The sporting world inspires Berlin-based men's fashion label Kinder & Tank. Its founders are Orthodox Jews who are also organizing the capital's contemporary religious community.
Kinder & Tank started out as a small line of T-shirts bearing minimalistic messages like "What are we afraid of" or "Wanderer." Some were written in Hebrew-style font. The black or white tops were cut fashionably loose from an ultra-soft, ecological Austrian Modal, a fabric derived from beech trees. Priced at about 60 euros ($83), they felt nicer than your average cotton tee, yet weren't expensive enough to break the bank.
"We found there wasn't that much clothing for us and our friends in the way that we like. Our friends are a little bit…I wouldn't say conservative, they like to wear things that are really cool, but they don't like to be hipster," 27-year-old Austalian Ezra Kinderman (above, left), responsible for brand's design, tells DW.
Kinderman and Ukrainian-born, Germany-raised Boris Tankilewitsch (above, right) are behind the Berlin-based line of authentic sports-inspired street wear for young men who favor active over flashy. When the T-shirts sold well, the pair poured the increasing revenue into developing a small collection of well-cut sweatshirts, button-downs, tank tops and underwear, which debuted at the start of this year.
Self-taught designer Kinderman came to Germany to work for menswear brand Patrick Hellmann after a stint in jewelry design in New York; Tankilewitsch, who moved to Germany with his family at the age of eight, has a background in marketing and events. They don't only share a passion for sports, but also a common religious background - Orthodox Judaism.
New age of masculinity
Ezra Kinderman takes design cues from his favorite pastimes, which range from Australian Football to MMA (mixed martial arts) to ice hockey. He pulls meaningful motifs from these beloved hobbies; underwear is cut in the shape of rugby shorts, while tops have printed inserts picturing sporting scenes or letterman styling, with A for Australia and U for Ukraine. Padding and cuts maximize male assets.
"We focus a lot on our masculinity. What defines a masculine physique is the shoulders and the thighs, so we accented and exaggerated them," says Kinderman, sporting a sweatshirt adorned with miniature embroidered boxing gloves. He refers to his designs as a kind of "avant-garde way of sportswear."
Boris Tankilewitsch pulls out last season's "lookbook." The garments catalog reveals male models with taped hands and faces that grow increasingly battered with every page turn. "Our version of Fight Club," the pair says.
Their style doesn't necessarily seem like a natural fit for Berlin, where young men are predominantly clad in skinny jeans and slouchy hoodies, or slim-cut suits. The duo admit that their original T-shirt line actually boasted a clientele consisting of about 40 percent women, potentially a sign that androgynous looks are in for both genders, or just down to the super soft fabric they use.
"We're not hipster, we're not posh," laughs Boris. "It's who we are and what we love, and we know there are so many guys out there who love that and aren't really being catered to right now," adds Kinderman.
Building business and community
The two young men were introduced by mutual friends just a couple of years ago at a Hanukkah celebration at the Brandenburg Gate. They were then reacquainted at a synagogue, and decided to work together. As with their label, Berlin doesn't seem like the obvious place for young Jewish people to congregate.
"When I moved here, it was extremely difficult. The train station I went to every day was where they did the Kindertransport," Kinderman says. "Two of my grandparents went to Auschwitz. But if you live your life the way they lived their life, it's a reminder. You can't focus on it everyday. You continue living the life the Nazis tried to destroy. If you live well, it's the best response."
Kinderman, Tankilewitsch and their friends have invested in building up a Jewish community of their own, which meets downtown near Alexanderplatz. They started with six or seven people; now 50 to 100 meet each week. The group offers Friday night religious services with complimentary food, attracting an international crowd. There are also opportunities to do charity work together with the community's rabbi.
"Ten years ago you couldn't find anything like this," reflects Boris Tankilewitsch. "Our generation, the 20-, 30-, 40-year-olds or in-betweens, who maybe like me grew up here - some become more religious even than their parents."
The group also attracts an older crowd with a different perspective. "We have people who come who are 70 or 80 years old. They come [to Berlin] for tours. They come on Friday nights, and here are 60 people singing songs they sang back in the day, and they say 'I can't believe it,'" says Kinderman.
Berlin breakthrough, New York dreams
Having built both a brand and a community here, the two young men say that Berlin is a great place to start a business, but their goal is to end up in New York, the ideal home for many a fashion label. "Berlin is second best, but New York is the best," Tankilewitsch says with a smile. Kinderman hopes to one day open a factory for his designs in the Williamsburg district of Brooklyn, one specially designed to offer flexible work situations to suit the community of ultra-Orthodox Jews living there, who often have trouble finding employment. But that dream is far in the distance.
"In New York, when you have to pay your $2,000 rent, you're really making your decisions on how to eat and live. Here we can buy our weekly things on 50 euros. Now we're able to live a little better, but at the beginning it's really difficult when you start a new company," Kinderman relates.
He adds that the swap and barter culture is particularly strong in Berlin, where he says money isn't the only driving factor. "For instance, we needed a model, so we got a model, and we helped him move." New York, on the other hand, he calls a "dog-eat-dog world."
Have faith and stick to it
Reconciling faith and fashion, business and beliefs, is a unique challenge for the Kinder & Tank team. Kinderman remembers the delivery of their first line of shirts, which was accidentally scheduled during Rosh Hashanah, the celebration of the Jewish New Year. Handling money is forbidden on the Sabbath and religious holidays and working is discouraged.
"As soon as our online shop opened, we had to shut it down for two days. I said on Rosh Hashanah we're not even taking sales. Zero business. On Saturday, we'll take orders, but I'll never go to a business meeting on a Saturday, we don't sign contracts. We're not Hasidic, but we have our faith and we try and keep to it," he says.
The brand is starting to attract international attention; Kinder & Tank currently sells in two shops in Berlin and two in Australia, and will be stocked in stores in Munich, Hong Kong, Los Angeles and Naples later this year. They recently displayed their upcoming collection to buyers during the Paris Men's Fashion Week.
"We're really just happy we've come as far as we can by winging it," says Kinderman. Tankilewitsch, who until recently was sleeping in the label's office, has a new home, but also decided to take a new full-time marketing job at a social networking firm. He's stepped away from daily operations at Kinder & Tank and sold his shares in the company to Kinderman, though he'll stay involved in local sales. Still, both the brand name and the unity it implies, endure.
"We still are really good friends, and together with the rest of our group continue to go out, as well as building our synagogue together," says Ezra Kinderman. "We started out with optimism, but now we're optimistic-realistic. We're still around, and growing."