Berlin fashion on show

Prewar garments from German-Jewish manufacturers.

Murat Yilmaz

from: "The Jewish Western Bulletin" April 8, 2005

"...Before the Second World War, around half the fashion stores in Germany were Jewish-owned and Berlin had a Jewish population of 170,000.  The fashion in the stores was known as "Berliner Chic"--the subject of a lecture given by historian Claus Jahnke at Beth Israel on March 20.

Jahnke talked about some very popular Jewish department stores and gave some background information about owners like Nathan Israel, Herrmann Gerson and the Tietz brothers.

Nathan Israel was Berlin's oldest department store, founded by Israel in 1815.  In the 1920's , more than 2,000 employees worked at this store.  The descendant of Israel, Wilfried Israel, helped most of his staff, especially the children, to escape before the Second World War started.  He emigrated to great Britain in 1939.  In 1943 he was killed by the Nazis when they shot down his plane during a flight from Portugal to Great Briatin.

Another successful department store, whose garments are the favorites of Jahnke, was founded by Gerson in 1873.  The Russian and British royal families and the royal families of Sweden and Norway wer just some of the famous and wealthy customers of the department store, which employed 1,200 workers at the end of the 1920's.

In that period, many Jewish and German fashion designers went to Paris to get new idesas for their collections.  The modified Parisian fashion so they were able to offer it at a lower price.  They then exported their designs to Holland, England, the United States and South America.

Due to the large Jewish invovment in the garment industry in 1938, this export sector dropped dramatcially when war broke out.  In 1938, the Nazis started to develop their own fashion label, which guaranteed that the clothes sold were made only by Germans.  The name of the fashion label was ADEFA, which stands for Workers Association of German Aryan Manufactures.  Ironically, the Nazis proclaimed that women should not wear pants or smoke, but ADEFA's clothing line included pants for women.  Also, the commercials for ADEFA clothes pictured women who were smoking.

In his lecture, Jahnke used slides that showed Jewish fashion of the prewar fashion period and also mannequins wearing the clothes.

One of his motivations for the lecture was to fight racism by showing that most of the people don't care about who designed or made their clothes.

"Fashion is made by people for people," he said.  "The kind of fashion depends on the individual, not on the individuals's race or nationality."

Jahnke was born in Edmonton, the son of German immigrants.  He came to his hobby of collecting antiques when he was a child.  He studied fasion merchandising and worked for a few years at the Vancouver Museum.  During this time, he developed his passion to collect various kinds of garments from Germany and Astria.  Today, he has hundreds of clothes from dozens of different fashion designers or department stores and many of the garments are very rare.

Jahnke and  the members of the nonprofit Original Museum Society are planning to one day open a museum of fashion and history..."