It’s that time of the year again: Fashion Week! On this joyous occasion we went to Charlottenburg to discuss classic menswear with someone who should know: Christoph Tophinke, the mastermind behind the “Chelsea Farmer’s Club“.
We met him in their tiny store on Bleibtreustraße, a cosy venue which they’ll soon exchange for a bigger space on the parallel Schlüterstraße 50. The new store will be a kind of living room for those who prefer to spend their Saturdays sipping fine drinks and enjoying sophisticated chatter. As long as it’s not about “fashion“, that is, because there’s so much more to the world than clothes. We tried, at least, discussing political dresscodes, stuffy Hamburg, and the crucial difference between socks and stockings…
PS. We’ll stay in Mitte for Fashion Week – check our Facebook page for regular updates!
Mary Scherpe: What’s the Chelsea Farmer’s Club?
Christoph Tophinke: In principle, it’s one big joke. In short, it’s a store, where you can buy things to wear. It’s got nothing to do with fashion, in fact you only need three or four of our items and you are supplied until you step into the coffin.
So it’s no club?
Ah, wait. It’s a selling point and of course it’s a club. But you don’t need a membership, you decide for yourself if you’d like to be a member. And it’s about celebrating parties, cooking for friends, trunk-barbecues, making jam with 50 guys…
So it’s more than just the store?
It’s much more. It’s a strange, swirling construction. But the first thing that catches your eye is this Kiosk, of course. And if you keep your eyes open, you will soon understand what else is happening and what we’re getting up to.
Do you call it a Kiosk because there’s always Gin&Tonic?
I use the word Kiosk because I’m afraid of the word „Boutique“. This word sends cold shivers down my spine. What we sell isn’t fashion, it’s just things to wear.
How did the club develop?
Basically, it was a total coincidence. It was about 2004 when we first started, we organized parties with friends and thought it would be appropriate to give them a name. I had the name in my head for about ten or fifteen years, it’s derivated from the Chelsea Farmer’s Market in London. I spent a lot of time there and I still find it kind of okay. In the beginning of the nineties I thought it was a pretty great mix of things, like our store is today. At some point we started organizing black tie parties and had to realize, that many people no longer own smokings. It’s a disaster, if you’re trying to get one at Ku-Damm. That was the moment when we had the idea to hustle them up for about twenty people. We made a list of ten points of how the smoking had to look, and added a stick figure drawing with some arrows around it, fitted at the waist, smaller armholes and a side slit. We sent it to a production company in Ireland, they didn’t respond, but four weeks later we received a package containing the smoking jackets, with a sign saying „teflon-coated“. It was then I knew this was the right direction. The fabric is coated and therefore you can roll on the lawn without wearing plastic, since the fabric is 100% pure new wool. Until today I never understood why noone else made these. But these were all pure coincidences, I never thought they would produce something for us at all, not to menthion that the cut would be so incredibly great
Did you sent them a pattern?
No, just the stick figure drawing and the list. We told them it must look like a uniform, so everything was clear. We started having the smoking produced, and soon added suits. I found a German production company later, that was flexible enough to do anything I wanted. We’re still working with them. They produce in Germany, their quality is unbeaten and they still have a good price.
Did you always wear the British style?
I don’t know – I’m from Hamburg, where this is not so uncommon as it is for the ordinary Berliner.
The store does take its design and concept from classic men’s outfitters.
Superficially, yes. But we are pretty far from the normal idea of what a men’s outfitter does. We offer this bizarre mixture of normal day-wear, party clothing from tuxedo to tails, and the stuff you might wear to law firms and banks, plus everything you need for hunting. Insofar it covers way more than the normal men’s outfitters. Furthermore we offer a considerably better stocked bar than the two obligatory bottles of cheap Sekt.
Yes, that’s the right direction. But of course, for them we are way to…
Exactly. And our interests are broader. I couldn’t imagine doing this as just a clothing store, that would be too boring. That’s why I try to set myself apart from that. I always wondered why my lovely fashion colleagues slavishly focus only on their thing, when the world is brimming with other things.
Let’s talk about clothing: you don’t call it fashion, though it is very fashionable these days.
Yes and no. It is fashionable to cover yourself in checks, or dress a little more colorful. But the idea behind this, that clothing might work like a uniform for reasons of comfort and quality, is not even registered. I think with British fashion it’s always about the cut and the shape. If those are right, I’m allowed to wear colorful socks, excuse me, colorful stockings with a pinstripe suit.
What’s the difference between socks and stockings?
There are no socks, socks are white tennis socks. (laughs) It’s the same with Krawatte and Schlips (ties).
There is no such thing as a Schlips?
our principle is not to hunt after fashion and offer new cuts and pieces every season, but there is this defined set of cuts.
Exactly, it’s pretty simple. There’s a silhouette we believe in. And there might be a different lining and sometimes other buttons, or other pockets on the front. Finished. People shouldn’t, when they come to us, have to think about anything, then we can talk about God and the world, or at least about more important things than clothing.
Would you agree on Eckhart Nickels statement, that „the outer appearance must always breathe a certain lightness, life is hard enough“?
Yes, definitely. To keep life simple is a good thing.
Could you name certain role models for your style?
Surely I could name people that reflect the philosophy. But only very few of those wear clothes I really like. It might a cheap example, but what Prince Charles does is pretty good. It’s amazing how he plays with things. But there are really only just a few people. Vicco von Bülow wearing a smoking, definitely. One of the few Germans who understood this. Many come to mind, but that’s all crap: Cheap copies. People really trying to work at it are rare.
To build up this kind of wardrobe is a lifelong project. It makes it easy to chose each morning what to wear, since it works like an uniform. But to build it sounds pretty complicated. This style is quite restrictive: the button has to be there, the darts may only be at a certain point and so on… As you said, only few manage to do it really well. Doesn’t the lightness get lost here?
Sadly Germans are pretty skilled in obeying rules. There are these kind of fashion Nazis who know which stocking color can be worn at which time, which shirt to wear with a cut and so on… I absolutely don’t care. Those people can only exist on the basis of those rules. But will never be able to understand what really is possible with these clothes. There are some basic coordinates, but they have to be developed from your own personality. Out of those you should construct your own style. In the end it might be complicated, or it might not be.
We’re already in Charlottenburg, but still in Berlin. There is nothing more important for a Berliner like their convenience, they are pretty relaxed…
I don’t think so.
No, definitely not. The Berliners may look relaxed, but in the end quite dull when it comes to clothing. This surely is a result from history, everything needs to be sloppy and out of shape. I consider this comes from a distinct and till today unbeaten lack of interest. And of course the absolute confusion of all those boys and girls coming to Berlin to make fashion with the result that the locals have even less of an idea where to go.
So how does the Chelsea Farmer’s Club concept work with this confused and dull Berliner?
We started in a rather hidden corner of Mitte, where we were 100% sure to not have any walk-ins. At the Veteranenstraße, opposit of Nola’s in 2005. We were the only store opening at ten in the morning, where everyday someone wearing suit and tie was present. It was as if a UFO has landed for the neighbors. The store gained a reputation very quickly and we realized that the concept belonged in Charlottenburg. We never produced for walk-in customers, our concept is too sharp for that. That’s why we always did clothing for friends and family and were very happy when they told it their friends. And it worked from day one. We started to take part in social media very early on. It’s a perfect marekting tool for what we do. We upload a picture of a box on Facebook and after five minutes the phone rings in the store. I love that.
So the construction of a network was important from the beginning?
Yes, this freed us from all that madness that usually comes along with the opening of a store. Thinking about advertising, weird PR appointments, horrible receptions and stuffy trade shows… don’t need to do that, which is very relaxing.
Your network is considerably bigger than just Berlin and so you opened a store in a town that might be even more appropriate for your concept: Düsseldorf.
That was a pragmatic business decision.
Did your customers complain about having to travel from Düsseldorf to Berlin?
We researched which cities work economically in Germany. Düsseldorf is a quite safe bet where you can invest. I don’t want to live in Düsseldorf. I enjoy arriving there, getting in a nice and clean cab, and going into the store. At the same time I think it’s great to be amidst the Berlin madness. Living in Mitte and working in Charlottenburg. I don’t want to risk tapping into the Berlin laziness and not leave my own Kiez anymore.
My tip for all Berliners: walks exceeding your own Kiez – they broaden your world immensely.
Well, Charlottenburg is going to be the next thing anyway.
Oh no, that’s nonsense.
However, there are plenty of galleries moving here or to Schöneberg.
But you can’t say this just because of the gallery flood.
I guess you can notice certain movements, recently I am more often in Charlottenburg, since friends are no longer celebrating their birthdays not at Bar 3, but at Diener.
Isn’t this related to Mitte being sort of a Soufflé? People constantly move there to blow even more hot air into it, and at one point, if you have your synapses under even half-decent control, you realize what nonsense this is.
Still you yourself live in Mitte.
I am from Hamburg which is a very firmly cemented city: you live in a specific neighborhood, have a dark blue car and a blonde girlfriend. You are raised within these basic coordinates and they will be drilled into your mind everyday until you, hopefully, start screaming. It became clear that this wasn’t working for me, so I went to Berlin. I was thinking about moving to Charlottenburg only for a hundredth of a second. It’s quite beautiful…
It is, weirdly West-German. But I thought, no, this isn’t why I wanted to move to Berlin. So I chose Mitte with its bourgeois madness.
The Mitte madness is, by now, quite well commercialized.
But things still burst out at times, which is good.
Let’s get back to the clothing, your concept works well for men: last year dressing „preppy“ was the new thing, „After preppy there’s only death“, etc. But it doesn’t work for women, or does it?
But it works very well! We are not able to produce fast enough to realize all our ideas, since it is complicated to produce women’s clothing in Germany. But if we do have something in the store, women claw it off our racks. They often have a better understanding how to combine traditional pieces in an outfit. Once we had a pile of very classic moleskin jackets for women, and the response was enormous: finally some jackets that are longer, considerably more fitted at the waist and with a robust fabric. A fabric that would never be solt in a German women’s „Boutique“, since it is way too rigid and heavy in their understanding. But this piece is a healthy basic to build everything around.
Where is your production problem?
We still have a problem with the number of pieces we can order, it’s just too few. And there are only a few German production companies left. Our partner is great, but they only do men’s clothing, they are trying to support us, but it’s difficult. Still, we’re working on it!
So let me ask something practical, a sloppy Berliner enters the store – how would you start?
Not at all. This always includes the risk that the person would look ‘dressed up’ and feels incredibly uncomfortable. We have those cases sometimes and I ask them, guys, are you sure? Do you really want this? That’s when the process of thinking about it starts. I consider a smoking a fine start, you don’t wear it too often. It contains a distinct statement. And you can get a lot out of it without looking ‘dressed up’.
Where do you wear a smoking in Berlin!?
For receptions and weddings, at my own parties. It’s horrible that maybe 0,2 percent of the Berlin hosts are able to provide a reasonable dress code. What are you supposed to do with a dress code like „sophisticated“, what’s that supposed to mean? Golden speedos?
So you insist on the rules?
The only rule for invites is one of courtesy: I’ll be happy if you come, so I want it to make it as easy as possible for you.
How do I avoid looking like a Guttenberg clone?
I don’t think he is that well dressed.
But he represents a conservative fashion sense?
So how about the Brioni suits worn by Gerhard Schröder? Or any other positive example in politics?
Maybe someone like Helmut Schmidt, for example, or Otto Schily, they were dressed well all the time. Or Stoltenberg, but he’s been dead for a long time.
It’s a German men’s foible to not be well dressed. The suits are badly fitted across the board…
It’s shameful, declassé, occassionally a joke.
I consider those bad suits as an attempt to express their unwillingness to wear suits.
Yes, but it’s also a complete lack of interest. Coupled with the fear to stand from out from the crowd.
But I also consider which bike I want to ride or in which restaurant I’m ordering Pizza. The suits are obviously left out of consideration or, even better, passed off to the girlfriend – where it starts getting really funny.
You should read Fitzgerald anyway. But it is a danger to just look like a copy. It’s important to find a store with someone in it who’s honest with you.
So you should look for a consultant?
I think this is the right way. Someone who says, forget it, your shoes are fine, you don’t need new ones. If we put someone in a suit, there are only a few things to say. The only important question is, do you feel good or not? If you don’t feel good, get out of it immediately.
But isn’t wearing a suit comfortably also a matter of getting used to it?
Of course. You can learn this at 17, the latest.
Text: Mary Scherpe, Photography: Trevor Good