Ever since the Cold War spy thrillers of my childhood, I’d always dreamed of going to Berlin. As I grew up and travelled, Berlin retained a mystique that was enhanced by people like Bowie and Christiane F, Wim Wenders, and German industrial music.
For many years I avoided going there from a kind of fear that the reality could never match my perception of the city. Finally, about five years ago, I made my first trip — then in the 12 or so months that followed I returned about eight times.
From that first time Berlin has been a special city. Some people, myself included, believe that places retain something from the events that took place there — like a ghost image or a magnetic force or a ley line.
I’ve heard people say this about places as diverse as Glastonbury, The Tower of London, and Hiroshima. There’s a feeling of connection to the history that took place in that location.
For me Berlin invokes that. A mélange of old imposing Teutonic buildings in areas like Karl Marx allee, and brand new architecture in Alexanderplatz, Berlin constantly mixes the old and the new, the torrid past with the present.
Warehouses, old factories and former office blocks are reinvented as clubs, hotels, and apartments.
Berlin is a very cheap city for a European capital. Hotels, bars, clubs, restaurants, taxis, beer… it’s all substantially cheaper (maybe 40 percent) than in most European large cities.
Berlin is also a laidback city; when you eat at cafés or restaurants, nobody hustles you along. You don’t see CCTV cameras on every lamppost, and you don’t see an intimidating police presence at stations and other places.
U-bahn and S-bahn stations don’t have electronic barriers but rely mostly on the honesty of passengers (and the fact that they provide an efficient and reasonably priced service).
Berlin is also the only city I know of that has made a conscious effort to protect its nightlife scene from property developers and over-gentrification.
So, it’s against this background that the German Fetish Ball made its return to Berlin after a couple of years’ sabbatical in Hamburg.
Through the combined efforts of the GFB and the locally-organised Berlin Fetish Weekend, there were several events on each night. The good aspect of this was that all tastes were effectively catered for.
The bad aspect could have been lower attendences at individual events — but that wasn’t the case at the events I attended, all of which were busy and lively. What follows is my day-by-day overview of the long weekend.
THURSDAY aka “Wir kinder vom bahnhof Ost (we are the children of the station Ost)”.
After checking in to the über-funky hotel Nhow, partner-in-crime Tony Mitchell (aka Tony Okusan/Mitch Anthony) and I spent an evening hooking up with other early arrivals.
We found ourselves attempting to hunt down fashion show items, behaving furtively in the Plus Hotel, hanging around the Ostbanhoff trying to find people due to arrive, and walking by the graffiti-covered East Side Gallery (former section of wall that borders the river).
We ended the night getting drunk(er) on cocktails in the bar of the Nhow hotel (because they weren’t that expensive)
FRIDAY aka “Quadrophenia Cocktail Party International Invasion Force — Riot Police gather”.
Friday night saw the first major event of the weekend, the BFW-hosted Sevens Sins of Fetish cocktail party/reception at the Red Backstage in Friedrichshain.
Put briefly it was a lot like that scene in Quadrophenia when all the mod scooter boys arrive and reunite in Brighton. If you haven’t seen Quadrophenia then think of Friends Reunited or that Thin Lizzy track The Boys are Back in Town.
Partygoers, models, performers et al from across the globe — even GFB promoter René de Parade — turned up, and people started to get their buzz on for the weekend. As more people arrived the party extended from the back room cocktail bar to the main Red Rooster Bar at the front, and out onto the street.
There was a large UK contingent and special kudos goes to Mad Alan who turned up in a hearse he’d driven from London. Various groups left for the several parties that were taking place and others hung around and broke their resolutions to take it easy the first night.
Nearby in the area east of Warschauer Strasse and near the station, riot police had been gathering throughout the day. I’m not sure why they were there but probably not because of the cocktail party (even though there were a lot of English people drinking a lot). Nothing seemed to happen but it kinda added to the ambience.
SATURDAY: “Down the market, Jeux Sans Frontiers in the park, KitKat time”.
Every fetish weekend now has a fetish market (née expo or fayre/fair). Berlin had several. I attended the main one: the German Fetish Fair organised by the GFB at Umspannwerk Kreuzberg close to Gorlitzer Bahnhof.
This interesting building on three floors had a good cross-section of vendors including photographers and artists, and a reasonable amount of customers and browsers.
Outside the fair venue there was a stop for the circular bus tour that took in most of Berlin’s fetish retail shops and design studios. In brief, no shortage of shopping choices and plenty of help finding them.
After loitering for a while I wandered just up the road to Gorlitzer park to hang out at one of the many parades held that weekend to celebrate immigrants to Berlin (these events are held over the Whit weekend every year across the city).
It wasn’t anything to do with the GFB but it helps to give a feel of the city. A few thousand people were enjoying the sun in the park along with ethnic foods and shows of all kinds for all ages, and no heavy police presence. In fact I didn’t see any police at all, or any one getting stabbed.
My Saturday night choice, out of at least three possibles, was the Fetish Network Party at the famous/infamous KitKatClub. The KitKat is a Berlin legend and home to all shades of alternative club cultures and lifestyles.
From gay to fetish, from goth to techno, the KitKat provides a home and venue for all of these and more. At the weekends it seems to be open about 18 hours every day. I doubt there’s any costume, activity or lifestyle that would faze anyone at the KitKat for a millisecond.
The Network party, organised by the BFW team headed by Savage-Wear’s Alexander Heim, was busy, it was fun, it was dressed up, it was gay, it was fetish, it was straight; the bar prices were not expensive, there were three or four dancefloors and it was still going strong at 6am.
As usual they made me put my coat in the cloakroom (they’ve always had a tick about that) and as usual I pondered that I wouldn’t fancy getting a mouthful of “water” from their indoor pool.
If you visit Berlin it’s compulsory to visit the KitKat; if you don’t like it then it’s time to give up clubbing and start going to Ikea on a Sunday instead.
SUNDAY: “What is the Matrix? Why are those squashed people waving and mouthing silently? Reality TV interrupts and the Verve were right”.
Sunday started late and we made it just in time to the Fetish Whitsun Brunch, again at Red Rooster: a kind of buffet thing with lots of choice of cold cuts and cheeses and cute, helpful staff.
In typical Berlin style they gave you a plate and you paid at the end of your meal. As you were allowed to wander around and outside, this was a trust-based system that may not have worked quite so well in, say, Birmingham.
Sunday night brought us the German Fetish Ball itself at Matrix, a cool state-of-the art nightclub within stumbling distance of our hotel. Entry, drinks, cloakroom etc were run with typical German efficiency.
Several rooms and dancefloors made sure that most musical tastes were accommodated. The main room with stage was utilised for the fashion shows and the yearly European Fetish Awards which seek to acknowledge established and new talents.
I’m sure my hero and mentor TM will be covering said shows and awards so no need for me to duplicate. Suffice to say that I thought the fashion shows were better than usual with a high standard (like a CD where all the tracks are hits).
My memory of the awards is mostly Atsuko Kudo and her partner Simon on video monitors giving their acceptance speech. For some technical reason there was no sound and the aspect ratio was wrong.
This meant the crowd got to see short, fat, squashed versions of the pair waving little fat hands while silently mouthing their thanks.
I advise anyone reading this to turn off the sound and change the aspect ratio of their TV next time an awards show is broadcast — it’s much more fun than the regular version.
All is revealed! After the shows and awards the Matrix staff hurriedly moved everyone — punters, models, GFB staff — out of the main room and into the other rooms. At the time this caused a substantial amount of bad feeling.
The reason behind this turned out to be that Club Matrix has been the subject of a popular German reality TV show and as such has become a mecca for visiting tourists. This means and requires that their main room be open to the general public virtually every night of the year.
So the venue management took back part of the GFB space while the GFB was still in full flow. All is explained, huh?
The GFB was followed by the Fetish Guerilla After Party at a venue nearby, hosted by photographer, event promoter and club legend Martin Pelzer.
I was realising by that point that The Verve were right, and left as the main crowd were arriving. But from previous experience of Martin’s parties I can say this: if you want to see all the cool people on the Berlin fetish scene in one place, attend one of Martin Pelzer’s parties!
MONDAY: “Hhhmmmm, didn’t see much of Berlin this trip. Dinner with Amrita at Amrit. Oranienburger hookers rock”. Self-explanatory really!
OBITER DICTA: Berlin is a great city. I’ve attended fetish events and weekends across the world — Europe, America, Asia; this one was special.
It had a sense of community, partly because of the healthy Brit contingent and the excitement built in advance via Facebook and pre-publicity on The Fetishistas etc.
The return of the GFB to Berlin — on the same weekend as the localy-organised Berlin Fetish Weekend events — suited most people better than the GFB in Hamburg had.
Berlin has soul. The people are warm (except between November and March) and the city is easygoing and laidback for a capital. I will return next year and I think anyone who attended this year will do the same.
Finally a special mention for Ian Dutton, who flew from New York to arrive in Berlin Sunday morning, partied for 24 hours and caught a flight back to NYC on Monday morning. That’s fucking hardcore.