This weekend, in an abandoned parking garage in the trendy Berlin neighborhood of Neukölln, hundreds of club kids, fashion types, and expressive eccentrics made their way through a fog and graffiti-covered exhibition space.
Inside, Comme des Garçons presented a surrealistic film to celebrate the launch of its new perfume series Clash, while upstairs in a vacant lot, Michel Gaubert live-streamed the contents of his iPhone to Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence.” Further back, Alyx’s Matthew Williams paired up with artist Haruka Hirata to present a live installation of Japanese ikebana flower arranging, inspired by their studio’s studied preparation for the 1017 Alyx 9SM show in Paris.
It was all part of Reference Berlin, a new 24-hour fashion festival platforming brands from the Korean eyewear label Gentle Monster to cult London menswear designer Martine Rose, who participated alongside creatives like photographer Matt Lambert and super-curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist. All of this came together to form a patchwork of unexplored and unconventional ideas, with no relation to the fashion schedule, trade shows—or, in some cases, selling anything at all.
“For a long time, Berlin’s been a city of often drastic changes,” said Mumi Haiati, CEO of Reference Studios and the key organizer of the festival alongside the founders of 032c magazine, Joerg and Maria Koch. “People here know how to cope with uncommon situations. I guess you could also call that creativity: There’s a sense of freedom which makes it a place for experimentation.”
The festival began on Saturday and ran through to the early hours of Sunday, with almost 40 contributors taking over the sprawling, derelict parking space to present under the theme “Working Out Loud”, a concept revolving around the sharing of information in the post-digital age. An installation by MTV and design studio Selam X explored what beauty means in the age of face filters and augmented reality. Walk through the neon-lit space and see your face turn silver and undefined on one screen, smooth and Botoxed on another.
The transhuman duo Fecal Matter gave a talk on technology and fashion, and throughout the space, guests invited by the promoter of the queer techno party Cocktail D’Amore seemed to feel right at home, sitting on the ground sipping Moscow Mules, taking in the exhibitions, and dancing on the garage roof as the sun went down.
It felt fitting to hold the event is in Berlin, a laid-back city known for its low rents, techno scene and open, dynamic artistic community. Fashion hasn’t always been an essential part of the city’s cultural fabric, but as Berlin continues to transform, it’s providing a space for raw collaboration that is slowly opening to interactions from the outside.
Within the context of the theme, the participants in Reference were given free rein to create whatever they wanted; still, many were drawn to the underground club culture so ingrained in the city. Photographer Jordan Hemingway teamed up with Jan Heinrich with the support of Dover Street Market, looking to “the undocumented vehicle whose designs dominate subculture and pop culture for the past 30 years”. The vehicle they’re referring to? Ecstasy pills. Meanwhile, Berlin-based artist Spilios Gianakopoulos presented an installation entitled “$€X”, and CCTV Radio—the new platform from the creators of TRADE Berlin—spun minimal, psychedelic techno in a smoky room on the top floor of the parking deck.
“Berlin is home to my creative community and queer family and it gives me an open space to experiment and play that I’ve never found anywhere else,” said Lambert, who directed the film for Comme des Garçons. “Everything is just too easy sometimes and there’s not enough poetry,” added Adrian Joffe, the global president of both Comme and Dover Street Market. “Berlin is the perfect place for such trust and creation to take place.”
The festival expects to continue in years to come, doubling in size next year and showing in Los Angeles in addition to Berlin. As it stands now, Reference was a rare pure space for creative expression and interaction. Perhaps the wider fashion industry should drop by Berlin more often.