.

MM: The problem in Germany, though, is that fashion isn’t part of its cultural assets. That’s different in France or Great Britain. Every cab driver knows that Stella McCartney or, a while ago, Alexander McQueen won the BFA (British Fashion Award). And when Yves Saint Laurent died it was on the national TV news. At the final match of the football World Cup in France, he showed a retrospective in the stadium. I doubt that something like that will ever happen in Germany, and that’s also to do with our cultural history. But we're working on it...

MM: When I went to see all the banks when I was starting my business, I noticed that they thought fashion wasn’t as a cool business idea as, for example, me saying I’m going to invent a new Facebook. In other countries people think, ok, that’s part of our national treasure. They’re proud of their fashion brands. That’s still different here.

But hasn’t that changed now?

MM: When it comes to Berlin I have to really praise Wowi Berlin's Mayor Klaus Wowereit]. He recognised the potential early on. He’s really committed and so is everyone around him.

KHM: Cologne didn’t give us any help. So we wrote a letter to Mr Wowereit. That was in the autumn of 2002. We told him we’re a small event in Cologne, that they’re making our life really difficult and that in any case we think Berlin is the much better city. We’d like to come, so what do we have to do? He promptly got back to us, it didn’t even take a week. We received a letter from him, signed by him, which said that we should get in touch with their business development office, he’d already informed them, here’s the address, they will look after you. And that’s what we’ve done.

MM: He recognised that Berlin has creative potential and that the creative business isn’t just internet companies, movie productions or musicians and clubs, but that it’s a big landscape with many facets. And fashion is an important part of it.

KHM: That’s the reason why I really like to stress the economic factor. Fashion is a regular industry like pharmaceuticals or the car industry, just much bigger. This is what you really have to understand. When we were based in Barcelona, we did some sums to see what money comes in with each Bread & Butter. And that was only the Bread & Butter tradefair. They said to us that each Bread & Butter has a turnover of 100 million Euros for the city. That’s 200 million Euros per year.

Let’s go back to Mr Wowereit. Would all this be possible without him?

MM: I don’t know all the mechanisms, but the people around him really pull together. They’re all positively minded and try to find alternatives if things don’t work out. „Doesn’t work“ doesn’t exist. I doubt that this would be the case in Munich.

KHM: I think Mr Wowereit has achieved a lot. He was criticised heavily for his decision to give us Tempelhof airport. I can understand older citizens who say that without Tempelhof and the Luftbrücke we would’ve all starved in 1949. But a lot of people are against it and don’t even know why. Wowereit was a real pioneer here and I’m very grateful for that.

MM: And he did the same thing for the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. He has seen its entirety.

KHM: He realises that Berlin can no longer be an industrial place. And it can’t be a financial city. But we can get creativity to Berlin and new industries. He has just confirmed that he will be at our opening and I’m looking forward to seeing him. He’s going to take a tour on Wednesday, greeting people and he’ll really ask them how they are and how they like Berlin.

MM: He’s no Chi-Chi type. He knows that fashion is an economic factor and that the city gains a lot of cool from it, which makes hundreds of thousands of trendy kids spill into the city every weekend. That development proves him right. At the beginning a lot of people were negative, but the success has justified his decision. And I’m pleased on his behalf, because he had to take a lot of stick for it.

Interview: Grit Thönnissen