Vanessa Remoquillo explores some of Berlin’s hidden vintage stores…
Everyone enjoys a secret. And when the secret involves beautiful clothing that transports you to a livelier and more free-spirited time, it becomes very tempting to keep it close to one’s chest.
One such secret is Sowieso, a hidden boutique of secondhand clothing that thrives in a quiet street in Kreuzberg. There is no sign at either the door or the bell, and entry is by appointment only. Inside the shop in this private address are racks upon racks of clothes – spangly, pailletted, bright, bold.
Sowieso is a veritable time capsule, harkening back to days when MTV was new and jeans were high-waisted. It takes a lot of originality and confidence to pull off these looks, though neither is in short supply on the streets of Berlin. On the hangers are blouses, skirts, dresses, coats, jackets, and even gowns – heavy with detailing, dripping in bead work, merry with colour.
Most of the clothes are sexy, and even the ones trying to be frumpy are doing so to be ironic. There are lacy dresses with trains, glamorous blouses with exaggerated shoulders, and varsity letter jackets with leather sleeves. Various pieces seem straight out of the TV series “Dynasty”.
Vintage clothing usually refers to original articles from the 1960s and earlier. Some would say what also qualifies as vintage are items that represent the styles and trends of a bygone era which should be at least 20 years old. Sowieso carries a mix of vintage clothes and many more from the glorious 1980s, for which owner Sue evidently has a strong affinity.
“I am especially fascinated with the 80s. Lots of neon colors, very sexy cuts. Everything was possible in those years and nothing was too crazy,” she explains. “This is what I miss in the current fashion trends. I like it when there are no limits, when everybody dresses how he or she feels good without any rules or no-gos.”
Sue, an economist by training (though she has always wanted to work in fashion), started Sowieso in 2011 with Sarah, a makeup artist. At first, they sold only to their circle of friends. After receiving good feedback for their selection of clothes, Sowieso decided to go public – sort of.
Deciding they didn’t want to take the more conventional route of opening a shop in the city, the pair opted instead to become a “secret” store. “We like not having fixed hours. We like it that there’s no sign on the door. We want to be the kind of place that people only tell each other about,” explained Sue. The best way to reach Sowieso to arrange an appointment is through their website and Facebook page.
Every few months, or when the inventory has been cleared, the Sowieso duo get behind the wheel and drive to several European cities to acquire more secondhand clothing for the boutique. (Their sources naturally remain unnamed.) Compared to many used-clothes shops in Berlin, Sue and Sarah do not buy stocks in bulk to bring back to Germany, preferring to undertake a careful selection of clothes on site.
They sift through large piles in their distributors’ outlets to find the gems in the rough, which they take back to Berlin. Most of the items are from the US, whose styles, Sue says, make them more interesting to the German market.
Each item is chosen based on the design and the quality. Selecting the clothes is tedious work that often spans several days, but it is the heart of the business and ultimately gives a lot of satisfaction. “I try to choose special pieces that would make people freak out when they see them,” says Sue. “I take what I like and what I think the people in Berlin would like.”
Sowieso’s newest offering is customised vintage apparel. Sue creates one-of-a-kind pieces by reworking clothes, dyeing and bleaching fabrics, and adding studs and patchwork. One of her latest creations was an updated denim vest featuring a wolf’s head that she had cut out from a t-shirt. It was snapped up within minutes after she posted it on Facebook. “Customizing clothes helps me express my creativity and I think the clothes are also more original,” she says. “That is what I do with my reworked pieces, so I think there shouldn’t be any rules about what is in or out.”
Sowieso mostly sells women’s clothing, although there are a few men’s articles in the racks, too. Depending on the details and embellishments on the clothes, such as the paillets and beadwork that make the pieces truly unique, and the evident craftsmanship and quality, the prices range from €25 to as much as €100.
There is a genuine vintage wedding dress from London, a dreamy confection in lace, that is on sale for €600. (Tip: Haggle gently. Save the aggressive bargain-driving for the Flohmärkte.) Once a month Sowieso announces a private sale in its clandestine boutique. Only 50 invitatons are issued. Those who are let in on the secret are treated to flowing prosecco, good music, and a relaxed and friendly atmosphere in which to browse, shop, and chat.
Another secret awaiting discovery is Mayflower Vintage. The vintage store maintains a private showroom in Friedrichshain that can be visited by appointment.
It offers a heady handful of “leather and lace, chiffon and spandex, animal prints, black and gold glamour, velvet, sequins, denims, pattern pop, sheer class and glitzy trash in silk or polyester” – which just about describes their specialty, finery dating from the 1950s to the 1990s.
Luka, who moved to Berlin from Slovenia (and who also prefers to use only his first name), started the vintage shop with his mother, Jozica. The store essentially captures mother and son’s fascination with fashion (Luka studied fashion design, while Jozica has been making clothes for decades) and their fashion sense, as mother and son are clad in vintage most of the time.
Luka explains, “Not everybody likes to dive into piles of dirty and smelly clothes on flea markets, so we offer a cozy and clean alternative, without the stress of a market or a mass store.”
At Mayflower Vintage, he says, “customers can expect a collection of vintage accessories and clothes that have been carefully selected, washed, ironed and well presented. Some of the clothes have also been altered from oversized to fitted, long housewife-skirts made into short summer bicycle-friendly skirts, country-style dresses made into cute tops and shorts.”
Mayflower Vintage edits large collections of clothes to find what their clientele likes best. “There is a lot of time and patience involved in the search for good vintage clothes,” states Luka. “There are mostly poor-quality secondhand clothes you need to sift through to get to the good stuff, wherever you look for it. But if you love to do it, it can be a fun part of the whole business.”
For now, Mayflower Vintage is continuing in the direction of discreet shopping, “simply because we haven’t been ready to devote all of out time to it. In the future, we definitely want to expand and also have a physical store, but at the moment I have other priorities.” Mayflower Vintage participates in markets around the city, while their once-monthly open-house events, announced on their Facebook page, give followers of a vintage lifestyle the chance to glimpse the entire glamorous collection.
Sowieso and Mayflower Vintage will take part in this year’s Toast & Jam, Berlin’s biggest vintage fashion fair organized by Nowkoelln Market and Exberliner magazine,which will be held on 7 and 8 July 2012 in Umspannwerk Kreuzberg (Ohlauerstraße 43, U-Bahn Schönleinstraße). Toast & Jam will feature over 50 vendors from Berlin and all over Europe who will display the full accoutrements of a retro lifestyle, such as well-edited vintage clothing, jewelry, and accessories, and services including old-fashioned haircuts and tattoos. A vintage fashion show is also scheduled on Saturday 7 July.