Luxury retail is the lifeblood of the city center, but can Vienna manage to sustain its tradition of local craftsmanship with the demands of international tourism?
By Margaret Childs & Elisabeth Kling
When Markus Scheer was growing up in the 1980s, it was unheard of to stroll through the 1st district in jeans, much less shorts and flip-flops. It was simply not done: “The inner city has such a monumental density of beauty,” he told Metropole on a chilly day in November. “It’s important that people present themselves accordingly.” As a bespoke shoemaker, he feels the question of footwear is vexing. As the seventh generation of Rudolf Scheer & Söhne k.u.k. Schuhmacher, his 200-year-old shop saves every client’s shoe last (the wooden moldings), including those of Emperor Franz Joseph himself, members of the Rothschild family, Franz Kafka and Camillo Castiglioni, Austria’s own Al Capone – a frequent client in his day.
Even in his white smock, Scheer is a polished man who speaks in a calm, sympathetic manner – ever patient, never rushed. Fit and laid-back, he seems almost at odds with the legacy he represents. In his workshop on Bräunerstrasse right off the Graben, he barely has time for lunch, chatting while he grabs a sandwich at the back.
Here, every piece of furniture has born witness to a long history of bespoke shoes and their wearers. Diplomats, dignitaries and divas have sat in these very chairs. Even the Apple computers in his office rest on Biedermeier desks, which have been lovingly polished through the years.
But none of this is staged. Scheer lives the tradition he has worked so hard to uphold with a keen eye on the future. His world moves slowly and allows for disciplined reflection. “When I turn the corner off Bräunerstraße to the Graben, it’s like the autobahn, and I’m trying to merge into the traffic and can’t find the right moment,” he said. “Everyone’s rushing by and we come from our extremely slow world.”
Over the past decades, he has watched the fabric of the 1st district change, from the grey facades of the postwar years, as renovation, like a facelift, began readying the city for the international tourist influx to come.
“When I started work in the 1990s, I saw the city’s transformation,” he said. “It was rejuvenated. The buildings were all spruced up and in the following years we saw the incredible external splendor the city had to offer.”
But after a decade and a half he felt the pendulum swing the other way. “That was the brink, around 2007-2010 where one got the feeling ‘oops, now we’ve stepped into the mass-tourism trap’.”
Mercantile Vienna then & now
The streets of Vienna’s 1st district are paved with history. Vienna’s Innere Stadt is beautiful by design. Nothing is left to chance. During the Middle Ages, wealthy merchants had considerable political influence still reflected in many of today’s downtown street names such as the Tuchlauben (Tuch meaning “cloth” or “linen”), the Salzgries (trading salt from the Salzkammergut) and the Getreidemarkt (the grain market). Fortunes were also made from wine, cattle, horses and precious metals.
Trade flourished in the 18th century, as regulations eased and the population expanded, leading to the great department stores of the 19th century – Philipp Haas, Jacob Rothberger, August Herzmansky and Paul Gerngroß – which dominated the city until the Anschluss in 1938, when many were victims of aryanization. As Austria recovered after WWII, the rise of mass consumption brought international retailers to Vienna. Today, the few small and medium-sized companies able to survive have been those specializing in bespoke wares and customer service in the luxury sector.
But tradition is fragile. Markus Scheer said that his company invests all its money in preserving the values of craftsmanship. “But it’s not that we think we are saving the industry. That’s already extinct,” he said earnestly. “There is no training company like ours left in the entire world that achieves our quality and offers the kind of universality we do.” Scheer wants to protect the cultural wealth that companies like his provide.
“When something like this is gone, it’s really gone. You can’t find it on Google and upload it again. We can’t be careless with these assets.”
In Vienna, shopping for premium-quality craftsmanship, or simply going for coffee, means meeting up downtown. Friends will say, “Treffen wir uns im Ersten,” (“Let’s meet in the First”) and usually that translates into in front of the Haas-Haus. Of course you could just wear jogging pants and sneakers, but you’d feel out of place among the magnificence of the architecture – or, God forbid, like a tourist.
But it’s not the same city as it was a generation ago. As in many major cities across the continent, international chains have moved in – 32 in 2015 alone – dominating the image of the locals’ beloved Innenstadt. According to Walter Wölfler from the real-estate service CBRE, responsible for the retail segment of Austria and the CEE region, international chains have replaced most of the traditional businesses.
Perhaps the most stunning H&M in the world – decked out in wood paneling and carpeted interior – was opened in the former home of the luxury textile and clothing department store E. Braun & Co. (also an imperial and royal court purveyor). As in many such cases, the golden letters above its door were salvaged.
“The demand coming from international labels in Austria is greater than the real estate supply,” explained Wölfler. “There is simply not enough property in the top locations.” Franchises have also not had an easy time expanding to Austria. Internationally franchised brands like the British TopShop have wanted to enter the marketplace, but haven’t found any takers.
But while many small businesses have not been able to withstand the pressure – most of the Greißler (corner grocers), Fleischereien (butcher shops) and Trafiken (tobacconists) have had to leave for good – Vienna’s 1st district still offers a wealth of tradition. Between modern coffee houses, clothing shops and big international drugstores on the Graben, you can still find the traditional shops like chocolatier Altmann & Kühne, established in 1928, and the perfumery and beauty salon Nägele & Strubell, which has been pampering customers since 1880.
Vienna for the Viennese
These are some of the “assets” Scheer says make up the luxury of living in Vienna. “The Viennese stand by their city,” he said. “Most people see the Weltstadt (metropolis) Vienna as a great thing. But what the Viennese don’t like is when their mobility is compromised.”
About 16,400 people currently live in the 1st district, according to Statistics Austria, making it Vienna’s smallest district in terms of population. Also construction laws are strict. The entire center is a protected zone, regulated to ensure that the cityscape – the natural areas, historic structures, defining building materials and diversity of function – is not altered.
Part of the magic, Scheer says, is the city’s size. No matter where you are in the inner city there is the 30-minute rule: You can be anywhere on foot within a half hour. “The imaginary half hour, anchored in our instincts as protected ‘turf’, makes people feel safe; everything is familiar. Not many metropolitan cities can offer that – not Paris, not London or Berlin.” Prague has some of the same attributes, he says, which is what makes both cities so popular with tourists .
“They come to me asking, ‘Where can I go to really feel Vienna?’ They can see the surface, the grand shops, the star-studded restaurants, but they want something they can only experience here.” Of those places, he says, “there can never be enough.”
A record 14 million overnight stays were booked in the Austrian capital in 2015, according to the Vienna Tourist Board, double the number in 2001. The largest number come from Germany, followed by other parts of Austria. About 843,000 Americans come each year and about 750,000 Italians. Most visit the legendary city center: some 710,000 to see the Hofburg; 650,000 to visit the Albertina; and the big seller, the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Art History Museum) attracted 850,000 in 2015.
And while most of Markus Scheer’s clients are not in this group, they are one of the reasons he can stay in business. Only a select few can afford to spend upwards of €5,000 on a pair of bespoke shoes, and Scheer says they are paying for a certain kind of treatment, a certain feeling.
The craftsman takes the journey of the customer very seriously. “Sometimes I give customers directions to our shop through the side streets, so they don’t have to join the hoards of tourists on Kärntner Straße and the Graben.” Being well taken care of is what keeps the international customers coming back to Vienna to get the things that can only be found here.
“Vienna’s strategy is built on tourism,” said Scheer “But we have to remember to keep asking the question, ‘What makes the city world-class?’ It’s great that the luxury mile exists,” he said, referring to the Goldenes Quartier and Kohlmarkt shops, including international luxury brands like Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Chanel and many others. “But it’s just as important to make sure there is enough authenticity.”
Keeping it real
Like Scheer, many are concerned about the homogenization of urban high streets. When you come out of the U-Bahn at Stephansplatz, first you see the cathedral itself and next, the gigantic two-story Zara store in the Haas-Haus. Gone are the traditional high-end clothing retailers like Fürnkranz on Neuer Markt, replaced in 2010 by a massive Billa Corso premium grocer, and more to come: the city’s first Apple store on Kärntner Strasse in October 2017; the American electric car manufacturer Tesla on the stylish Herrengasse.
Just off Michaelerplatz, Herrengasse is home to the Palais Ferstel, with its elegant passage of shops and restaurants; the Café Central, once frequented by Stefan Zweig, Arthur Schnitzler and Adolf Loos; and Vienna’s first “skyscraper” with 16 stories, built in 1932.
Today, the street is being transformed into a partial pedestrian zone (Begegnungszone) where cars, bikes and Fiaker share the street at walking speed. Privately funded, the costs for “Herrengasse plus” are estimated at €6 million.
The initiator was attorney Wolfgang Spitzy, representing the owners of the “skyscraper” Herrengasse 6-8. Others include the Karl-Wlaschek-Privatstiftung (owner of Palais Ferstel), the List Group and other private owners.
“It’s a great initiative,” said Scheer. “These men are using their private funds and saying that the new Herrengasse should be a street for the Viennese and that shops, cafes and restaurants that move there should sell Austrian products.”
The district mayor, Markus Figl, saluted the initiative. “Not only is the transformation visually appealing, but it’s fantastic that private people are getting involved to make the city more livable.” So, while the City of Vienna continues to invest in its cultural and architectural heritage, private preservation initiatives are also being met with support rather than red tape.
Who’s a survivor?
At Graben 19 in the very center of the city, Meinl am Graben is where gourmets from all over Vienna come to buy ingredients and exotic little extras for special occasions. Once all over town, the Meinl chain of supermarkets sold out to Spar Gourmet and Rewe, leaving this flagship store as the lone survivor. Bigger and better than ever, today, Meinl am Graben offers high quality products and an award-winning restaurant. For many Viennese, der Meinl is a symbol for the luxury associated with the city center.
So der Erste (the 1st district) represents luxury, high quality and a sense of tradition, the epitome of what “made in Vienna” stands for.
“People aren’t just looking for a product when they shop, they’re looking for an idyllic world, a personal touch,” explained Scheer. In his price segment there is an upper league of local manufacturers that cooperate to help luxury clients find the comfortable, authentic experience they came to Vienna for.
Passionate, yet earnest, Markus Scheer sums up what gives the city its indulgent edge. “Vienna’s luxury is that it can stay just the way it is. The city thrives on being controversial. Vienna is a city of contradictions: it’s a little modern and a little old-school, a little conservative and a little flipped-out, a charming host and an unfriendly waiter…” This dichotomy is its sweet spot.
Reclining into his ancient chair, now worn to a soft glow, he smiled. “That’s luxury underlined three times and with a capital L.”
Time After Time
Imperial and Royal court purveyors: the k.u.k. Hoflieferanten
Despite all economic developments, the title k.u.k. Hoflieferant (kaiserlich – imperial, königlich – royal court supplier) introduced in 1782 is still regarded as one of the highest quality certificates in Vienna, by Viennese and tourists alike. This meant certified traders and providers were allowed to sell their goods and services to the Austro-Hungarian court, the greatest honor for businesses at that time. By the end of the monarchy there were about 500 businesses holding the official title of k.u.k. Hoflieferant. Today about 25 companies still use it. Here’s a selection: