Bad Fit Why Germany Doesn't Cut It in International Fashion
Berlin Fashion Week is underway, but A-listers are keeping their distance. The event has failed to put the German capital on the clothing map. A closer look at the career trajectory of designer Kostas Murkudis provides some insight into the reasons why.
It was painful. So painful that the audience had to cover their ears. In the summer of 2011, fashion designer Kostas Murkudis unveiled his latest collection for the first and last time at Mercedes Benz Fashion Week in Berlin. In a bid to demonstrate that the German fashion industry would have plenty of potential if only it would stop being so parochial, he opted to stage his show off the beaten track in a former newspaper printing building in Potsdamer Strasse, now the Nolan Judin gallery. The catwalk show was choreographed by Chemnitz-based artist Carsten Nicolai, an associate and friend of the designer, who projected red, white and multicolored stripes on to the models to the accompaniment of an earsplittingly shrill shrieking. The venue felt like it was hooked up to a pulsating heart-lung machine.
"It's supposed to be a little painful," says 54-year-old Murkudis, whose dark hair still brushes his shoulders, even if it's graying at the temples. He's standing with his back against the wall in his studio in Potsdamer Strasse as a Danish model in a floor-length dress from his new fall/winter collection poses for a photographer. A team of nine is on hand, sewing and ironing, and the Spice Girls' "Wannabe" blares in the background. "She looks like an angel," says British stylist Jodie Barnes, nudging Murkudis.
After 30 years in the business, he ranks alongside Karl Lagerfeld, Jil Sander and Wolfgang Joop as one of the few German designers to enjoy an international reputation. Abroad, Murkudis is a byword for ascetic fashion from Germany. But back home, observers deem him "too talented for the country he's designing for."
No one becomes a heavy hitter in the fashion industry by staying in Germany. Not now, not ever. When Berlin Fashion Week first kicked off seven years ago, its aim was to put Germany on the map and prove that its courtyard ateliers were home to a new and exciting fashion industry. Armed with political support and amid much fanfare, the event was geared to attracting the big wide world to Berlin, a city whose aversion to stiletto-clad fashionistas, red velvet rope and private VIP rooms has long been its biggest selling point among locals and visitors alike.
It was an attempt that appears to have failed. Fifty-one catwalk shows are scheduled at the current Fashion Week, but does anyone care? Major fashion houses such as Rena Lange and Boss aren't even taking part, and neither are insider favorites Achtland and Kaviar Gauche. Labels thrilled to participate during the event's early days, from Macqua and Pulver to Penkov and Firma, threw in the towel long ago. Few international buyers or journalists are in attendance. Suzy Menkes, the International Herald Tribune's formidable former fashion critic who now writes exclusively for Vogue Online, came once, in 2009, but never returned.
This time around, the nerve center of Berlin Fashion week has moved from Berlin's central Brandenburg Gate to the Erika Hess ice-skating rink in the grittier district of Wedding. It could have been the perfect location. But rather than using the benches and unusual setting in the stadium to make it a spectacular place to show new fashions, all the organizers have done is set up the usual rows of seats clustered around a catwalk.
They've already been snubbed by a few designers, with Vladimir Karaleev and Perret Schaad presenting their collections in the Kronprinzenpalais; Lala Berlin and David Tomaszewski in the studio of the Deutsche Oper and Dorothee Schumacher in the St. Elisabeth church, designers who in going rogue are taking their cues from the major fashion houses in Paris and Milan. Center-stage, meanwhile, is left to the B-list likes of Guido Maria Kretschmer and party animal Michael Michalsky. Like the flamboyant designer Harald Glööckler and Wolfgang Joop, who starred in the last series of "Germany's Next Top Model," they have understood the essence of fashion in Germany: a heady blend of hysteria, bubbly and pink polka dots.
"A Veil Was Lifted"
Murkudis was also invited to appear on "Germany's Next Top Model" but declined. He is rarely sighted at Berlin fashion events, preferring to work away from the limelight in small teams, including just one assistant and one intern. "I'm not a great entertainer," he says. "I've learnt to do what's required of me professionally, but it's not who I am." His office is sparsely furnished with two chairs, a wooden desk and a heavy duty shelf unit filled with books, jeans, platform heels, a photograph of Kurt Cobain in a stripy shirt and a porcelain deer. The brickwork is partially exposed, complete with murals, lavish bordures and an Albrecht Dürer portrait.
Murkudis was born in Dresden to Greek parents, both electrical engineers and refugees of the military junta. When he was 13, his family moved to West Berlin. "It was like a veil was lifted," he recalls. "Suddenly everything was colorful and eclectic." The city is his home, his family. It was in 1970s Berlin that it all began, in punk and new wave clubs like Dschungel (Jungle) and Sound. "It was a time when we started wanting something more," he says now. By "we" he means himself and his brother Andreas, who is younger by two years and now owns one of Berlin's most elegant fashion stores, also on Potsdamer Strasse. It's the only store where customers have always been able to buy Kostas Murkudis. The brothers talk every day, advising each other, sharing a love of quality and craftsmanship and an aversion to today's throwaway culture. With its galleries, studios and design offices, the district of Schöneberg is the spiritual home not just of Murkudis but also of his clothes, although he would never describe himself as an artist. "I don't see art as my refuge," he says. "Art has its own value system and I would be wary of being judged by those rules. I've always been interested in creating a product even if I've lost my footing in the actual market in recent years."
Murkudis founded his label in 1994 after spells as assistant to Wolfgang Joop and Helmut Lang. He had a loyal fan base primarily in Asia, and his clothes sold in over 70 stores worldwide. But in 2001, after 5 years of Prêt-à-porter in Paris, he was forced to give up due to differences with his business partner Alexander Brenninkmeijer, scion of the C&A dynasty. "It was a shock," says Murkudis. He spent three years as creative director at New York Industry in Milan then began collaborations with labels such as Schiesser, Pringle of Scotland, Regent and Flip Flop. In 2012 he became adviser to Nicolas Ghesquière at Balenciaga in Paris, filling many with hope that he was all set to be the new German talent in town.
As of 2009, he approached his own label as something of a laboratory experiment. He experimented on the threshold between fabric and clothing, clothing and fashion; began producing limited editions of his collections; ignoring the expectations of customers and buyers and concentrating solely on the relationship between wearer and wardrobe and the idea of the body as an architectural vehicle.
A New Beginning
Questions are woven into the fabric of Murkudis' designs. He spins fine Italian silk together with plastic garden sheeting, making pieces that challenge notions on gender and social background. Next July, the Museum for Modern Art in Frankfurt will host an exhibition of his work. The clothes won't be draped on dummies or hung on clothes racks, however, but will be displayed in a way that will make visitors privy to his creative process and allow them to literally get to grips with what fashion means to him, in the form of exhibits ranging from NASA foam to sketches for designs, and complete with his sources of inspiration, such as Luis Buñuel films and books on artists like Franz Erhard Walther. The museum also plans to juxtapose the clothes with work from its own collection of work by artists ranging from Blinky Palermo to Robert Longo and Carsten Nicolai. It will be less a retrospective and more what Murkudis himself calls a "mid-life exhibition."
Twenty years after founding his label, Murkudis is on the cusp of yet another new beginning. Two years ago, he was hired by the Hamburg fashion business Closed to revamp its image as the label of choice for well-heeled ladies of a certain age and turn it into an international brand. It was a high-profile appointment and a partnership that sent the German media into paroxysms of excitement before it had even begun. Murkudis duly delivered a collection featuring pilot overalls, bomber jackets, lambswool parkas and stitched leather jackets which the critics raved about but which failed to sell as well as expected.
Not only had Closed opened a store in Paris and viewed premises for another in New York, it had also hiked its prices.
When labels such as Saint Laurent and Louis Vuitton replace their creative directors, they presumably reckon with several loss-making years. But for a medium-sized company like Closed, the situation is more complicated. The company waited until Murkudis had presented his spring/summer 2014 collection one Monday morning in November then fired him by e-mail two days later. The company is unwilling to comment on his dismissal, merely referring to irreconcilable differences in vision. For his part, Murkudis says that Closed failed to approach his appointment with the requisite open-mindedness and had underestimated the power of the sales representatives and the conservatism of its core clients. "Closed is a great brand but you can't just install a new designer at the top and leave everything else as it is in the hope of boosting sales," he says.
The Quality and Price Quandary
Closed has meanwhile reinstated its former design team, with its collaboration with Murkudis serving to illustrate how even when an experienced designer and an ambitious medium-sized company have a shared aim, they still can't agree on a way forward.
When it comes down to business, Murkudis likes to quote Aldo Gucci, who masterminded the iconic Italian brand's expansion in the 1950s and '60s: "Quality is remembered long after the price is forgotten." It's a statement that appeals to him and which expresses what he himself wants to achieve as a designer -- to make clothes with staying power, whose buttons won't have fallen off after two months.
Germany is the main European market for retail chains such as Primark, H&M and Zara, which operate according to the reverse principle, while domestic mass manufacturers like s. Oliver, Marc O' Polo and Tom Tailor have also managed to secure a footing. But high-end designer boutiques like Albert Eickhoff's on the upscale Königsallee in Düsseldorf have been forced to close.
But Murkudis isn't giving up on his label yet. He has no choice, unless he's offered another position as creative director somewhere. His plan is to get his clothes back in the stores: menswear and unisex pieces such as shirts, pullovers, parkas and bomber jackets. Needless to say, he won't be making an appearance at Berlin Fashion Week. "I'm not really into all this domestic self-congratulation in a city with no real competition," he says. "I'd rather fail on the international stage."
Translated from the German by Jane Paulick