Arrey – the fashion queen of the Hackesche Höfe

Arrey – the fashion queen of the Hackesche Höfe
May 2024

She has been at Hackesche Höfe for 18 years and embodies the spirit of the location in a unique way. Arrey is a creative self-made woman who has always gone her own way. We meet her in the Arrey store in Hof 4.

The entrance

As befits a lady of the world, Arrey is late. But only a little. Then she appears: her face surrounded by a thick crown of curls, bold lipstick: her signature look. Her outfit: stunning. The black trousers made of pleated faux leather are reminiscent of reptile skin and seem to flow seamlessly into the similarly pleated boots – a prototype based on her own designs. Arrey embodies the message of her fashion. Which is not intended to blend into a gray everyday life; it supports strong personalities with a strong appearance. The aim: fashion that makes you happy: light, elegant, sophisticated – just like Arrey.

The woman, who sounds reserved on the phone, talks surprisingly lively and openly about her life – including crises and problems. She speaks eloquently, with a pleasant voice and a charming accent – it’s fascinating to listen to her. There wasn't much information about her on her website or elsewhere on the Net.

Childhood in Cameroon

Arrey grew up in Cameroon as the child of a family of academics. Her parents' generation was the first to be able to study abroad after the end of colonial rule and helped to build the new state. The family belongs to the new elite and English is spoken at home.

Arrey is a bookworm; playing with other children is too boring for her. Instead, at the age of nine, she prefers to read through the 21 volumes of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in its entirety – much of it at night with a torch under the blanket. This does not affect her school performance, on the contrary; as one of the best in her year, she is admitted to a prestigious boarding school.

Arrey's interest in fashion also awakens early. She sews clothes for her dolls and her first skirt for herself at the age of four and a half – by hand. At five, she asks for shoes with high heels. When her wish is finally granted after a two-year struggle, she is not happy though. She has already fallen in love with a new pair of shoes – with even higher heels.

Photo left: Wedding photo of Arrey's parents

Berlin on the move

In the 1990s, Arrey comes to study in Berlin, a city on the move. She doesn’t want to go where most of her boarding school classmates are moving, to the USA or England. She has never regretted her decision in favor of Berlin. The young woman from a strict home enjoys the freedom, finds the city open and friendly and easily gets to know "20 people in one day," as she recalls. Together with people from all over the world, she learns German at the Goethe Institute – and in the city's cafés and bars. The first year feels like a holiday.

Arrey studies, but doesn’t finish, trains as an interpreter in four languages, but never works in that profession. Instead, she jobs as a shop assistant – and sews. In addition to sewing assignments, she designs her first own pieces, which she sells on commission in boutiques and at Berlin flea markets.

Photo right: Arrey in Berlin in the 1990s 

The flea market as turning point

One day at one of her flea market stalls, Arrey's life reaches a turning point. A wealthy lady from the Ruhr region visiting Berlin recognizes her talent. She invites Arrey to visit her in her hotel with all her self-designed pieces. And buys everything. And not only that.

Back home, her patron wins over a number of boutiques for her first collection. Which initially consists of just 15 pieces. Arrey plucks up her courage and ventures to the Düsseldorf fashion fair, the most important industry gathering in the country at the time. She borrows the stand fee from friends in return for a generous share of future sales. The investment pays off, and in the end she has 42 shops on her order list.

Photo left: Alongside her career, Arrey also raised a son. Aaron is now a comic artist and lives in Denmark.

With success into the yards

It is 2005; Arrey is taking off. Within a short space of time, she now has to deliver, buy fabrics, rent a studio, borrow sewing machines and hire seamstresses. And all this without any money of her own and without a bank loan. Arrey works until she drops. And it works out.

During a shopping trip, Arrey comes across an empty shop in courtyard 4 of Hackesche Höfe. Still short of cash, but inspired by her first success, she takes the step to open her own store. After a makeshift renovation, the shop opens. And it starts well. The shop door is barely open before the first customer carries out a dress for 500 euros.

The art of folding

When I speak to Arrey, she is sitting on a pile of money, she tells me. Large quantities of fabric are stored in the basement beneath her store in Hof 4. Arrey's trademark: plissé fabrics, fabrics with a fine pleated structure. The kinds of fabric Arrey needs are not easy to buy. She has her fabrics pleated. Only a few workshops in France or Italy have mastered this technique and they are becoming fewer and fewer. Plissé has only recently experienced a renaissance. For one meter of plissé, at least four meters of fabric are pleated, only then does life and movement come into the fabric, says Arrey.

Arrey as an autodidact works differently to other fashion designers. She doesn't draw, she develops her designs three-dimensionally on the dressmaker's dummy. And she still always sews the patterns for her pieces by hand: "I always break sewing machines."

Photo left: Consultation with a customer in the Arrey store

"Bad luck and bad choices"

Things are going well for Arrey, who supplies 250 shops a year. Twenty-two employees work for her. But a good fashion designer is not necessarily a good manager. Arrey knows this, she considers herself chaotic. Ideally, an artistic talent like her finds a complement in the form of a shrewd businessperson who takes care of production and earning money.

Success is attractive and people arrive on the scene to offer Arrey their support. More than once she ends up with the wrong people. She had just survived the business slump in the wake of the financial and euro crisis when her managing director left – and took her name with him. He had it protected as a brand name and then tried to copy her. Arrey can no longer use her own name, the name with which she was successful. „Arrey Kono” becomes „Arreyberlin”. This is followed by lawsuits which she wins, but she loses a lot of money in the process.

But Arrey does not let these blows get her down. She downsizes and survives the next major crisis: the pandemic.

New challenges

Then it was time for a new challenge. Arrey has been a bag aficionada since childhood. As a student, she once invested half of her monthly budget in a particular model. With her own line of bags, she is fulfilling a dream. It is launched on the market in 2023, after two years of development. For a long time, she searches for a manufacturer where she can supervise production on site. Her search in Germany is fruitless, but finally she finds what she is looking for in Portugal. Her "Njinju" bag collection is inspired by the Nsibidi script, a mysterious symbolic script originating from what today is Cameroon. With their clear geometric design and the contrast between black and intense colors, the bags bear the unmistakable signature of fashion designer Arrey. She is still working on the fulfillment of another dream: Arrey shoes. She is wearing the first prototype on her feet: a unique creation that perfectly matches Arrey's fashion.

Photo right: Arreys bag collection  „Njinju”