At the outset of the new millennium Berlin’s former mayor, Klaus Wowereit, famously dubbed the city “poor but sexy“. The spirit of the slogan has drawn in the artists, creatives and the otherwise rebellious-minded types who continue to fuel Berlin’s unique cultural climate. While Berlin has changed greatly during the intervening decades (less poor, still sexy, some say), Berliners still cling dearly to that characterization and reflect it in their politics, community engagement and, as you’ll learn in this article, in their style. The heart of Berlin’s fashion scene is a far cry from the expensive debonair boutiques, designer labels and haute couture of Paris and Milan. Nevertheless, Germany’s shabby-chic first city has earned its title as a European fashion capital.
Black or bunt (colorful)
“Berliners wear black.” That’s what conventional wisdom on the city’s fashion sense will tell you. Upon arriving in the city though, you will find that this is scarcely true even in the dead of winter, when a big woolen overcoat is the only way to survive on Berlin’s icy streets. In summer, it’s palpably false, unless you’re in a queue for the infamous Berghain nightclub.
Many Berliners are undoubtedly devoted to black, particularly those with a penchant for punk and goth subcultures. Even then you are best off making an effort to spruce up the all-black look. If there’s only one style rule you follow in Berlin, it’s this: If it’s not boring, it’s fashionable. That’s why dressing colorfully is actually very popular in Berlin. In fact, no one will judge you for wearing clashing colors or patterns. There’s great appreciation in the city for dressing with your heart on your sleeve, so there are many shades of Berlin fashion.
One stereotype that certainly is true: Berliners wear sunglasses far more often than most would consider reasonable. In summer, in winter, sun, rain or shine; a pair of shades is one of the key markers of that effortlessly cool Berlin aesthetic.
Berliners have a particular penchant for nostalgia, and a fashion sense to match it. From your first step onto the S-Bahn, you’ll see that 80s vintage sportswear is nothing short of a collective obsession in Berlin. If you can get your hands on some classic Adidas (one of the few brand logos that are looked kindly upon in Berlin) or some grunge-era relics you will be well set.
So how does one find that perfect Berlin Nostalgie outfit? One of the best spots to pick up some new old pieces is the flea market. Flea markets pop up on Sunday mornings all across the city and are a great place to spend a few hours. Prices will vary, as will quality, but when you find that perfect piece to drape yourself in for a fraction of the original cost you’ll be so glad to have put in the legwork and the effort to sort through mountains of Berlin hand-me-downs.
And if even flea markets and thrift shops seem like a strain on the bank, a last resort can be found on the side of many neighborhood streets. Keep an eye out for boxes and bags with a “Zu Verschenken” (to give away) sign on them. Nothing is more fashionable than free after all.
Of course, fashion in Berlin isn’t entirely stuck in 1985. Even when still wearing clothes older than themselves, young Berliners are fond of putting new twists on their old gladrags. Indeed, sustainable upcycling is a favorite trend right now. In addition, Berlin is a major center for up-and-coming fair and sustainable fashion businesses. Social progressivism and environmentalism are practically mandated in the city. In fact, certain Berlin clubs might turn away patrons at the door for wearing real leather or fur, so it’s best to avoid that faux pas.
Fashion week Berlin
Since 2007, Germany’s capital transforms twice a year into the European capital of fashion innovation. Featuring a wide variety of fashion shows, industry events and trade fairs catering not only to fashion professionals but also the general public. Berlin’s fashion week, in contrast to some of the longer-established fashion capitals, puts particular emphasis on spotlighting the work of young designers. Nevertheless, in establishing itself as a leading hub for the sustainable and tech fashion community, Berlin is in the process of creating its own fashion elite. How this will affect the street-level character of Berlin fashion, we can only guess.
Berlin beyond black
Whether you’re inspired by bright Berlin streetwear, decide to rig out in the black threads of the punks and goths, embrace the smart chic couture or put your own mark on Berlin’s fashion landscape, there are many more ways to embrace Berlin style than just wearing black. There is definitely no excuse not to get creative in how you dress in Berlin, Germany’s scruffy-chic style center.
Leona has her roots in the South of Ireland, where she grew up on her family farm. She went on to study World Politics at Leiden University College, The Hague and then completed her MPhil in International History at Trinity College Dublin. Leona has now settled in Berlin, having fallen in love with the city. In her spare time she is working on perfecting her German in anticipation of her doctoral studies, during which she plans to study modern German social history. Her hobbies include bouldering, dancing and reading a healthy mix of history books and corny fantasy fiction. You can find more info about her on LinkedIn.