Listen to this article
Lanvin may have been the choice of singers from Robin Thicke to Pharrell Williams at the recent MTV Video Music Awards, and the Council of Fashion Designers of America/Vogue Fashion Fund finalists may be dominated by buzzy menswear lines such as Tim Coppens, Ovadia & Sons and Public School, but at Fein und Ripp, a quirky menswear boutique on Kastanienallee, the trendiest street in Berlin, one of the bestselling pieces is nothing quite so current. It is, in fact, a 1940s Swedish linen suit. Not a reproduction – an original, from 75 years ago, hand-dyed and tailored in Hamburg and yours for €850. Also popular are 1920s Henley shirts that the shop owner Joachim Pianka found untouched in an old factory in the Swabian Alps.
The shirts were among 40 tonnes of clothing that Pianka bought three years ago on a whim. And they are but the latest – though perhaps most extreme – example of a fashion trend that crosses gender boundaries but is perhaps most apparent in menswear. “There is unquestionably a growing interest all over the world in brand integrity,” says Jeff Carvalho, a partner in Titel Media, a Berlin and New York-based publisher of lifestyle websites. “Consumers are paying far more attention to where and how goods are made.” Selectism, one of Titel Media’s sites, has recently carried “making of” footage of heritage brands as varied as Sunspel – a 153-year-old English producer of Sea Island cotton T-shirts – and Dr Martens, which makes its iconic footwear using methods pioneered more than 50 years ago.
According to Carvalho, “The interest in heritage and craftsmanship began in 2008, around the time the recession hit. At the time, we would approach companies and offer to make these behind-the-scenes films,” he says. “Now, they come to us.”
This was most apparent early on in the luxury sector, with brands from Louis Vuitton, with its “savoir faire” campaign, and Gucci, with “forever now”, emphasising their artisanal heritage. A similar interest has now reached the niche end of the market.
It was around the same time that Carvalho started making his films, that Pianka, a travel agent, was searching for traditionally-made clothes, and his research led him to the old Merz B Schwanen factory. The late owner’s sons were keen to offload stock dating back almost a century and, he says, “On impulse I bought the lot. My sons and I took a stall in the Mauerpark flea market on Sundays to shift them, but I didn’t like getting up so early. After a few months, I decided to turn the travel agency into a shop and create our own family business.”
Today, Fein und Ripp is a carefully curated trove of unworn ancient stock alongside a handful of rediscovered German gems, including fine cotton underwear from Schiesser (rescued from bankruptcy by Israeli company Delta Galil in 2012); heavy hunting boots from Trabert, which has been making near-indestructible footwear for more than 350 years in Bavaria; and high-end denim from Pike Brothers, located in the nearby town of Bad Feilnbach.
“The larger consumer base has only just been scratched,” says Carvalho. It’s no coincidence that Berlin-based designer Peter Plotnicki, a regular visitor to Pianka’s flea market stall, recently acquired the rights to the Merz B Schwanen brand, reopened its factory and pressed the rare circular sewing machines back into service. Carvalho also points to the 5,332 sq metre building that houses the new headquarters of Filson, a 116-year-old Seattle-based luggage and outdoor-wear company, which also houses its new factory – complete with viewing areas where visitors can watch the production process.
“People keep saying that Berlin is currently the world’s coolest fashion hub,” says Pianka, “and we’re now getting customers from all over Europe, the US and Japan who seem a lot more interested in tradition and authenticity.”