"Such a deal!" aren't words heard much these days from Americans visiting Europe. But for shoppers in Berlin, they're not uncommon -- at least in the German city's plentiful secondhand stores.
"Secondhand" can mean a lot of things in Berlin. The thrift shop variety abounds, but real effort is required to pick through the overflowing racks of rundown and ratty hand-me-downs. Garage (Ahornstrasse 2, Schoeneberg) is the biggest of this genre and sells clothes by the kilo for about $19. Classic vintage is also popular, such as the glittering 1920s ballgowns and cocktail dresses at Sterling Gold (Oranienburger Strasse 32, Heckmann-Hoefe).
Serious clotheshorses, however, can hunt down a relative newcomer to this scene, often dubbed "first-class secondhand," which sells top (used) designers at affordable prices. They're the sort of resale shops known elsewhere as consignment shops, but these stores are generally cheaper than their counterparts in other European cities.
Germany has become one of the world's leading fashion exporters, and Berlin -- longtime home to the edgy and arty crowd -- has been touted as a new fashion capital. Indeed, Germans are behind many world-famous labels: Escada was founded by Wolfgang and Margaretha Ley; Chanel and Fendi get their rags from Karl Lagerfeld. Then there's Jil Sander, Wolfgang Joop and Helmut Lang, as well as some exciting newer lines like Lisa D. and Frank Leder.
You can find all those fashionistas and their European colleagues along the strips of Friedrichstrasse and Kurfuerstendamm. But don't go there. Those streets are either as Gap-ridden as an American mall or resemble Rodeo Drive, with even more breathtaking price tags.
Instead, head to a quiet street in the leafy Charlottenburg neighborhood for some real bargains. A short stretch of Mommsenstrasse boasts some the city's best upscale secondhand shops, and a few more dot the charming side streets. Travel guides usually don't list them, instead directing tourists to the multitude of junkier shops, nor are these stores posted on English-language Web sites. Shoppers may still balk at some of the prices -- $500 for a used suit?! -- but most of the finery has barely been worn (some never), and it's as much as 75 percent off original prices, running as low as $20.
Start off at Macy's (Mommsenstrasse 2; not affiliated with the American chain) on the corner of Knesebeckstrasse, where women and men can find some of the chicest buys. Big names like Prada, Claude Montana and Armani join the lesser- knowns on the racks. While well stocked, the shop is attractively organized and a pleasure to pick through, and it offers a good collection of shoes and handbags. Montana is, in fact, my favorite designer, so I was thrilled to see one of his suits at a discount. Unfortunately, the price break only brought it down to $700, a little high for my budget. Sweaters may be the best bargains at Macy's, which has some of the steepest prices on the strip.
Wander on down to Bibab (Mommsenstrasse 62, www.bibab.de), which stocks Jil Sander, Joop, Strenesse and Plein Sud. One visit uncovered a Mandarina Duck backpack for just $45, about a third of what it would cost new. That whimsical Italian handbag maker is still inexplicably impossible to find stateside, and I'm kicking myself I didn't buy it. Alas, I'd spied it after I'd slapped down $60 for some beautiful Audley shoes from Britain and figured I'd better save my money for all the shopping still ahead in that promising quarter.
Owner Cynthia Scheuer opened Bibab 13 years ago when there were only two other competitors on the street. She says the upmarket secondhand business has only really taken off in the past five years, but now Mommsenstrasse has "become quite the shopping mile."
Actually, that "mile" is only about a four-block stretch, so it's easy to hit all the secondhand stores in an afternoon. The time-challenged should be sure to visit Secondo (Mommsenstrasse 61), whose labels include Jil Sander, Prada, Strehle, Gucci, Valentino and Dolce & Gabbana. It also has a good selection of menswear and a wide price range, from $15 to $1,300. Owner Sabine Kadgien says some particularly good buys on her racks this spring were D&G Jeans for $60, a Valentino evening dress for $900 and some designer jackets for $125 to $300. T-shirts spanning fetching to funky range from $15 to $125.
Since it's just two doors down from Secondo, even the busiest traveler should take time for a peek at Caro Second Hand (Mommsenstrasse 65). I was lured by a stunning gray jacket of unknown make on the sale rack outside the eye-catching black-and-white storefront. It was just $25, but too small. Inside were some lovely winter coats ranging from $200 to $1,000. I was amazed to find one by German designer Walter Krines, whose beautifully tailored asymmetrical woolen wear people tend to hang onto. This one was a bargain at $400, as new ones go for around $700 to $1,500, but it was too big despite all the bratwurst I'd been eating.
Chiara (Bleibtreustrasse 39) carries many of the usual suspects like Marc Jacobs, Chloe and Valentino, as well as Alessandro Dell'Acqua, who specializes in knitwear and designs for the Swiss house of Bally. Prices run as low as $20 for tops and as high $900 for a Valentino leather coat.
-- Gretchen Cook
For more information, check out Berlin Tourism Marketing at www.berlin-tourist-information.de/index.en.html. For general info: German National Tourist Office, 800-637-1171, www.germany-tourism.de.