Life & Culture

The lost world of Berlin fashion

Berlin once had a bustling fashion district - but almost all the businesses were Jewish-owned.


Hausvogteiplatz doesn’t exactly trip off the tongue. It’s a relatively anonymous square in central Berlin and, unless the casual visitor pays attention to the exit steps of the underground station there, he or she would have no idea that this area was once the centre of the German fashion industry.

Each of the exit steps from the underground bears a name. And each of the names is that of a fashion house. They are all Jewish names.

On Kristallnacht, November 10 1938, Nazi hooligans smashed Jewish-owned shops and offices in Berlin, and none, it seems, with such relish as that applied to the Jewish fashion firms of Hausvogteiplatz.

In one short night, the heart of the industry was destroyed. The Jewish owners were either arrested, or left the country. Those who did not or could not leave were deported and eventually killed. Their firms were expropriated by Nazis.

Now, in what has become a labour of love, the German journalist and author, Uwe Westphal, has written an account of the century- long supremacy of his country’s Jewish fashion industry. Fashion Metropolis Berlin chronicles in painstaking detail the success of German Jews in the fashion industry. Westphal’s contention is that fashion in Germany never really recovered from the destruction carried out on Kristallnacht and thereafter.

The loss of Jewish designers, factory owners, textile merchants, dressmakers, tailors and seamstresses, was a catastrophic blow, he believes, and one reason why London, Paris, New York and Milan have Fashion Weeks which draw the crowds, while Berlin Fashion Week barely flickers on the fashion world’s calendar.

It is no coincidence, either, believes Westphal, that the only German fashion name of note in the post-war years, Karl Lagerfeld, made his career in France, rather than in Germany. “He was born in Hamburg and came to Berlin in the very early ’50s — but he realised that the entire industry had been destroyed”, and so Lagerfeld moved to Paris, ultimately becoming designer-in-chief of Chanel until his death earlier this year.

Fashion had once been Berlin’s largest industry and was dominated, says Westphal, by Jews between 1836 and the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. Jews were involved at every level, from factory owners to designers, from embroiderers to department-store tycoons.

His book meticulously documents the rise of Jews in the fashion industry. An opening picture in the book shows Hausvogteiplatz in 1925, during its heyday: the reader can see a swathe of imposing buildings. Westphal writes that “at one time, 59 clothing businesses were located in what is now the building of the Ministry of Justice”.

Almost every one of the Hausvogteiplatz buildings was home to some sort of fashion-related companies. Westphal, who is not Jewish, has spent years tracking down, where possible, the eventual fates of the one-time occupiers of the district. “Countless human beings”, he writes, “whose final destiny can only be pieced together from historical accounts, were displaced, dispossessed, and murdered”.

He adds a grim rider: “These people died a second death after the terror of the Nazi era. The Jewish fashion houses, once internationally renowned, were not only forgotten by most but were also banished to oblivion by the silence of former colleagues and even mocked by a few self-righteous contemporaries.”

Westphal’s mission to restore the standing of the Jewish garment trade has not been without personal consequences. He has been toiling in this field for more than 30 years, placing adverts in newspapers in Britain, Israel and America, searching for Jewish fashion producers or their descendants.

The current German fashion industry has not thanked him for his work. He says they don’t care to be reminded that much of the present-day trade is built on the confiscated work and possessions of Jews. “I am very angry that there are those who profited from the confiscations and seizures”, he says. “But the fashion industry is very angry that I am doing this research. I have had serious difficulties.”

Among the “serious difficulties” has been hundreds of abusive phone calls. Westphal has had to move flats in Berlin six times and once came home to find someone had nailed a dead cat to his front door. At one point, he moved temporarily to London, saying he couldn’t take the animosity any more.

On the surface, perhaps, it’s hard to imagine that something as deliberately frivolous as fashion could generate such vicious responses. But Westphal is aware of the anomaly, saying “as light-footed and ephemeral as the world of fashion may appear, its history bears the burden of truly painful episodes”.

Most striking in the book is the rare capability of those who were forced to flee Germany to re-launch their careers elsewhere. One example was the illustrator Lissy Edler, highly regarded in Berlin and whose exquisite work appears throughout Westphal’s book. She worked in Berlin until 1935, particularly for the Guenther fashion house.

In her 80s, living in London and widowed, Lissy Edler had become Alice Newman, whom Westphal found through an advert he placed with the Association of Jewish Refugees. She invited him to her home and reminisced in astonishing detail about her work. Westphal remembered how happy she was to share her memories with him and to speak German.

Until 1924, Alice Newman said, she had worked for Guenther and travelled for them to Paris and Vienna. In Paris, she attended the runway shows and, immediately the show finished, she would “run to the nearest café or toilet and begin the first sketches. We always stayed at the Hotel de la Paix, where there were other fashion people from Berlin as well. In the evenings, if there was time, we would meet at the Moulin Rouge. It was there that I saw Josephine Baker and Maurice Chevalier for the first time.” And, once back in Berlin, she said, her drawings “were examined and turned into ‘Berlin fashion’”. But, by 1933, Nazi influence was beginning to creep into the fashion world. “Scherl, a fashion company, requested that I stop signing my illustrations with the name Lissy. Of course, I declined to do that…”

Instead she moved to Loeb and Levy, a big company with headquarters in Krausenstrasse in central Berlin, and designed “entire collections”, from clothing to shoes. Alice Newman’s husband, Franz, was “not exactly thrilled with my line of work”, she recalled, and increasing Nazi restrictions on Jews made him decide to go to London and try to set up home there. But the British authorities did not recognise Franz’s medical qualifications and when Alice visited him in 1936 she found him “unemployed and emotionally distraught”.

So she, too, moved to London, with the couple’s two children joining them later. But she was never able to recreate her pre-war glittering career, and though she did get a few years’ work in the British fashion world, that only lasted until 1940 and the first bombing of London.

What happened to Alice Newman was a common experience for German Jews who managed to get out of the country, to try to work in fashion in their new homes. For the most part, it didn’t happen. An exception was Norbert Jutschenka, who, says Westphal, “would be mentioned alongside the great names of haute couture had he not been forced to flee his country”. Jutschenka’s company was the victim of “an extraordinarily treacherous expropriation” in 1938. All his assets were confiscated by the Nazis, including his personal furnishings, his bank accounts, and cash in the family apartment.

But re-naming himself Norbert Jay, he set up shop — literally — on Seventh Avenue in New York, and ran a successful business until his death in 1953.

Norbert Jay’s experience was untypical. Most of those who left Germany did not have the wherewithal to start again, even if their English — they mostly came to Britain and America — was up to it.

Krausenstrasse, the street where Alice Newman worked before the war, was also home, a few doors along, to the fur company, H Wolff. The extraordinary story of how the London-born investigative journalist, Dina Gold, managed to reclaim her family’s building, is told in a separate chapter that she has contributed to the book.

In December 1990, a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Dina Gold walked into the lobby of the Wolff building at 17/18 Krausenstrasse, an enormous structure which covers an entire city block. About half the building had initially been used by the Wolff furriers, with the rest of the floors rented out to mainly Jewish clothing and department store companies.

Dina’s grandfather, Herbert, fled to Palestine in 1933, leaving his brother, Fritz, in charge of the building. But the Victoria Insurance company initiated a forced sale of Krausenstrasse 17/18 in 1937, and — irony of ironies — it was bought by the Deutsche Reichsbahn, Hitler’s railway company. Fritz himself was deported to Auschwitz, where he died in 1943.

By the time Dina Gold found the building, it had been operating under Communist rule in East Germany, and had become the headquarters of East German Railways.

It took her and members of her family six years but, finally, in 1996 the forced sale and expropriation was recognised by the new united German authorities. The German Finance Ministry bought the building from Dina Gold’s family, the descendants of Herbert Wolff, for £8 million.

Today there is a plaque on the Wolff Building, currently used by the German Federal Ministry of Transport, to tell the curious passer-by the history of the building, and that it was home to one of Berlin’s oldest Jewish fashion firms.

The completist, Uwe Westphal, has tried hard to document the fate of as many Jewish fashion houses as he can, and it makes grim reading. “Emigrated”, “company shut down in 1938”, “business liquidated”, “business confiscated, no restitution paid”. It seems, 80 years after the Nazi Holocaust was launched, that there is still outstanding business to be resolved.


Uwe Westphal and Dina Gold will speak at the Wiener Library in London on June 12. Dina Gold’s own account of her fight to reclaim her family’s building is called ‘Stolen Legacy’.  Fashion Metropolis Berlin 1836-1939: The Story of the Rise and  Destruction of the Jewish Fashion Industry is published by Henschel Verlag 

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