After a less than welcome start in Berlin’s counterculture central, the premium denim and casualwear retailer is well on its way to becoming one of Europe’s most respected indies.
Offer Men’s casual clothing
Principal brand Edwin
Owner Alan Sommerville
Plans “To make more of the basement”
Web address www.akeef.net (the staff model the clothing)
If you were British and in the business of setting up a shop selling men’s denim and casualwear, Berlin might not seem the obvious place to do so. This is, after all, probably the most high-profile destination for casualwear on the continent and, with competition like this, why not go somewhere else?
Your view might change if you were a long-term British expat in Berlin who was in the music business and looking for the chance to do something different. That, more or less, was the logic that underpinned Alan Sommerville’s decision to launch Akeef in October 2008, a denim shop in the distinctly counterculture district of Kreuzberg.
Sommerville says he opted to open the store in this area, rather than affluent and fashionable Mitte in the heart of former east Berlin, “because I felt that there was nothing like it here”.
Berlin is a city of distinct areas and he certainly has a point, but he recounts that when the store opened, paint bombs and graffiti across the shopfront were standard fare, along with cries of “Yuppies go back to Mitte”.
Two years down the line, however, this is largely a thing of the past. Sommerville is now hatching plans to do more with the basement at the premises - all trade is currently carried out from the ground floor. Akeef has, as he says, become a fixture in the area by word of mouth, and the blend of music culture and casual clothing has created a destination that is different from the big, branded denim stores of Mitte.
In case you’re wondering, Akeef is named after a racehorse that the owner’s father took a punt on. It means “the special one, the only one, there is no other like him” in a near-Orient tongue - which is a long translation of a short word.
Key looks and merchandise mix
Akeef’s bottom line is Japanese denim brand Edwin. The shop is filled with different cuts, with prices starting at ¤99 (£87) and rising to ¤140 (£123), which will secure the shopper a pair in style ED47, Akeef’s best-seller.
There are other jeans brands present, with Lee, Nudie, Studio d’Artisan and German brand Pike Brothers all having representation.
Yet there is rather more to Akeef than denim, with a wide range of shirts from a variety of labels. One of the more intriguing of these is Banuq, a brand founded in Berlin in 2009 by Italian designer Davide Grazioli and manufactured in Ethiopia using fully certified organic fabrics and vegetable dyes.
To complete the outfit, footwear from Keds runs from ¤60 (£53) to ¤129 (£114), enabling the man of style to kit himself out from top to toe. This is a strong and quirkily modern selection that gives Akeef a point of difference when set against the many merchants serving the same market in Mitte.
You don’t expect fancy in this form of retailing and Akeef is not - it is straightforward in a ‘what you see is what you get’ sort of way. Shirts are side hung around the perimeter and all of the jeans are in simply folded piles on shelves and tables. The display fixtures are wooden and domestic in feel, but given an industrial edge by the polished concrete floor and white walls.
Where shirts are featured, they are folded and placed on wooden oblongs that are hung, picture-style, around the store’s walls.
This store’s design is about reclaimed furniture and high levels of natural daylight to afford the relatively plain colours of the stock the chance to shine.
Anybody visiting a specialist jeans retailer expects the staff to not only know what’s in stock, but for them to be able to provide a detailed rundown of what makes a particular item worthy of consideration.
The staff in this shop are, for the most part, British yet seem perfectly at ease with successfully selling in German. This might not seem worthy of comment, but it is in the nature of aspirationally priced men’s casualwear that generally it does not sell itself and the art of persuasion is central to keeping the tills ringing.
Given the average Brit’s incompetence, even in the mother tongue, full marks therefore to the staff for their ability to communicate the finer points of the Akeef offer in a language that is not their own.
There’s a fairly standard approach to creating interiors for this kind of merchandise in the German capital that involves taking a building that has been used for something else, distressing it further and then putting in a few pieces of repurposed furniture.
The idea is to create a kind of edgy shopfit that looks as if it was done yesterday but is really the outcome of careful and systematic selection and thought.
Akeef follows this as much as anyone else but does so with more style than many. There are some surprising touches, such as the fitting room which has a wooden trapdoor in the floor that leads to a basement where music-based events are held from time to time.
The plain, beaten-up leather sofa also invites you to sit down and take your time. You’ve seen it all before, but it is
Would I buy?
There is much to commend Akeef and a purchase was very nearly made. It wasn’t though, because easyJet does not allow more than one piece of hand baggage on their flights without the passenger paying a lot of money.
The staff are amiable, selection is simple because of the highly edited nature of the offer, and there is a pleasantly counterculture feel about the whole enterprise.
This is not about sophisticated glamour and slickness, but an honesty that appeals.
A store that is typically Berlin minimalist and demands to be taken seriously. Akeef is worth crossing the broad and busy Wiener Strasse for and, when you do, a warm welcome awaits.
John Ryan Group stores editor
With a background in fashion buying, including a 10-year stint at C&A in the UK and Germany, John Ryan writes about visual merchandising, store design and the business of launching new shops. As a journalist, he has covered the sector for more than a decade