The Hothouse

The Berlin fashion trade shows, July 2014
Observations and analysis

If there was one mutual topic in the landscape of the Berlin fashion trade shows, it was the weather. The heat was oppressive; a humid and close warmth encased everything. Sudden torrential rains of tropical proportions drenched unprotected visitors to the bone in seconds, without offering any relief regarding the sultry heat. This hothouse atmosphere appears to be rather significant for the state of things in the fashion trade show city Berlin.

How did the most important fairs develop?

The Premium stands tall and proud. It’s success is undeniable. The structural changes that started half a year ago with the reorganisation of the entry situation, the accreditation at venue, and the improved walking paths through the halls have been continued with a reform of the segment assignments to the halls, from which the fair clearly benefitted. In particular the menswear profited from its new position. The structure supports communication by its lack of view-blocking screens at the booths and with a mix of exhibitors that allows diverseness without omitting the need of a leitmotif. This works well. Here a plant has ripened; past criticism was listened to and taken on board. We didn’t speak to a single exhibitor who would have voiced dissatisfaction. The claim that many labels wanting to show there had to be rejected was richly illustrated by a fullness that again threatened to burst all seams of the halls.

The Panorama – it has literally arrived. From the beginning it was the classic trade fair among the Berlin events, from the clear commercial interest of the brands, none of which display excessive artful ambition, to the conventional elaborate presentation of the booths. It is only consequent that this all is now shown at the Berlin trade fair grounds, where there is more room, a heightened perfection of the interior architecture, a location in the city and no longer far out of it, and lastly also much broader aisles in between everything. Only the halls 7 a, b, and c had to suffice with something of a cinderella status and may have been overlooked by some visitors, they were also rather more frugally laid out. The open air area in front of the entrance called to mind a miniature version of the Bread and Butter’s Luna Park, but imitation always counted as the sincerest form of flattery. The return of all large exhibitors bodes as well as the influx of new ones. The discussion of suspected subsidising of the Panorama by the Trade Fair Company with its closeness to the public sector is ebbing away – the extent to which it still annoys Panorama CEO Jörg Wichmann becomes obvious when he talks about the rent he has to pay the Trade Fair Company. His Panorama has struck roots, and that in the comparatively short time since its inception. If one sees the metaphor of the hothouse as a protection for young plants in adolescence, then the Panorama at the Jafféstrasse, where the brand new „City Cube“ glistens and somewhat obstructs access from the Messedamm, this bloomer just looks as if ripe to be put out into open air.

The small Capsule show, far away from the others at the Postbahnhof in the East, is visibly thriving. There the show still runs only for two days, and has many regularly exhibiting labels, most of whom seem to lay greater weight on the care of their existing customers than to gain new ones in grand style. The Capsule also benefits from being part of an international series of trade shows, this gives her stability in view both of exhibitors and visitors. The new situation in the ground floor, with resulting new locations of the booths, which anyway consist of hardly more than a few clothes racks, made hardly any change both in the atmosphere and in organization.

And the top dog, the Bread and Butter at old Tempelhof Airport? Naturally success is claimed there as well. And all the elements we have grown used to were there to be sure, including the „big announcement“ that draws all attention: this time the relocation to Barcelona for the winter, made public by Karl-Heinz Müller in a speech and via an image film during the party on the eve of the first trade show day. And yet there was an impression felt by many, and which Müller cannot be happy about at all, namely a sense of stagnation. Two hangars remained empty this time, the departure of Joey Elgersma resulted in the cancellation of the entire area managed by him. Down at the subway station Platz der Luftbrücke empty advertising spaces gaped at the arriving visitors where formerly all was so full of BBB commercials that one felt as if already right within the event. Attendance was down, hardly an exhibitor who did not speak about fewer visitors, even those who were content with their quality and internationality. On Thursday, the third and traditionally slowest day, you could find yourself as the only client even at some of the larger booths. The relinquishment of the opening party on the night before the first fair day also left an impression of economisation, of retreat. Declaring the Tuesday night event the opening party was an unconvincing ersatz, which had to compete with all the external events and thus was less well attended.

The social get-together on the arrival evening, without already having worked a full trade show day, it was missed. An attendee from Scotland summed it all up: the energy was weaker, the pulse beat slower, the emotion had left to a perceptible degree.

Müller must have seen the need for action himself, there is no other explanation for his latest decision. The „Barcelona Coup“ led to mixed reactions. Some just could not believe it, speculations wafted through the halls, it may be a bluff, a poker move to achieve advantageous conditions, a mere „give them something to talk about“, it would be quashed just like the grandly announced admission of end consumers and the shows extension to five days complete with a lifestyle festival. But another retraction of publicly announced major changes the management can hardly afford, Barcelona will have to be in earnest. Only, will it succeed? Can the return to an earlier venue really be the answer? This indeed would be a first in the history of the BBB, which now lasts well over ten years; departures occurred several times, a return to a formerly abandoned venue, never. The reactions were cautious in the best case. There were exhibitors who declared clearly: I don’t reach my market there, I won’t go. Many reserved their decision for a later time, wanting to deliberate with customers and colleagues. There were others who staunchly believe in the instinct of Karl-Heinz Müller and in the quality of his decisions, but they were not a particularly strong faction. The extremely early timing, 8 January, when the Christmas trees will just barely have been taken down, provokes at least as much doubt as it does confidence. The grand show greenhouse among the trade fairs in Berlin, it does have a problem. The move for an additional show in Seoul in September 2015 is viewed quite separately; it is seen as a turn towards the Asian market with an independent nature and good prospects for success.

A development thoroughly welcomed during the three trade show days was the obvious ambition to create added value. At the Panorama, there were „lectures“ and, as seen before, photo-ops with celebrities like Kevin Costner. There was also a new area specially created for the providers of collections with high frequency change. The „Dish of the Day“ supporting programme at the Premium had been beefed up noticeably compared to previous events, in particular steps had been taken to provide value added at the sub-fair SEEK by means of a daily „Zeitgeist“ offering, creating content and a platform for exchange. The Bread and Butter, as usual, had the biggest stage programme and even made the public viewing of the football games public, possibly fearing the large open air area otherwise might turn out hard to fill up. An additional event of professional nature might have been a good idea, after all there are so many big industry names present, one could have brought some of them together for a discussion podium.

A topic all by itself was the treatment of members of the press. There was some light and, sadly, plenty of shadow there. The Panorama simply abstains from any true turning towards the press. Indeed a „press lounge“ was promised and was located, according to many directory signposts, in the „atrium“. If you enquired there about this hard to find place, the baffling answer was „you are right in the middle of it“. What was meant was nothing else than the auditorium for the said lectures, thus empty rows of chairs. An involuntary moment of comic nature. The exemplary way Jörg Wichmann makes himself available for interviews deserves respect, a replacement for a press conference and a proper working area it is not.

The Premium offered an early morning guided press tour on the first day, so very early that not only it became an opportunity of unusual exclusive character with only a handful of colleagues turning up, but the poorly briefed security at first denying those few members of the press access. Regrettably the accompanying press text promised us never came, even after asking for it again and the renewed assurance it would be mailed very shortly. This is a way to offend the very people who want to do nothing but spreading the word about their very own trade show. It was a fitting sad highlight that Anita Tilmann ignored the scheduled interview with us without so much as cancelling it, she simply was not to be found. The primadonna assoluta had changed her mind. Quite possibly the management of the Premium considers caring for the media as unnecessary in light of their present success, but anyone with an expertise of PR knows of the potential pitfalls of such behavior.

At the BBB, the customary press occasion simply was omitted. Karl-Heinz Müller abstained from making himself available to the reporters, something he had always done, and ever with a generous amount of his time. A sheer lack of space in his busy calendar, or more likely shunning uncomfortable questions? The large Berlin newspapers were granted interviews, and immediately on the Friday after the fair there was a press conference in Barcelona, where the podium full of ghosts of trade shows past could have been mistaken for a reissue of an old picture. The only hope is that, wherever the BBB may take place in the future, the return of an accommodating treatment of the media will be seen. The press lounge with its catering offers is a blessing, and one without compare at the trade shows. In future, may the matters of content be offered to the press with similar generosity, and with the option of a dialogue.

So what is the conclusion? The composure with which the Barcelona announcement was met is remarkable. We remember quite different reactions upon the first departure of the Bread and Butter from Berlin. The Berlin trade show landscape has achieved a growth, an established multitude of events, that no serious threat of the whole is perceived when the best known of them closes shop, be it in half or in full. In particular at the Panorama one is only too willing to open all arms towards exhibitors unwilling to make the move to Barcelona. This has worked well before, when the brands kicked out by Karl-Heinz Müllers „Dear John“ letters defected and never came back.

Many a shop makes a significant share of its entire business in those two weeks in January and July, and for the taxi trade, restaurants, and hotels a huge cut in the Fashion Week would be a severe blow that luckily needs not to be feared.

A small, but significant development at the edge of things is perhaps the most descriptive in terms of approach and priorities of the trade show managements. The Premium closed its Fashion Store and uses the freed space now as additional exhibiting area. At the Bread and Butter, one would not dream of withdrawing from trade and give up the 14 oz. stores in favour of concentrating on the fair business. This tells us more than many speculations about the future development and presumed or true intentions lying hidden behind public announcements.

Next time then again in winter, when exotic plants do need their shelter in greenhouses, perhaps also with less haste and more time for those staying put after the BBB will have made its move to the sun. It will not have been the last change. Who is going to gain in stature, and where the best blossoms flourish, once more only time will tell.

Frank B. Halfar for europefashion berlin

Translated from the original German by the author

A grateful acknowledgement for proofreading goes to Matt Wilson

Any potentially remaining mistakes are, of course, solely the authors

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