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Etsy gets made in Berlin

It’s the virtual equivalent of a German flea market – without the hippies and stolen bikes. Etsy, the American social commerce website focused on handmade and vintage goods, is going international this week with a new headquarters in Berlin.

Etsy gets made in Berlin
Photo: Benedikta Karaisl von Karais and Matthew Stinchcomb

Weaving through construction debris and art supplies at the new Etsy office in Berlin’s funky Kreuzberg district, 34-year-old Managing Director Matthew Stinchcomb quickly apologises for the presence of several Ikea boxes.

“Those are for our apartment, we won’t have any mass-produced goods in this office,” he told The Local this week.

When it’s finished, the converted old brick industrial space will serve as Etsy’s international headquarters – plus a gallery, workshop and community centre to further develop the web company’s “Do-it-Yourself” spirit, he said.

Stinchcomb calls the more than 170,000 people worldwide who sell their handmade goods at Etsy’s customised online shops “makers.” Their products include jewellery, photography, original silkscreened t-shirts, stationery, vintage clothing and housewares. But more than being just the eBay of alternative crafters, the site also fosters a community of creative people through technology and business education, emphasising personal contact between buyers and sellers.

The Brooklyn, New York company was founded in 2005 by Stinchomb’s roommate at the time, Robert Kalin. But it has since grown to include buyers and sellers in more than 150 countries with gross merchandise sales totalling $180.6 million in 2009. The fact that an estimated 30 percent of the company’s business is taking place abroad encouraged Etsy to chose Berlin as a base from which to expand its international services.

“To be honest, we didn’t really consider anywhere else,” Stinchcomb told The Local. “What was happening in Brooklyn five years ago is happening here now. The notion of a creative class is taking hold.”

Stinchcomb and his Munich-born wife, Benedikta Karaisl von Karais, also one of the company’s three Berlin-based employees, both said they have been feverishly exploring and collaborating with Berlin’s community of “makers” in preparation for their office launch party this Thursday.

Just outside in the office courtyard, standing in a pile of sawdust, is one of these people, Puerto Rican artist Luis Berríos-Negrón. He is building an impressive modular “mobile curatorial unit” for the Etsy office to display local crafts as part of a series of he calls “The Turtle,” which exhibited in Hamburg, Munich and Berlin in 2009.

“I fully believe in the Etsy project. It represents development and structure for a new labour society of artists,” he told The Local. “In the early 70s this idea of trans-disciplinary freelancers began, but no one stood up to represent that new economy before Etsy.”

Extending this representation to include global users is Etsy’s goal for the Berlin office. While getting to know the European DIY community is part of this, tasks for 2010 include making purchases in euro and other currencies possible, offering support in languages besides English, and creating location software.

“We see Etsy working in these countries where we’re doing nothing, but I really want people not to have to work to use the service,” Stinchcomb said. “English may be the global language, but I still think we need to make an effort.”

While Etsy hopes to see further growth through accommodating international infrastructure, Stinchcomb said the company is adamant about not forcing its US model on the new audience and allowing outside influences to have a hand in the company’s evolution.

By the looks of the overwhelming response to the launch party invitation they sent to Berlin residents registered on the site, meeting creative people to make this happen won’t be a problem.

Stinchcomb said they fielded more than double the expected RSVPs and had to close registration.

The Turtle’s sawdust will be swept up and festivities will include tables for guests to craft small items, the presence of new Munich crafting magazine “Cut,” and an exhibition by a local photographer.

“From the response it looks like we’ll have to pad our budget a bit, but really it’s about getting to know the community,” he said. “I just hope we have enough beer.”

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CULTURE

‘Sandals mean freedom’: Eight tips on how to dress like a German

Germans have an international reputation for enjoying functional clothing. A top German fashion expert told The Local whether the stereotypes of German fashion are really true - and what Angela Merkel has to do with modern style.

‘Sandals mean freedom’: Eight tips on how to dress like a German

‘Comfortable and practical’

“It’s pretty easy to define German style,” says Bernhard Roetzel, the author of books on men’s fashion such as ‘Gentleman: A Timeless Guide to Fashion’. “Nowadays the basic dress of a grown-up man is mainly blue jeans, some kind of sweatshirt and an anorak. The shoes are usually comfortable sneakers. This is the basic German fashion that everyone from workers to doctors wears, and it is suitable for 90 percent of occasions.”

The basic theme, he says, is comfort and practicality. “That is very important.”

According to Roetzel, this love for the practical stretches all the way back into the 19th century when most other Europeans still had strict public dress codes.

“It began with a movement called Lebensreform, which valued things like vegetarianism and woollen clothes, which were supposed to be healthy,” he says.

“Even if Germans at the time didn’t like political freedom, they loved the freedom to wear sandals. Freedom for Germans is to wear sandals in places where it is not appropriate!”

A woman lies on the shore of the Schwarzachtalsee in Baden-Württemberg still wearing her sandals. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Thomas Warnack

Dressing down became even more acceptable after the First World War, when Germany became a republic and the aristocracy, with its formal sense of dress, lost its importance. “The Nazis also propagated being active outdoors,” Roetzel notes. “Fashion was seen as something awful created by the French and the Jews to bring about the downfall of German culture.”

When the craze for casual wear crossed the pond from the US in the 1960s, Germans were slow to adopt it. But now jeans are even standard clothing for septuagenarians, he says. “Twenty years after jeans arrived people started to realise that they are great for all occasions – and now everyone wears them. This was the last blow to formal German clothing.”

Dress down for work

The German love for all-purpose clothes means that it is perfectly appropriate to wear jeans to work, according to Roetzel. 

“If you don’t work in a bank or law firm you can probably wear jeans in most offices. A non-iron, short sleeve shirt is also very important. German men love these shirts, despite the fact that you get hot in them.”

You can even wear sneakers in the office. Or, if you have to look a bit smarter “some very cheap, comfortable leather shoes” will make you fit right in.

“In business, it is very important that you don’t stand out,” Roetzel advises. “If you are smartly dressed people will ask if you have an important meeting or will think you are looking for a pay rise. For everyday business, you dress as casually as possible.”

A woman cycles to work in jeans and a simple jacket in Hamburg. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Christin Klose

Nothing too sexy

Meanwhile, women’s workplace style, perhaps even more than men’s, is based on the principle of ‘the more forgettable the better.’

“Women in German business must not look too sexy,” says the fashion writer. “If you wear a skirt, for example, it should not be too short and heels should not be too high.” A “boxy, mouse grey suit” including a jacket that doesn’t complement one’s figure completes the look.

“Whereas in Italy, businesswomen carry Chanel bags, in Germany they usually carry a laptop bag or something very practical. Makeup is also rather reduced, not too much lipstick, nothing that is too obvious,” he says.

No door policy

Ties are basically a redundant piece of apparel in modern Germany, meaning wearing one really is a matter of choice in most settings.

“There are very few places where you are not allowed in if you don’t wear a tie,” says Roetzel. “I don’t know a single restaurant that wouldn’t admit you if you don’t wear a tie. You might not be allowed into Cologne Cathedral if your shorts are too short, but basically, you can wear everything everywhere and Germans love this!”

Funerals and weddings

Even the most formal occasions, such as weddings, funerals and important birthdays are much more informal events than they once were.

“At funerals, people will wear black but they rarely wear a black suit, most people will wear a black sweatshirt and jeans,” says Roetzel.

Copy Merkel

Angela Merkel’s unpretentious style appealed to Germans. Photo: picture alliance / dpa | Fabian Sommer

Anyone looking for inspiration need look no further than recently retired German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who famously wore variations on the same trouser suit for most of her career.

“She had different colours and fabrics but that was her uniform and she also found her hairstyle and that was it. I don’t think she had a stylist,” Roetzel says. “That’s what Germans love. It’s recognizable and it doesn’t look expensive.”

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“In Germany, one thing you should never admit to is wearing expensive, tailor-made clothes,” he explains. “As a politician, you can admit that you like drinking but you should never admit to having an expensive wardrobe.”

In fact, the cheaper the better. “Olaf Scholz has always earned a lot of money but his clothes are awful, his suits are awful – this is just perfect for Germany,” says Roetzel.

Splash the cash subtly (or on outdoor clothes)

This is not to say that all Germans wear cheap clothes, but they don’t make a big fuss about the brands that they do wear.

“People want to express status by wearing certain brands,” Roetzel points out. “But in Germany, this is done in a very subtle way. You will see small details in the clothes and glasses of a professor or doctor that will tell you a lot. Class exists but people hide their status because it is negative to show it off. This can be hard for foreigners to detect.”

There is one major exemption thought to the rule of not flaunting your wealth – outdoor apparel.

“Outdoor clothes are really a big thing here,” Roetzel says. “It gives people a sense of freedom and healthiness. Spending €800 on an outdoor jacket is perfectly okay. But it is a sin to spend the same amount on a tailor-made suit – you will destroy your image if you admit to doing this.”

Moreover, anyone who wants to impress Germans through their possessions would be better advised to buy a good car or modern kitchen, the fashion expert says. “It is perfectly normal to have a very expensive kitchen, but your clothes should still be cheap.”

Focus on inner beauty

The German (dis)interest in fashion can actually tell us a lot about deeper German values.

“There is an old Prussian saying of mehr sein als schein (content is better than appearance). Germans feel that if something is too beautiful there must be something fishy about it. Anyone who is too smartly dressed could be a conman,” says Roetzel.

“Germans are very honest, they like to be very direct. They say “what’s the point in not wearing sandals if it’s hot?’”

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