If it’s retail novelty, quirky innovation and a glimpse of what the store design future might hold, then 20 years after the wall came down Berlin is definitely worth a visit.
There has rarely been a better time to take a look at what’s happening in Berlin. Everyone knows it’s 20 years since the wall came down, but this is still a city that has a lot of space (its population is less than half that of London, but its footprint is about the same) to spare and therefore finding suitable premises remains rather more straightforward than in many other European capitals.
The consequence is that it’s more of an open field for small as well as large retailers and while there are, of course, the KaDeWe, Karstadts and Niketowns at the heart of what used to be West Berlin, the axis of new retail has shifted east.
Today, if you want to take a look at new stuff, a short ride on the incredibly efficient and cheap S-Bahn will whisk you off to Potsdamer Platz or Alexanderplatz, where there is still the sense of something a little edgier than the very respectable environs to be found a mile or two to the west.
As a city that has traditionally looked east as much as west, the streets are filled with a cosmopolitan east and west European mix on a scale that we are still relatively unfamiliar with in the UK. And a premium is placed on fashion trends in a manner that is only replicated in this country in parts of east London.
All of which means that Berlin is one of the continent’s best places to check out new retail and to see experimental pop-ups as landlords continue to find ways to keep their properties providing at least a portion of the revenues they might be hoping for.
Opened in the spring, this is in the area just around the corner from the former DDR showpiece Alexanderplatz. Freitag (Friday, do keep up) is a purveyor of bags created from surplus-looking bright pieces of heavy duty plastic and if that sounds like it ought to be cheap, think again - the entry level is around the E100 (£89) mark. It is worth visiting whether plastic bags are your thing or not, as the store interior pays homage to the shabby chic that is such a feature of Berlin’s retail panorama.
In practice, this means large numbers of recycled reinforced steel joists are used to create display fixtures around the perimeter and as the framework for industrial joists. Found objects, such as the wooden palette that acts as the base for a tower of cardboard boxes that seem permanently on the verge of toppling over, are strewn around the shop to add to the ambience.
This store is on three levels and the small basement has the feel of a stock room with floor-to-ceiling displays formed of Freitag boxes, each containing a coloured plastic bag.
The exposed brick walls and fire-escape style staircases that provide access to each level, combine with all of this to create a true one-off.
When Spanish shoe brand and retailer Camper opened Casa Camper, an eponymously named hotel in Barcelona in 2006, the move generated a lot of press. Why would a retailer stray so far beyond its core competence?
Something must have worked and although this magazine eschews covering the leisure and hospitality sector, it’s worth making an exception for a second outing for the retailer turned hotelier.
Fashion masquerading as functionalism is apparent as you stand across the street from this hotel that opened a month ago. Each of the rooms has a blind with its number on the street-facing side; like Camper’s stores, there is a simplicity about it.
On the top floor there’s a restaurant where you can enjoy a view across east Berlin while sitting at one of the white-topped canteen-style benches or relax in comfy fawn leather club chairs.
The interesting thing about all of this is that Camper has so successfully managed to take the feel of its stores into a hotel - you almost expect to turn a corner and find a unit full of shoes with prices at the mid-market’s better end.
Red Wing Shoes
This store is an outpost of a mid-western retailer and shoe brand, but in name only. The Red Wing Shoe Company is based in Minnesota but rights to use the name have been bought by a small group of Berliners and the outcome is a shop that has all the elements of a frontier-style trading outpost in which retro looms large.
Standing outside the shop, the tastefully muted grey fascia surrounds large windows that allow views into an interior that looks immediately warm and familiar. Step through the door and you are walking across an oak jigsaw, which Kay Knipschild - one of the owners - says was created by taking the trunk of a single tree, slicing it lengthwise and then fitting the resulting pieces together to create the floor.
Sounds expensive, and undoubtedly was, but it lends a degree of difference to the shop. Look around and the shop has something of Ike Godsey’s general store in The Waltons. There’s a cream-coloured delivery bike in the mid-shop, complete with faded wood box-carrier on its front, a simple dark-wood shelving system behind the checkout for shoeboxes, and graphics featuring mid-west factories.
And of course there is the stock. If you want rugged outdoor boots, this is probably the place for you (at a price), but it’s the level of detail that really impresses. Whether it’s brushes or polish for your boots, everything is Red Wing Shoes branded - a completely integrated offer and merchandised with an appealing clarity. The whole thing has the kind of industrial ambience that typifies so much of retailing in this area of Berlin at present.
The store is not far from the Hackescher Markt - the centre of new Berlin and an area that has been undergoing a transformation every since the wall came down, but which has recently seen a major influx of new brands and tenants. Red Wing Shoes has been open for less than two months and Knipschild says that plans are in place to open further stores.
For some, Berlin is intimately associated with decadence and this small store, next door to the swanky Ritz-Carlton hotel on Potsdamer Platz could be seen as the modern day retail embodiment of that tendency. This is the second of its kind and is a showcase for very expensive clothing. And the store design has been created by a Mr Michalsky, working with a local artist, whose holographic light installations are found around the shop.
Everything here is about excess, whether it’s the individually tooled gold-coloured metal plates that form the walls and ceiling, or the Perspex swing, suspended from the ceiling and with a real fur cushion. Even the banknote, modelled on a dollar bill and bearing the words “The United City of Berlin”, which has been framed and attached to the ceiling, speaks of more money than you might know what to do with.
Berlin may be about rough luxury store designs, but it also makes a good job of the top-end of things.
Such is the prominence of the pop-up store in Berlin that it would be hard to walk almost anywhere without encountering at least one. Nike SB (the “SB” bit refers to skateboards) is a good example of the use that empty spaces are being put to. This “store” will close four days after this article is published, having enjoyed a month-long existence.
Outside, a stencilled monochrome graphic of a check-jacketed youth drinking what looks to be a McDonald’s milkshake, is repeated endlessly to create the fascia. Within, you might need a little imagination to see how this gallery-style space works. Very little of it is for product, but once you understand that the torn paper ceiling and basic vinyl sofa are all part of creating an ambience, then it becomes easier to read.
Couple all this with the half-pipe that has been created in one of the spare rooms and if skateboarding’s your thing, this is about as good as it will get, but too late - it’s gone.