Forget Paris and London. For the folks furthest out on fashion's cutting edge, Berlin is the new capital of creative inspiration. In the past few years, designers like Hedi Slimane of Christian Dior and labels like Hugo Boss have looked to the former East Berlin for inspiration, attracted by its edgy art and music scenes and fashion-forward street life. Slimane rented a studio there for three years while producing a glossy photography installation and a book about the city. Last fall Hugo Boss, which is based in Metzingen, in southern Germany, held its annual fashion show and party in an abandoned Berlin post office. The look of Berlin--a low-key mix of vintage leather coats, rolled-up scarves and knee-high boots--has been a favorite for several seasons. And the city is widely cited as a wellspring of electronic dance music. "Everybody in fashion and music in Europe is going to Berlin now to get ideas," says Phillip Wolff, communications director at Hugo Boss. "It's not as sophisticated as London and Paris, but it's had a very big impact on what's going on in the rest of Europe."
Creative types have long been drawn to Berlin because of low rents, ample studio space and the relatively low cost of living. The German capital's last cultural heyday was in the 1970s, when the likes of David Bowie and Iggy Pop lived in the then divided city. Now musicians, artists and designers from as far afield as Denmark and Japan are giving Berlin a young vibe again--nearly half of its 3.4 million residents are under 35. "Berlin is not a rich city, so the scene is not at all about money or society or status," says Slimane. "People just don't have those values. Everyone here is creating, so there is a very different rhythm. It's a very free territory."
Spurning conventional retail wisdom, designers like Bernard Willhelm and Kostas Murkudis sell their clothes in anonymous shops in the Mitte and Prenzlauer Berg districts; shoppers track down the addresses through friends, clubs or posters plastered around the city. Many retailers take out short leases, so their establishments come and go in a matter of months, while the locations of shops like Apartment and clubs like Fun are passed on by word of mouth. Japanese designer Rei Kawakubo was so inspired by Berlin's transient scene that she opened her own "guerrilla" Comme des Garcons store in East Berlin in February and plans to close it after a year.
"These are not touristy places," says Martin Wuttke, the creative visionary behind nextguruNow, a Berlin consulting firm. "If you want to attract the fashion crowd, you can't show off in everybody's face here." Berlin's understated cool looks set to keep the crowd coming back for more. --By Kate Betts