May 13th, 2005


Supermarkets and style

The big supermarket for the downtown Friedrichshain area is Kaiser's on the Warschauer Strasse. It's my local Berlin supermarket, and I must say that of all the cities I've lived in, and all the supermarkets I've frequented, it has the youngest and most "alternative" clientele. Last time I was in there I saw a crusty-hippy-punky-squat girl tasting one grape from each packet. She must have eaten a whole packet's worth right there at the fruit counter. It was a kind of grape taxation, and she clearly felt entitled to it.

Supermarkets I have known: my last two London supermarkets were Tesco Metro in Covent Garden and the Barbican Safeways. At Tesco Metro I always thought the Filippino check out girls were the coolest-looking people there, young and beautiful and fairly natural-looking, while the customers, mostly local shop and office workers, sported naff clothes, semi-celeb tans, and over-styled, highlit, trickledown hairstyles. At the Barbican Safeways you'd see some pretty students from the nearby Guildhall School of Music: rather serious and conservative young people carrying violin cases. In New York I frequented the ultra-smelly Hong Kong Supermarket on the corner of East Broadway and Allen Street. I was often the only non-Chinese in there, and loved the cheap and dirty exoticism. (Typical basket: weird spicy salads containing marinated peanuts, Corn Flakes, chick peas, oranges, milk, a copy of the New York Times.) In Paris my favourite supermarket was Tang Freres, a huge oriental supermarket in the 13th arrondissement, though I'd usually just buy food from the local alimentation in Montmartre. In Tokyo I haunted Sunday Mart, where the Meguro Dori meets Yamate Dori. That was tidy, domestic, noisy (lounge muzak clashed with the Sakana fish song) and hideously expensive. This last time in Tokyo I found a much nicer supermarket hidden behind a narrow shopping street in Nishi-Ogi, filled with musicians with spiky dyed Men's Non-No haircuts.

Back to Berlin, and Kaiser's. Here are some snaps I shot of customers (including me) when I was in there yesterday evening:

Berlin sometimes seems like a museum of youth culture styles we invented in Britain: punk, goth, Spiral Tribe crusty. In Britain there's a perpetual dialectic between alternative lifestyles and the money system, which means that within a couple of years any given subcultural style will have been turned into a big business club scene, and then, shortly after that, will be the soundtrack and the style of a bank commercial, and, just after that, will be utterly naff, dead and unmentionable. But in Berlin it seems that punk, goth, industrial and rave looks are adopted for life by people who live them as permanent subcultural styles, entirely apart from the money system. Nobody hypes them up, buys them out, and flogs them dead. The styles are "timeless and eternal", the visual corollary of a life of protest and tolerated companionable deviance. Their adepts resemble post-protestant monks and nuns who've taken lifetime vows ("I will own two big dogs and make sculpture out of junk"). It's touching but also somewhat appalling.

So while I find the looks on offer at Kaiser's interesting, I feel like I could never quite admire them or want to copy them. I don't share the conception of style of these subcultural Berliners. Their looks seem very retro, very flashbacky to me, although they'd probably think me superficial for saying that. I mean, this girl with her shaved head, long Orthodox Jewish forecurl (the hairstyle Devendra Banhart wore when he was at SFIA, apparently), tartan mini-skirt, yellow tights, trainers... she looks like a Turkish Modette or a post-punk art student from 1981. As for the guy with the blue-striped eyebrows and the blue-tipped hair, I fully expect to see him next on some rave-carnival wasteground breathing fire and juggling with fibre-optic skittles. Very 1988! And very Berlin (though in fact he turned out to be English).

As for the bloke below, the one with the eye-patch, well, it's clear that he takes his style from thrift shops, from Asian people, and from the very elderly. For instance, he probably thinks the coolest person in Berlin is either his Japanese girlfriend or the 94 year-old lady with the short mannish hairstyle who lives next door. In fact, he probably just moved into a flat vacated by another guy with a Japanese girlfriend, and probably just sent his friend news of that old lady next door, and got a reply that said: "Great to hear things are working out in the new apartment; and funny that story about seeing your neighbor, Mrs. Pankow, with the bathroom door open. I love that woman. Sometimes Kaori and I would say hello to her and she would come to the door with a robe on that exposed at least one of her breasts. Very free I guess."