Custom, authentic and exclusive – words that describe the product selection of the small fashion store called Herrenbude in Köln Ehrenfeld (a city district of the German City of Cologne). It’s a concept that is able to keep up with major fashion retailers in the future. A fact that the store’s owner Achim Schmitz taught us first-hand.
Köln-Ehrenfeld, Rothehausstraße: an avenue that’s lined with houses built during the Wilhelmine Period and the Art Nouveau (Jugendstil) Movement. I have no problem spotting the distinctive logo of the Herrenbude from a distance, which showcases a gentleman walking a pig.
Achim answers the door, welcomes me and dives right into the history of the building. “This used to be a bakery,“ he says. He wanted to maintain the building’s distinct flair, which is why the walls still feature tile work halfway up. The sales room of the rock it baby label (the label of Achim’s wife by the way) in the front of the store also harks back to where the sales counter of the bakery used to be: everything is staged in a truly stylish environment. Achim leads me through the former dough prep area into the old bakery or should I say, his Herrenbude (the name loosely translates into “man cave”).
Herrenbude, a Christmas miracle
The Herrenbude has been around since 2008 – but things actually started Christmas 2006. Back then, Achim felt nostalgic and surfed the Internet to find the legendary Finnish footwear brand Karhu he remembered from his youth. “Until 1953, the sneakers featured three stripes and the company still owned the patent. According to company history, Karhu sold it to Adi Dassler for about one thousand dollars and two bottles of good whiskey.“ Unfortunately, Karhu no longer sells the Originals line made in Finland. But I am impressed that Achim knows all of these details.
He goes on and reveals that he is fascinated by these types of stories and has little by little started to collect them and research products. Prior to that, he worked as a creative producer on film and TV productions and assisted clients with a specific budget to find what they were looking for. “I thought, I might be able to do the same in a fashion setting. I know where to find the items, I love finding them, putting them together and making a pre-selection. When this space became available, I decided to give it a try.“ And thus the Herrenbude was born.
From socks to tuxedos – Achim emphasizes complete contemporary men’s outfits
This is also how Achim came up with his job title “truffle hog of men’s fashion“. After all, his pre-selection is partially geared towards customer needs but is also based on what the boss would or wouldn’t want to wear himself. In today’s vernacular, you might call this curated shopping, albeit in a brick-and-mortar setting and with personal style consulting. I would call it “back to the roots“. This concept was a thing before the Internet, if anyone can still remember those times.
Achim says, the Bude only features items that are powerful and make a fashion statement. “It’s my mission to beautify the city streets with well-dressed men. Based on experience, I give them a basic understanding of how they can build a classic wardrobe that makes sense,” Achim explains with a smile. He mostly sells casual apparel and sometimes brands that are not available in any other German store and come from Portugal or Wales for example. However, customers can also find green fashion brands at his store.
Over the years, Achim has expanded his product selection with suits and tailor-made clothing. There simply was a need and demand for it. “I notice that people are becoming less informed. I find it interesting. You would think that thanks to the Internet, they can research at any time how things are made, how they work etc. Yet when it comes to clothing, the market is very saturated and so fast-paced to where nothing sticks in people’s heads.“
“Classic and elegant men’s clothing has no age limit.“
The Herrenbude is open Tuesday through Friday 2 pm to 7 pm and Saturday 12 pm to 5 pm. Achim calls his business hours homeopathic. That’s because his customers often visit his store after work and because it gives him more time for research.
”We know what the customer wants“
Each customer receives personal service from the fashion lover. Young customers are sometimes confused by this and Achim often makes them try on items they might not like at first. “If I sense that the customer is unhappy with an item or it doesn’t fit him perfectly, I come right out and tell him. I also advise against purchases, even if it means one less sale for that day. In the long run, this type of consulting service builds trust. What’s more, this kind of shopping experience makes the articles of clothing more valuable. And if the price-performance ratio is great and the quality is excellent, it makes customers keep coming back.“
Achim‘s Herrenbude is not a standard concept where people just walk in and walk back out again. Customers simply have to commit to the experience, whether they want to or not. Taking two hours on a Saturday to visit the store, spending some time there talking to the sales associates, having a cup of coffee and ideally going home with a brand-new wardrobe – these types of concepts seem to become important again in the age of digitization.
Word-of-mouth advertising also entices digital natives
What makes Achim so unique in my eyes is that he almost entirely forgoes online marketing. Sure, he has his own website where customers can find his products, publishes a monthly newsletter and has both a Facebook and Instagram account, but he doesn’t have an online store. He believes those channels are enough to be found on the Internet. He lovingly calls it "dabbling in the digital world but just as a reminder“.
He puts it in a nutshell: “I believe that at the end of the day, word-of-mouth is the only type of advertising that works for our concept. I notice this with our customers, who buy suits from us. On average, we custom-make 200 suits per year, of which 150 are either purchased by grooms or young men, who are groomsmen or guests at a wedding. Ultimately, these men end up here because the only well-dressed gentleman at another wedding told them where he purchased his suit – at my store.“
Achim says that online advertising doesn’t make any sense for his venue because you can’t have an online presence without a big advertising budget. He thinks the market has shot itself in the foot. I tend to agree with him. And Facebook proves him right: there is no visibility without a budget. Small businesses, in particular, find it increasingly difficult to keep up with the competition.
Patience, along with some tenacity and trend intuition are the strengths of the Herrenbude. After my visit to Achim’s store, I feel confident that these kinds of authentic concepts will revitalize the retail industry in the future. After all, even the best technology in the world will never be able to replace a great salesperson.
Achim feels confident that customers once again want to shop where they live and work.