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Photo by Maxime Ballesteros

Berlin Fashion Week Round-up Part 2

Berlin Fashion Week might be failing to impress the big guns, but it's the city's hidden arts spaces that we should look to for inspiration.

The best restaurant experience is when the food is fast, cheap and fresh or when it is carefully considered, beautifully presented and worth its high price.  Most disappointing is when the restaurant pretentiously presents overly complicated but underwhelming fare. In those moments, the fare at Itsu Health & Happiness suddenly seems closer to Nobu than whatever mid-level, middling and overprized sushi is sitting on your plate. The same logic applies to fashion designers - they also fail their audience when they get too big for their britches.

That was a common complaint among local and international guests at Mercedes Benz's Berlin Fashion Week. From its inception, the consensus has been that Berlin is filled with the fashion equivalents of "fancy"suburban restaurants.

Writing for the "The Moment Blog" on the New York Times website, Sameer Reddy observed, "Holding Berlin Fashion Week to the same standards as the couture shows clearly makes no sense, but the show audiences seemed to be confused, acting as if they were guests at an exclusive soiree in the Paris Ritz. Perhaps they've watched too many syndicated episodes of 'Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.' Instead of distilling a powerful German aesthetic and developing the public relations and commercial infrastructure necessary for real success, people are more focused on blowing Champagne kisses and indulging their caviar dreams."  Reddy tempered his criticism by citing some promising and accomplished examples of Berlin fashion showcased in Berlin Fashion week. But the persuasive point that his piece advocates is that Berlin ought to find its own fashion identity rather than extravagantly congratulate itself when it merely strives to look like the international main event. He is right.

Ideally, Berlin Fashion Week should provide a fun occasion for local labels to engage their customer base, and be a showcase for emerging young and daring designers. Most importantly, both participants and critics should view and judge it by those standards. Berlin is not Paris, New York or even London - yet. It may never rise to these fashion capital cities' prominence, but it certainly will never establish itself as a serious centre for fashion unless it accepts and works with its strengths and limitations.

One exemplary intersection among entertainment, innovation and marketconcerns - the Kaviar Gauche runway show at Babelplatz - nicely illustrates this point. For the runway show, models wearing Lady Godivahair extensions, black stilettos and flesh-colored panties put on magnificently elaborate chain belts and necklaces which mingled with their new range of signature circle or carrier bags. Since the label launched in 2003 with a guerrilla fashion show in front of Colette, their clothes have been sported by Nadja Auermann, chic brides and Germany's local red-carpet celebs. But this season they counter-balanced and returned to the brand's basics - bags and opulent baubles. Many guests were unamused. "Maybe they are now just an accessories line," lamented one of the many disappointed journalists and editors who felt a whole fashion show sans clothes was excessively pared down. "One or two would have been great but a whole show was silly. Maybe," the journalist proposed, "they just couldn't afford to do clothes this season."

As a more charitable critic, my response was that the show functioned successfully as a light but alluring and topical performance. Now that almost everyone's pocket change is actually a pocket's worth of change, we are limiting what we "desperately need" to what we really need or desperately want. Which might be why Berlin's chic and much-beloved Kaviar Gauche label trimmed down their show.

Bigger gaps emerged at the after-parties, where the real split between Berlin's genuine gritty glamour and a more polished self-image was apparent. Following the season's slickest show and a charming reception in the Hamburger Banhoff, Joop!'s chic and chill after-party at the high-end Weekend lounge offered views looking over Berlin's rooftops an or at gaggle of joyful models bopping blissfully on the dance floors. Hugo Boss Black's eighties-influenced but otherwise uninspired catwalk show at the Botanischer Garten, which officially kicked off Berlin Fashion week, flowed seamlessly into a warm and welcoming evening where guests settled into the dramatic Germanic space, punctuated by a concrete fort topped with cannon-style set-lights, for an elegant evening of champagne and excitement-fueled fun. "I'd say Boss definitely deserves credit for the best organization. This is especially important in Berlin where some people still believe chaos is cool," observed Sleek magazine's editor-in-chief, Annika von Taube.

This grown-up glamour gave Berlin's fashion scene the happy sense that Fashion Week has already reached maturity. But Berlin is always at its best when it is most rough and ready. Only an ingrate would argue against the impressive venues, open bars and generous catering at Joop! and Hugo Boss Black. But these events could have happened in any city to celebrate any festive event.

By contrast, Projekt Galerie was pure Berlin. Inhabiting a series of small spaces, Projekt Galerie exemplifies tightly concentrated cool. While Hugo Boss Black was the first event on the official fashion week roster, the real jumpstart was the joyful vernissage for model/photograpger Iekeliene Stange's "I love Ponies" exhibition of Polaroid photographs at the Projekt Galerie. In the designer show space behind the gallery's storefront exhibition area, local designers' wares lined the tiny hard-edged and edgy area. Stange's show of playful, surreal and ethereal pictures was staged in the elevator-sized enclosure usually reserved for "Tiny Disco" dance-parties. For Stange's opening, "Tiny Disco" moved to the little room off-side from the coat check, where artists Tiphaine Shipman, curator and local impresario of cool Christopher David and his co-curator Emilie Trice drew moustaches and left red kisses on the gallery goers/ showroom shoppers' happy faces.

On Saturday, Projekt Galerie provided Fashion Week with "Come Together," an all-night climax worthy of the deliciously decadent days that Christopher Isherwood chronicled in his iconic Berlin Stories. Held at .HBC, the 1,800 square meter former Hungarian cultural center turned gallery/ event venue where David dominates Berlin's fresh and vital underground creative community. "I think it was the first party at Fashion week were people felt they could remove the carrot from their arse," David declared, "and actually have a good time!"  Photographer Maxime Ballesteros summed up the scene as "pretty girls, young and old gays, fashionable guys, nice dudes, live music, club music, silence. But some pretentious child drank my whiskey." In the end, pretentiousness was Berlin Fashion Week's main fashion faux-pas.