These designers are hip, and sales are hoppin'

Walk into this small shop on the cobblestoned Oderbergerstrasse in the urban-chic Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood of central Berlin, and you're likely to think you've stumbled into a secondhand store.

Racks of slightly ratty-looking clothes line the walls - T-shirts, sweatshirts, skirts, faded jeans - some with holes in them, some ripped and printed with wildly bright patterns.

The price tags and, more important, the labels tell a different story, however. Freistil (Freestyle in English) is an exclusive fashion boutique carrying clothes by young Berlin fashion designers.

Those T-shirts cost between $45 and $70 apiece - and each is one of a kind.

A stroll up the street and onto neighboring Kastanienallee reveals that Freistil isn't the only place featuring cutting-edge fashions. Shop after cramped, tiny shop offers a colorful palette of urban wear that is unmatched anywhere in Europe.

Indeed, as more and more young fashion designers open shops and try to make a name for themselves, the gritty "Berlin look" isn't limited just to the city. The rest of Europe is starting to take notice.

"I think we are seeing Berlin go back in time to the 1920s," says Danielle Debie, spokeswoman for Bread and Butter, Europe's biggest urban-wear fashion convention, which moved to Berlin in 2002.

"At that time," she notes, "Berlin was the European city of fashion. Now it is getting its place back and its buzz back."

The buzz isn't limited to the smaller, up-and- coming designers. As the center of the city continues to recover from almost four decades of separation by the Berlin Wall, the historical promenade streets of Unter den Linden and Friedrichstrasse play host to a series of internationally known labels including Escada, Prada, and Yves Saint Laurent.

Despite the return of haute couture, it is the small designers away from the glitz of the city's show streets who are driving Berlin's revival as a fashion city. And their fashions are designed not for high-society ballrooms but for city life as lived by the 20- and 30-somethings who populate the central Berlin districts.

It is high fashion designed for daily wear.

"There is an attempt in Berlin to show where you come from," says Andrea Schwalbe, owner and manager of Freistil. "It isn't expressed through big designers, though, but rather through clothes that look really cheap, but are in reality unique pieces you won't find anywhere else. The clothes almost have to look like they are self-made. I call it the 'anti-fashion' look."

Most of the Berlin labels are small and started by graduates of one of the city's five fashion schools. Cheap store rents and the growing trendiness of the city's central neighborhoods help them eventually turn a profit.

More Berlin labels, however, are taking the next big step into the boutiques of Paris and London. How they are getting there speaks to the appeal of the fashion itself: Rather than being touted in the pages of fashion magazines, the Berlin buzz is spreadingon the backs of the city's nightclub disc jockeys.

Berlin is recognized throughout Europe as the capital of electronic dance music, and the city's DJ's spin in clubs across the continent.

The popularity of the electronic dance-music scene makes the fashions coming out of Germany more attractive to young people, says Francois Picot, art director of the Berlin branch of the ESMOD International Fashion School.

"Fashion designers are talking about Berlin all over Europe," he says. "I think this comes mostly from the nightclub scene."

The Berlin look is an outgrowth of the secondhand clothing stores found in all corners of the city. These flourished in the 1990s, when many young Berliners were struggling to make ends meet and shopped at used-clothing stores, often choosing styles from the 1970s and '80s.

Ms. Schwalbe still dedicates a part of her store to secondhand clothes, intended for mixing and matching with the designer pieces out front.

"I think the look developed through the young people trying to look independent without much money," says Anne Schneider, a fashion student at ESMOD. "It developed into ... a look of its own. Now the new fashion in Berlin is following this.... It was a city [in which] to live cheaply; now it is a city to look like you live cheaply."

In a nod to the past, a number of young designers are incorporating fabrics from the 1970s into their new creations.

Elle Janssen's shop, on the same street as Freistil, is a good example of this. It's a cubbyhole with a cramped workshop behind the counter. It overflows with brightly colored skirts and plaid tops, many of which - except for the modern styling - look as though they could have been worn by the Brady Bunch girls.

The look comes from rolls of fabric she finds while shopping at the flea market in her hometown in northern Germany. "I love searching for older fabrics," Ms. Janssen says. "I then combine these old-fashioned prints with new ideas of my own. It's sort of a combination of grandma and rock 'n' roll."

The popularity of the Berlin fashion scene hasn't escaped the notice of the country's department-store chains.

Buyers from such large chains as C&A and H&M have begun frequenting Freistil, says Schwalbe, often leaving with armloads of freshly designed pieces. They create knockoffs from them and introduce them into their own product lines.

This development has its good and bad sides.

"You might be able to make a name for yourself as a designer," she says. "But in the end you'll die poor."

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