MAKING IT IN BERLIN: An Expat Success Story
From its chic premises in the Forum shopping centre in west Steglitz, you’d be forgiven for thinking that The Ave is another identi-kit ‘curated’ shopping experience, the kind that would thrive in London (if only you could afford the retail space), but is something of an anomaly in Berlin. The truth however, is something much more interesting. The Ave is the brainchild of Rayan Mark Simpson, a former army man from the US who set up shop in Berlin after moving here to study in 2011, and threads together fashion, culture and the expat struggle.
A keen observer of the fashion business, Simpson was in touch with several fashion startups in New York before he decided to start a small designer T-shirt business, The Ave. He began the business from his apartment in Berlin by selling online at The-Ave.de.
Having served in the US army for four years between 2002 and 2006, and spending a good chunk of that time based in Ansbach, Germany on the Katterbach base, Simpson had already got the flavor of Germany long before The Ave. During that time Simpson had served in Iraq and Kosovo, but when we caught up with him he was keen to steer the conversation onto his real passion: his clothes.
The idea for The Ave came to Berlin by way of Brooklyn. Simpson’s friend Mike is the owner of the DIEM (DOES IT EVEN MATTER) brand and Simpson visited the store in New York in 2012. He saw the opportunity to bring the distinctly US-feel of DIEM clothes to the European market. He had been enjoying success with his designer T-shirts and was starting to wonder if there was room to expand. He asked Mike for the exclusive rights to sell the line in Europe. He then opened his first store in Ansbach and his second in Berlin on 24th July this year. He also relaunched his website The-Ave.de this year to meet the latest fashion trends. For Simpson the idea was straightforward: couple DIEM-branded goods with this own designer T-shirts and sell them to German consumers.
I grew up with the founder in Brooklyn Flatbush, and when l saw what he was doing l asked if it would be OK if I try and bring DIEM to Germany because l saw there was a big hip hop culture here in Berlin. I felt sure that people here would relate to the brand.
What started from an apartment in Spandau selling T-shirts online, is slowly morphing into an international business. “We only had ten T-shirts when we started business. Now l’m the exclusive wholesale distributor for Germany, working on absolute rights for all Europe.”
Of course, fashion in Berlin is anything but homogenous, the scene is exciting, multicultural, and unwieldy. Berlin, just like its people, is diverse; naturally there’s room for hip hop influenced clothing too. So the burning question we had at Berlin Logs is: “are Berliners different to Americans when it comes to fashion?”
Yes and no, the problem here is that everyone wants what Americans are wearing but styles change like the seasons. Meaning it takes one to two years for a brand that’s popular today in America to come to Germany. So the fashion sense is not different, just the timing of the fashion trend is a little off.
While not entirely convinced that Berliners are lining up simply to deck themselves out in US fashions, there’s no arguing with success, and Simpson has had success by the bucketload. Not that it has all come easily. In the early days Simpson reports that he struggled with the normal ups and downs of business life and the difficulty of reaching his target audience. His other problem is more typically Berlinish – the problem of working with people in a city that’s constantly in transit. But as his store in Steglitz enjoyed its grand opening in July, Simpson can look back with satisfaction: an expat that conquered the unconquerable. An expat that made it in Berlin.
Sarah Coughlan is the managing editor of Berlin Logs.
You can find her at: www.bulletproofed.org where she hides her academic proofreading business.