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Karl-Heinz Müller

The Bread & Butter trade show concept may have come to its founder in a dream, but his vision has evolved into a market-leading reality which is a permanent fixture in the fashion calendar

The temperature has soared to a stifling 30°C at the young fashion fair’s new location – Tempelhof Airport in Berlin – and Bread & Butter founder Karl-Heinz Müller is mopping his brow and taking a break as he greets Drapers.

“B&B came to me in a dream,” he says. “I went to bed and had a vision of an event with clothes, music and food and all of my passions together under one roof. I woke up and decided that was my calling.”

That was more than eight years ago and B&B attracted 567 exhibitors and about 80,000 visitors for the spring 10 season on the back of the show’s trademark ingredients: its early dateline, its powerful brand mix and its sense of fun. This recipe has combined to make B&B the leading trade fair for the young fashion, denim and streetwear markets in Europe, if not the world.

Casually dressed in Pepe Jeans denims and a navy Lacoste polo shirt, Müller is taking a break in the press office above the fairground below. “It was never the plan to get this big,” he says, flashing a toothy smile and looking down at the show. “The reason we are successful is that I understand what the market needs. I am also a retailer and I have been a salesman [see CV].”

B&B was founded in 2001 as a small showcase of 50 brands. It attracted about 5,000 visitors largely because it launched on the same dateline as the now-defunct Interjeans exhibition in Cologne. The show was held in that location for two years before moving to Berlin in 2003. B&B then outgrew its Berlin location at the Siemens Kabelwerk hall and headed for Barcelona in 2005 where it became a regular fixture on the seasonal show calendar. That was until Müller announced the show was moving back to Berlin.

He says it was a feeling in his gut, combined with “encouragement” from the Berlin mayor, which prompted him to move the show to Tempelhof Airport in the German capital. Müller denies the mayor gave him the venue for free to lure him back, insisting he pays “adequate” rent for the site.

B&B has committed to the Tempelhof venue for a decade. This will be the longest period the show has stayed in one location and marks a significant shift in strategy for Müller, who had originally envisaged creating a sort of “travelling roadshow”, moving from country to country to keep the concept fresh. However, ensuring good transport links, adequate venue size and reasonable costs has become increasingly important to Müller. 

He will not divulge how much profit B&B makes, but says during its tenure in Barcelona it pumped more than ¤100 million (£86m) into the local economy.

Of B&B’s creation, he says: “It was a success from day one [in Cologne]. I wanted the booths to be open and no higher than head height. I wanted people to see each other and their
rivals as friends – it should be one community.”

The layout of this season’s B&B and its nine adjoining halls, which stretch over 1.2km, was choreographed to replicate a branded retailer’s in-store mix and it retains some of Müller’s original vision. Nike, for example, which attracts swathes of buyers each season, was positioned at the far end of the fair to encourage a steady stream of customers to walk the length of the show.

The issue of brand adjacencies and the exhibitor editing process will always provide trade show organisers with a challenge – there was some resistance to the rejig of halls in Berlin – and Müller, who is very hands-on with the process, is bullish about his reasoning. “I can see how many visitors a brand has had and I’ll have a deep look and ask why,” he says. “If I think the brand is out of step with the show, I’ll pull them out of the portfolio.”

However, the show format is not flawless and Müller will tweak it in time for the autumn 10 edition, which takes place from January 20-22. 

The number of exhibitors is expected to stay the same, but some UK independents are calling for the UK brands, which were missing from the roster this season, to return to the fold.

Stuart Gordon, owner of menswear indie Apache in Horsham, West Sussex, says: “I think the show was absolutely brilliant in its new location. The problem for me is where were Gio-Goi and Henleys? I’m not sure I’ll make the trip if they don’t come next season.”

Visitors from the UK this season accounted for 7% of overall attendance. However, Müller says he will no longer publish total visitor numbers despite the fact B&B has been transparent about attendance historically. Müller says attendance figures are “irrelevant”, although cynics believe attendance in July was well down on the equivalent show in Barcelona. However, this could be as much to do with the current climate as the show itself. 

Müller says he doesn’t understand why some retailers stay away from trade shows. He speaks from experience as the owner of 14oz, a branded indie in the hip Mitte district of Berlin, in which menswear brand Nigel Cabourn and womenswear brand Paul & Joe Sister sit alongside denim brands such as PRPS, the best-selling brand in store. He claims the recession has ushered in a new dawn for the entrepreneur and the independent. “Indies have more chance than the big chains at the moment. They know their customer and what they have in store,” he says. “They can make much faster decisions than the directors of Debenhams, for example. Entrepreneurs will have a renaissance.”

His advice to brands? “It is very hard out there. There is a financial crisis which will have a dramatic impact on society. Shoppers will spend the same but will buy fewer pieces. They are looking for value.

“The past decade has been about brands with strong marketing. That is less important now. It is time for really good product.” 

Q&A

Who in fashion do you most admire?

I admire people who know what they want and focus on realising their ideas; people who are original and authentic. Karl Lagerfeld [Chanel creative director] is a very unique character.

Do you have a business mentor?

Of course there have been people who have supported me, but in the end my visions and ideas come from me; I have a very clear idea of how things need to be.

What is the most prized possession in your wardrobe and why?

That would definitely be my first pair of Levi’s jeans. My grandmother gave them to me as a present. She wanted me to look up to date and saved up for a long time to buy them for me. Those jeans hold a lot of memories for me.

Who is your favourite designer and why?

I very much respect Jason Denham [founder of denim brand Denham]. He has worked in the industry for a long time. Now he does his own thing and has founded his own brand. He puts a lot of love into his work and shows a great deal of engagement and determination.

What do you enjoy doing outside work?

When I set up Bread & Butter I created a trade show that goes beyond the classical definition of a trade fair. Many of my personal interests such as design, art, music and good food, are combined in the show. Outside work my family comes first. I enjoy spending time with them and doing things such as going to the zoo, going for walks and cooking at home.

CV

2001 Launches Bread & Butter in Cologne

1999 Opens Berlin indie 14oz

1995 Managing director, Pepe Jeans, Germany

1992 Managing director, Marc O’Polo, Germany

1984 Managing director, Big Star, Germany

1981 Sales rep, Levi Strauss

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