The textile ‘Wende’
Round about now, Germany is celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Wall coming down. The fortified barrier fell on 9 November 1989. With a total length of almost 1,400 kilometres, it split Germany into two parts for 28 years and divided the textile and clothing industry there as well.
In November 1991, the ‘Zeit’ weekly paper wrote the following: “Ten thousands of women are leaving their looms and sewing machines, their drawing boards and desks. They are going back to their stoves, but they are not quitting voluntarily. The East German textile and clothing industry, in which they have been working, is falling apart. More than a quarter of a million employees – women in particular – have been laid off already.” The press described the collapse of the East German textile and clothing industry in martial terms, with talk of ‘bloodletting’, ‘catastrophe’ and ‘mass unemployment’. And this was not without reason.
Fibres for international understanding
According to the Association of the North-East German Textile and Clothing Industry (Verband der Nord-Ostdeutschen Textil- und Bekleidungsindustrie – vti), the East German fibre industry still employed around 320,000 people in the spring of 1990, who were manufacturing sewing threads, jeans, and lace edging in approximately 250 state-owned enterprises (Volkseigene Betriebe -VEB). “The export share was around 60 percent; the exported goods went predominantly to the so-called socialist economic territory, to the Federal Republic of Germany and other Western countries”, as Bertram Höfer, initiator and co-founder of the vti recollects.
Textile goods from the East were not only to be found in the windows of the boutiques in East Berlin and in department stores in Cottbus, Halle and Karl-Marx-Stadt (now Chemnitz), but could also be found as Plauen lace and bed linen in the catalogues of Western mail-order companies, such as Otto and Quelle. “The goods were selling like hot cakes”, says Höfer with a laugh. The former managing director of the vti was head of research and, for a while, director general of the Cotton Combine (Kombinat Baumwolle), one of the largest combines with around 70,000 employees.
State-owned enterprises (VEB) become limited companies (GmbH)
And then came political change, known as ‘die Wende’. And with it, almost overnight, the change from VEB to GmbH, from planned-economy manufacturing companies to free competition in terms of products and prices. The ‘bloodletting’ began. In the subsequent period, the East German textile and clothing industry shrank, and it has a total of around 16,000 employees today.
Sales markets collapsed, above all those in the Eastern Bloc countries, and globalisation also arrived in the East of Germany. From 1970 onwards, this had already cost more than 200,000 jobs in West Germany. The process now unfolded at breakneck speed in the former GDR, according to the Federal Agency for Civic Education (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung – bpb) on structural change in the textile industry brought about by globalisation: “In the East German states, the change took place within no time; after 1989, the number of employees in the textile and clothing industry sank by nine-tenths.” It’s no surprise that “many people at the time declared the textile industry in East Germany for dead”, says vti founder Höfer.
No more customers – so what next?
Höfer adds that the achievement of all those who established competitive textile and clothing firms in the difficult nineties and made them viable for the future should be rated all the more highly. These include Gerald Rosner, managing director of the company Strickchic, which was founded more than 120 years ago in the Thuringian town of Apolda. “When all the customers disappear from one day to the next, it’s not that good for a company”, says Posner half-jokingly. In the East, Strickchic had been the smallest industrial company in the sector in his region; today it’s the only one. How come? “An entrepreneur needs to overcome challenges every day; it’s true that the Wende was a particularly challenging one, but only one of many”, says Rosner.
At the time they focused on what they could do: manufacture high-quality, durable knitwear. And ‘durability’ had a concrete background in the GDR: because its citizens simply couldn’t afford to have a throwaway mentality, the durability of clothing was also a valuable commodity. Designers in the reunified Germany were quick to recognise the worth of the knitwear from Apolda. “From the middle of the nineties, we had double-digit growth rates”, Rosner recollects. The company’s knitwear, in the form of pullovers, jackets and dresses, can be seen hanging in fashionable designer shops in the Berlin-Mitte district today.
Imitation leather for Trabis
A further positive example of a successful transition to the market economy is the Vowalon Beschichtung GmbH from Treuen in Saxony. As the VEB Vogtland Wachstuchfabrik Treuen, the company manufactured imitation leather in the GDR for tablecloths, bags, shoes and the seats of the famous Trabi cars. The annual output amounted to ten million square metres. “After the Wende, from 2003 onwards, we attained this level again, as Friedmar Götz, former managing director of Vowalon reports. According to him, thriving business in the GDR and exports to the West formed the basis for regaining economic success.
But also the concentration on textile niche markets and intensive cooperation with textile research institutes secured the existence of the company, says Götz, who has invested more than € 50 million in expanding the firm since the Wende. Are there actually any entrepreneurial differences between the time before and after the Wende? “In GDR times, there were never enough raw materials available, but lots of orders; straight after the Wende, there were many new raw materials but no orders for them”, says Götz. His son Gregor took over the Vowalon business in 2008; in 2016, his daughter Mareen joined the company as an additional managing director. At present, 230 employees manufacture about 15 million square metres of high-quality PVC- and polyurethane-based coatings a year, predominantly imitation leather for car seats and vehicle interiors. With customers in more than 50 countries, turnover in 2018 amounted to more than € 39 million.
Götz senior believes the textile industry in the new federal states is in a good place, despite the fact that it has shrunk drastically: “The few remaining companies have established themselves on the market and they are well positioned, particularly with their specialisation in technical textiles.” This is also confirmed by figures from the vti: in 2018, the total turnover of the North-East German Textile and Clothing Industry amounted to € 1.87 billion; the export quota was 44 percent. This means that the new federal states are one of the four large German textile regions, alongside North Rhine-Westphalia, Baden-Wuerttemberg and Bavaria.
Cover image: Former apprentice training in the VEB cotton spinning mill, Plauen / Source: Wolfgang Schmidt