‘Cartel of silence’: The Jewish roots of Berlin fashion

“I was in Yad Vashem before that a few years ago, but this time I got invited,” Westphal told the Post. “I got to present my book.”

Poster for the Hochschule für Zuschneidekunst, a vocational school for pattern cutters (photo credit: JEWISH MUSEUM BERLIN/JENS ZIEHE)
Poster for the Hochschule für Zuschneidekunst, a vocational school for pattern cutters
After author Uwe Westphal launched his book, Fashion – Metropolis – Berlin 1836-1839: The Story of the Rise and Destruction of the Jewish Fashion Industry, about the Jewish roots of Berlin fashion at Yad Vashem on Thursday, he spoke with The Jerusalem Post.
“I was in Yad Vashem before that a few years ago, but this time I got invited,” Westphal said. “I got to present my book.”
“The book is, in the first instance, a history book,” Westphal said about his publication. “It’s the first and ultimate history of the German-Berlin-Jewish fashion industry.”
The book delves into and analyzes the rise and fall of Jewish fashion industries in Berlin – the rise after Jews were permitted to work freely in Germany in the mid-19th century, and the fall as the Nazi Party rose to power in 1933, driving Jews out of their industries and either out of the country or into concentration and labor camps.
“What I found very interesting was that hardly anybody actually looked at that particular industry in Berlin because it wasn’t so prestigious, somehow,” Westphal explained. “The steel industry, the electric industry, were far more prominent and researched [regarding] Jewish participation, [which] in the fashion industry was roughly 85% of all companies.”
Westphal said that as a fashion reporter he would travel to the fashion capitals of the world, including Milan, Paris and New York. On one of his trips to Paris, he met a “very fine old lady” who told him that as a Jew she had been removed from her business as a prominent fashion designer in Poland in 1936. She “left Poland for London and tried to be a fashion designer there, but it didn’t work.
“She gave me the initial kick-off, and I put adverts into various papers – and after about a year and a half, I had boxes of eye-witness reports, drawings, business reports from Jewish companies. And that was the moment when I thought, ‘Okay, this is actually worth a good story,’” Westphal said.
Fashion, as the author presented it, was one of the industries most impacted by the rise of the Nazi Party, which had several reasons to target the industry.
The first reason was money: There was real estate and property to pillage.
The second reason was the “expert know-how” of the Jewish proprietors. “Berlin was once the largest fashion exporter in Europe, which exported all over the place – and a lot of these firms had a Jewish background,” Westphal explained. “The working conditions were absolutely appalling. 90%-92% [of the employees] were female, I would say. They were exploited.”
But the Nazi regime, being national socialist, did not accept this form of globalization surrounding German products. “It became more and more clear that the Nazis actually didn’t like that kind of international style in fashion,” said Westphal. “Ultimately, the Nazis wanted to [get] the real estate all around the city center from the fashion stores – and then, as a final point, the German fashion designers saw their great chance to acquire properties, and they did it. They got [them] for 10%-15% of the actual value of the property. They made use of it during the war and after the war.”
Oftentimes, those same young fashion designers learned their craft from the Jewish companies before the Nazis removed them. “When Berlin needed a lot of fashion [after the war], they opened up their new business in the name of the old Jewish owners – another sick move of trying to forget or basically to f*** it up in a big way.”
After the Nazis invaded Paris, they began to steal the exquisite fabrics that belonged to old Parisian couture fashion. “They took all the stuff in trains... brought it to Berlin and gave it to the Nazi fashion designers,” Westphal explained.
Once World War II broke out, the labor camps took over the job of producing clothing. “75% of clothing was produced in forced labor camps,” Westphal stated. “So the irony was that basically, if a company in Berlin was confiscated in ‘38, then a non-Jewish German person came and took over for 15% of the company value.
The [original] owners, after ‘39, got deported, because they were Jewish, to concentration camps. Then the Nazis had this cynical idea of putting them in forced labor camps, running the fashion industry for Germany from the forced labor camp.”
The Jewish fashion designers “had to work on their own sewing machines for the Nazi regime” in the labor camps. “This is sick,” Westphal added.
Hugo Boss, which designed the SS uniforms, created its clothing in labor camps.
The company, in hindsight, addressed their involvement with the Nazis and their support of the Nazi regime, but made no move to give funds for restitution.
When approaching the German Fashion Council, Westphal asked why they don’t say anything or make any public statement on the subject.
They refused to comply. “I call this the cartel of silence,” Westphal said. “It has been up since 1948 and no one wants to talk about it.”