As a child of the Cold War era and avid reader of spy novels, Berlin has always been a place holding a certain mystique for me. So when recently looking around for a fun destination to spend a reasonably priced weekend, Berlin popped up as an interesting choice. Given that it is serviced by the low-price airlines and seemingly packed with hotels heavy on the stars and acceptably priced, the basics of a good trip were in place.
We decided on a 5-star hotel near the Zoo. Actually near Bahnhof Zoo, the train station featured heavily in the book and film everyone was reading around 1980 called Christiane F. – Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo (The children of Zoo station). Quite the shocker in it’s day, it was a little amusing to see this was actually just a local train station. This was just one of many flashbacks I experienced during our stay, where I’d often notice something which would awaken old memories. Of course, much of Berlins history is related to WW2 and the later Berlin Wall, but there is also the world of music, especially if you’re into the more alternative styles.
Being new to Berlin it is quite overwhelming. Berlin is not a small city, or a compact city. If you like walking, like we do, you’ll do a lot of it. The better option is to find a U-Bahn map and get to know the underground system. This is very like the London Underground, but less rattly and more modern. Very easy to find your way around, but the ticket machines on the platforms seem to be out of order most of the time.
And, as it turned out though, there is some pretty decent shopping. Being new to a large and new city, it takes a little time to find out where the good places are, and I’m not saying we found it all, but I can give you a few pointers. Berlin is a heady mix of chain stores, small shops, department stores and mall-style centres.
If you’re after big chain shops, department stores and luxury brand shops, Kurfürstendamm (or KuDamm once you’ve got the hang of it) is a decent place to start. Around the top end you’ll find department stores such as KaDeWe, and moving down the street you’ll find more variety. With some serving places in between to ensure you have all needs catered for, no pun intended. KuDamm itself is a wide street, a little like Champs D’Elysse and can be quite hectic as it’s where tourists appear to head for.
If you prefer smaller shops, a little less mainstream, in smaller streets, the Mitte area is good. There is more sense of adventure, as the shops are a little more laid back in their signage and there is a more relaxed feel to the area. This is mostly where you’ll find the more interesting shops.
The final area I visited was Prenzlauer Berg. A few people recommended this as the place for interesting shops, being a sort of hipster area. I’ll admit, I only spent 3 hours there, and even though I did cover about 3km on foot, I only really found the one interesting shop there, and that was the shop I’d travelled there to find in the first place. I think the area probably works a lot better on a relaxed Saturday in the mid-summer than a rather windy Monday late December (stating the obvious really), so I’ll give it a go again if I ever return to Berlin. One word of warning, this area appears to wake up at 12, so don’t plan on getting an early start there.
So, let’s take a look at the specifics.
The only shop I’d heard of before we left for Berlin was 14oz, a shop that has an international reputation for it’s stock. 140z is owned by the company behind the Bread and Butter fashion shows, so they obviously have their finger on the pulse. Actually there are 3 shops, where two of them are full range shops for both men and women and the third is the Supersale outlet-style shop. Two of the shops are quite close to each other in the Mitte area, a little North-East of the city centre, while the third and largest is around the mid-point of KuDamm.
Now, I’d like to say my visits to 14oz were really terrific, and they almost were. I was hoping to show you a few photos, but my polite request about this was turned down, as all photos have to go through their press office. Guys, you run a shop, get over yourself.
Regardless of their arrogant attitude to photos, the two main shops are really nice. We’re talking proper effort put into the design and construction. And the selection of brands is impressive as well. Not that there are huge amounts of garments from each brand, but a well selected selection, with a few surprises as well.
The shop in Mitte had a nice selection of Nigel Cabourn, interesting pieces by rarer brands such as Monitaly and Mr Freedom, stacks of denim and a fine selection of shoes. I was disappointed by their range of Hansen Garments (as far as I can tell, you really need to go to Copenhagen to find the full range). As far as I could judge, this shop has a more rugged profile. The staff are almost painfully hipster, but cheerful and friendly.
The shop on KuDamm is larger and while it has a lot of the same stock, this also appears to cater more for the customer that likes their suits and ties as well. When browsing a table full of Nigel Cabourn I found the most surprising find of the entire trip. 4 small piles of the super-rare Harris Tweed Bombay pants, in 4 different tweeds! The holy grail of weird trousers indeed, and a full range of sizes. Staff here seemed more aloof, and didn’t approach me during the 15 minutes I spent here. Strange, given that based on what I was wearing I was quite obviously a potential customer. Perhaps I should have sent them my guide on how to serve me in their shop?
The Supersale shop is also in Mitte, a couple of hundred meters from the regular shop. I was a bit curious as to what this was going to be, given that it advertises quite generous discounts. Well, outlet is probably the best description, as the shop appears to contain whatever hasn’t sold in the main shops. A few interesting brands, such as oddball Japanese brands like Haversack, but mainly stock that isn’t exactly leaping off the shelfs. The staff didn’t appear to be very keen either, finding it more interesting to smoke in the doorway than to engage in discussion.
While in Mitte I also found a small Scotch & Soda shop. Although I’ve cooled a lot on the brand in the past couple of years, I used to be a big fan of Scotch & Soda, as they were doing some interesting retro-styled garments a couple of years ago. I’m not really too up to date on their recent output, but did find a very nice tweedy waistcoat in a fetching burgundy colour on sale. So there will be another Waistcoat Wednesday soon!
Mitte is also home to the Red Wing Berlin shop. I had looked forward to maybe visiting this one, as there are only a couple of Red Wing shops in Europe.
I have to admit to being a little disappointed. The shop is small, but is decently laid out. There is an interesting mix of new boots and shoes and worn and vintage boots. This adds interest, and the shop itself has character. Yet the staff seemed totally uninterested (study the manual, guys!). While I was in there were other customers browsing, and there was no attempt at all to make contact with them. Given that I was wearing my Ice Cutters and was obviously keenly looking at their displays, any halfway competent shop assistant would have seen me as a pushover. Oh, and in case you were wondering, they didn’t have any Supersoles on display!
Thankfully a friend tipped me off about a couple of other shops that might be interesting. As mentioned previously, the Mitte area is hard to cover, as shop fronts are a bit stealthy, so actually being able to Google Map places was a big advantage.
This lead me to DC4, or as their shopfront says “Japanese Denim Store”. If 14oz carry raw denim as part of their stock, DC4 is almost all about the raw denim. Japanese raw denim. If you know what you’re looking for, and that happens to be Samurai, Flat Head or Iron Heart, then this is where you’ll want to go.
Not a huge shop, but well laid out and focused on what happens here. Rows of denim trousers, shirts and jackets. And the Union chain-stitching machine for hemming duties in-store.
I had a good feel of the Samurai and Flat Head jeans, interesting to check out these rare brands, and interesting to compare the various types of denim used. Where the Samurais were quite slubby (the surface is uneven due to the uneven thickness of the thread used in the weave), the Flat Heads were much more evenly woven, and also quite cardboard-like to the feel.
After looking at some 25oz Samurais, as you would, we got talking about the fascination with how heavy a denim can get. Turns out the 25oz sanforized denim isn’t the most badass they stocked. They also do a 24oz shrink-to-fit variant, which when washed can go up to 27oz.
After this fine display of denim, it was time to wander on again. We found a few other interesting shops in the area, though I admit I didn’t notice the names of them. The one ship we quite randomly stopped into, and we almost passed right by as it looked like a hairdresser (!) we only noticed as WDG noticed a rack of Hansen Garments just inside the door. I had a good browse through, but the selection wasn’t the greatest and I already had the interesting pieces. And no waistcoats! Looks like this was probably Shusta, although I find no correlation between the shop I visited and their website.
So, I’ll leave it at that for now. The final mention-worthy shop is good enough for it’s own post, so stay tuned for a post on Fein und Ripp.
Oh, sorry, you’re asking if I liked Berlin? Well, yes, quite a lot indeed.