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Drones and ugly sneakers: The future of buying at luxury chain The KaDeWe Group

By Weixin Zha


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As streetwear blends with luxury and functional become fashionable, the lines between office and leisure wear are blurring. As a fashion buyer, capturing this evolution is the job of Colin Göbel-Thoma. In April, he started as buyer for Urban Sports at German luxury chain KaDeWe Group, which operates three of the most iconic German department stores in Berlin, Hamburg and Munich. In an interview with FashionUnited, he explains a buyer's reaction to trends accelerated by social media, the issue with sneaker retailers, and some unexpected must haves of the season.

You’ve joined The KaDeWe Group after stints at German department stores Lodenfrey and Peek & Cloppenburg. What’s most exciting about your new job at KaDeWe in its Urban Sports division?

Being a pioneer makes it special, not many stores are embracing this area in a big way while we’ve decided for us, that it’s very important.

Is it hard to pioneer as a buyer in the fashion industry when traditional buying practices no longer apply?

Of course, you have to adapt a little. This area is particularly fast-paced, trends spread rapidly through social media, become ubiquitous very quickly and are available everywhere. You have to recognize these trends very fast and execute them in your retail space. On the other hand, you also have to realize when such a trend is over because cycles have become much shorter due to fast-fashion.

Credits: Oberpollinger warenhuis | The KaDeWe Group

How do accelerated trend cycles affect the way you order?

In general, the way you work with suppliers is changing. Before, you planned with a pre- and main collection. Nowadays, flash collections are frequently sprinkled into the season as suppliers are also trying to react to the latest trends. We have to be more flexible with our budget and constantly adjust to what happens within a season.

There are formulas for buyers such as 80 percent established brands and 20 percent new labels, do you still take these into account?

We have to be braver in the Urban Sports division. We try to liberate ourselves from percentages. It’s true that we still build on reliable partners, where we know that we’re generating a big part of our stable revenues with. However, it’s especially important in this area to constantly provide new ideas, trends and brands to keep ourselves and customers up-to-date.

The KaDeWe Group:

The KaDeWe Group consists of the three high end department stores: Kaufhaus des Westens in Berlin, Oberpollinger in Munich and Alsterhaus in Hamburg. The three stores were built at the start of the 20th century and belong to the landmarks of their cities.

Thai department store operator Central Group acquired a majority stake of 50.1 percent in The KaDeWe Group in 2015, leaving Austrian retail and real estate company Signa with 49.9 percent. The three department stores are undergoing a reconstruction until mid-next decade.

At the core of the Urban Sports division, lies concept store The Storey at Oberpollinger. Launched in October 2016, the concept store seeks to bring the spirit of trailblazing concepts such as London’s Dover Street Market and Milan’s 10 Corso Como into the historic Oberpollinger store in Munich. The store offers streetwear from brands such as Adidas Originals, Carhartt and Wood Wood, and will capture trends towards athletic and functional elements in fashion. Overall, the urban wear segment shall gain more prominence at The KaDeWe Group during its current remodeling. The gadgets on offer range from instant cameras through earphones to e-scooters.

During the ordering season, you often hear that the buyers don’t have much room left for new inspirations anymore. How do you obtain your inspirations?

We meet our existing suppliers at fairs but also have separate appointments to order. We really try to allow for some time at fairs to spot new brands and also to see how fairs have restructured. Apart from traveling to fairs, we also travel a lot for inspiration as many trends are born on the streets. We’ve just visited Tokyo and Seoul which are very relevant in setting trends. These cultures are more open and implement things faster, streetwear gained quite a different status there and combinations with luxury items are common.

Credits: Super Asia Campagne The Storey

Despite inspirations from the streets, which fairs remain relevant for you?

Pitti Uomo in Florence continues to be one of the most relevant fairs for menswear and the trend to streetwear is visibly gaining momentum here. Seek in Berlin is a very important fair for us due to its focus, all noteworthy street und urban labels are gathered on a relatively condensed space here. Cities like London, Paris and Milan remain our European destinations.

What are your takeaways from the fairs this season?

The 80s and 90s, retro themes and logos remain very relevant for streetwear brands. We observe that carrying a lot of color is becoming increasingly popular, we don’t have to merely buy black, white and navy anymore. Customers become bolder, they’re going for colours and loudness. The same applies to sneakers, it’s getting more massive, the silhouettes grow chunkier, definitely inspired by brands like Balenciaga, which shaped the market.

Which labels are reflecting your observations and are interesting for you as a buyer?

Brands showing these trends, are for instance Adidas, Fila, Champion, Ellesse and Kappa. On a more athletic level, there are brands like The North Face, Columbia, Patagonia, that are reinventing themselves with streetwear collections.

Photo: Colin Göbel-Thoma

What are the must haves of the season?

An absolute must have item are tube socks, they’re offered by each brand and in each collaboration at the moment. We are seeing a lot of ‘dad sneakers’, ugly sneakers, and cross body bags. Also items leaving the realm of fashion; more technical gadgets, from small speakers to drones. This is the another reason we are aiming for a more conceptual line-up.

When you’re talking about electronic gadgets, doesn’t this surpass the classic profile of a fashion buyer?

Yes, I am actually not buying these gadgets myself, this is the job of my colleagues from the respective department. We’re working very closely with each other in buying, also with the travel and backpack department, because we know that we need the best possible know-how in each product category to present our concept.

Does this also reflect how much the profession of a buyer has changed over the years?

Digitalisation had a big impact as trend research can be done on the go with your smartphone. Previously, you were more reliant on visiting fairs or certain key cities. Now, research and inspiration are blending into all phases. It’s become more diverse as a result.

So I’m guessing you also have an Instagram account?


How many accounts do you have to follow as a buyer these days?

I wouldn’t answer this with a number, but a buyer should look at it regularly, probably several times a day.

People are also shopping differently in this age where technology is ever present. How has this impacted your buying decisions?

We have to go along with what suppliers are pushing in the digital world. Customers of a KaDeWe, an Oberpollinger, an Alsterhaus, expect that we have the products of brands in store that aren’t available everywhere and create a distinguishing factor.

Does this mean that the The KaDeWe Group competes for the most coveted sneaker drops with established sneakers stores from Berlin to Munich?

Every supplier has to build its cluster. Our group has very strong relationships with brands which we take pride in. We’re one of the few department stores that has access to a variety of international brands’ products throughout Europe. Products that our competitors would not be able to get. We’re able to keep up with most sneaker stores.

Why do you still believe in the power of physical retail?

We believe very strongly in it as our stores are regarded as the icons of their cities. Berlin would almost not be conceivable without the KaDeWe, it’s the third most visited sight just behind the Brandenburg Gate. We can offer something to the customer that they can’t get online. It’s a shopping experience and a place, where you like to spend your time, meet others and that inspires you.

Photos: The KaDeWe Group
The KaDeWe Group
the storey