Taking a trip down memory lane with Folsom Europe co-founder Daniel Rüster
WINGS adores Folsom Europe. The famous fetish street fair in Berlin is a great way to end your summer holidays, meet up with old friends and make new ones, all while having a beer and enjoying a sausage (no pun intended). We spoke to co-founder Daniel Rüster about the history of the popular event, that takes place annually in early September, and we video called some fans and friends to find out what their favorite Folsom memories are.
Folsom Europe, as most of you are probably aware, owes its name to Folsom Street in San Francisco, where the American edition of the event originated in 1984. It’s the world’s largest leather get-together and a showcase for fetish culture in all its glory.
But, how did the European edition come to be? For that, we need to move forward in time a little, to the end of July 2003 to be precise, and change locations, to an airplane flying over the Atlantic heading for Germany. Onboard one of the passengers is reminiscing about the amazing weekend he just had. Daniel: “I was on my way home to Berlin from a business trip to San Francisco, which made it possible for me to visit Dore Alley (Folsom’s ‘little sister’ event). I was thinking of how awesome it was to meet all these leather men and I felt sad that the weekend was over. And then I thought ‘Why don’t we have anything like this in Europe?’ I knew that most fetish events were organized by only a few people and then it hit me: ‘I should do it myself!’ That’s how I got the idea for Folsom Europe.”
Daniel knew he wouldn’t be able to do it all by himself, so he contacted freelance journalist Jürgen Rentzel (Box Magazin), who is very well connected in the European leather and fetish scene: “Jürgen knows everyone, especially in Germany, The Benelux, Switzerland, and Austria. I shared my idea with him and he loved it. He was on board immediately. Together we wrote a concept and in September I was back in San Francisco, just in time for Folsom – I plan my business trips strategically (laughs). I had the balls to contact the organizers and they were willing to listen to my pitch – and they loved it as well!”
What do you think was the argument that convinced the team of Folsom in San Francisco to say ‘yes’ to your proposal?
Daniel: “What made it interesting for them was that we called it Folsom Europe from the start; it was never supposed to be Folsom Berlin or Folsom Germany. We were discussing four European cities equally: Cologne, Berlin, Amsterdam, and London. London turned out to be too expensive – for us and for the visitors. Amsterdam – I’m sorry to say – was on its way down as a fetish capitol. Cologne was a rising star in the nineties and early zeroes, but in the end, we saw more potential in Berlin. Being gay and queer has always been easy in Berlin, and everyone knows the Golden Twenties and the stories surrounding them. We never wanted to be a copy of Folsom. The American edition is quite mainstream and attracts a lot of ‘normal’ tourists. We wanted to keep the focus on the fetish community itself – similar to Dore Alley – and I think that’s another reason why San Francisco liked our plans.”
The queer community in Berlin was supportive right away. The event received a lot of advice from the Gay and Lesbian Street Festival on how to deal with rules and regulations from the city, the police, and the fire department (as well as the bureaucracy that comes along with it). After tons of hard work from everyone involved, the first edition took place in September 2004, and it was really successful, with 3500 visitors attending from all over Europe. Since 2011 approximately 15.000 fetish enthusiasts from all over the world visit Folsom Europe every year; from Japan to Brazil, and from Spain to Australia. Not bad for an event that in its first year was mostly promoted by word of mouth and some self-printed flyers.
And since we’re already on the topic of marketing and PR: in its third year, the event was suddenly the center of worldwide attention for a hot minute. Daniel: “We had really good connections to Klaus Wowereit, the openly gay mayor of Berlin, and asked him to write a word of welcome in our program booklet. He agreed to do it, which was fantastic, but a week before the event the conservative press suddenly jumped on it. It was an election year and they saw it as a way to get rid of the gay mayor who, according to them, was ‘supporting perverts and sadomasochists’. At the same time, there was this crazy guy, who was the initiator of the Institute Against Fascism – which was basically a one-man show – and he started spreading all these theories of us being anti-Zionist. Bizarre allegations, but the news went around the world in days. At one point I found myself explaining to a reporter from the New York Times that we weren’t ‘a sadomasochist street party’. Let’s just say there’s no such thing as bad publicity, especially when you can prove that the allegations against you are made up (laughs). You can still find the articles through Google!”
The basic idea behind the Folsom Europe Street Fair is to socialize: meet up with old friends, make new ones, drink some beers, share a Limo, eat a sausage (maybe even two or three, depending on your appetite), and enjoy the Berlin summer sun to the fullest. The fair – held on the Fuggerstrasse and the Welserstrasse, in Berlin’s gay district Schöneberg – is a daytime affair. It always takes place on a Saturday and the festivities end around 10 pm. It feels like a street festival for the LGBT community, with vendors selling the latest, hottest fetish gear (including Mister B), booths that offer food and (alcoholic) beverages, and a stage with VJ’s and performances. Recon does meet-and-greets with their members and multiple nonprofit organizations inform you on safe sex. Daniel: “The Gay and Lesbian Center of Berlin did this campaign once where you could grab a lottery ticket out of a fluffy teddy bear’s ass in return for a donation; it basically looked like you were fisting it; you could win small prizes like lollypops. Everything is a little bit kinky and over the top.”
Video call 1: Mataina Ah Wie Süss
Mataina, you are in charge of the entire Folsom Europe Street Fair and you host during the event as well. How did you get involved with Folsom?
Mataina: “I’m 56 and a professional drag queen. Working night shifts on high heels started getting painful and I was looking for an extra job during the daytime. A friend recommended me to a Folsom board member because I know how to coordinate events. I’m in charge of the entire street fair. I make sure we have electricity and running water; that we get all the permissions from the authorities; and I brief the security people and talk to the police when there are complaints from neighbors. There’s a lot that goes into it!”
Do you have a fetish yourself?
Mataina: “The first porn magazine I bought in the seventies had all these pictures of men with big mustaches. Whenever I see one now I go absolutely wild. As a drag queen, I like to wear tight leather pants and fishnet stockings every now and then. And I carry a whip, which makes it easier to make my way through the crowd.”
What’s your favorite memory of Folsom Europe?
Mataina: “I remember one year that the kindergarten on the Welserstrasse (which is part of the fairground) was selling cakes to our visitors. And on the other side of the street, there were all these human puppies playing with each other, tails included. I couldn’t believe that that was actually happening. I thought that was amazing.”
Anything else you would like to add?
Mataina: “Folsom needs more women. We would love to have more women join our event and we would be incredibly happy to make them part of our team. For me the best parties are mixed ones; it makes things much more exciting!”
There are plenty of other events happening all over the city that are part of the program. Can you give us some examples?
Daniel: “We have two official parties. Revolver on Friday in KitKatClub and a huge fetish party on Saturday called PiG. Most visitors already arrive on Wednesday; they come early to shop in our famous Berlin fetish stores and to avoid overcrowded shops on Saturday. We urge bars and clubs to organize parties, so there are nights for puppies, skinheads, rubber men, and much, much more. We operate a Folsom double-decker sightseeing bus, there are two boat tours on the Spree river that offer fantastic views of the city, and even the neighborhood pharmacy has a fetish-inspired gallery in its shopping window.”
Video call 2: Tyrone Rontganger
Tyrone, you’re a famous face in the Berlin fetish scene and a former titleholder (Mister Leather Berlin, German Mister Leather). What’s your connection to Folsom Europe?
Tyrone: “I’ve been organizing Classic Meets Fetish since 2015, which is one of the first events that happen during the Folsom weekend. It’s not really the official opening, but in my mind it is. Classic Meets Fetish is a classical music concert and a charity event; held in a church in Schöneberg. The musicians and the audience all wear fetish clothing, and so does the priest.”
What can people expect from Classic Meets Fetish in 2021?
Tyrone: “This year’s concert is in honor of Tom of Finland. We will mostly be performing Scandinavian pieces, but we also are thinking of music that is connected to his life. Tom was a soldier in the Finnish army in the war against Russia, so there will be some Russian compositions. There might even be some American bits in there since he lived in California as well, and hopefully one or two pieces from the film.”
What’s your favorite memory of Folsom Europe?
Tyrone: “I’m responsible for organizing everything that has to do with the visiting international titleholders and I’m always excited to get to know them personally. My favorite time at the event was 8 or 9 years ago, when I went with my best friend – before I was German Mister Leather – at a time when nobody really knew me. These days, I can hardly walk two steps without being caught in a conversation; it can take 20 minutes just to cross the street (laughs).
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Tyrone: “Folsom got canceled last year because of COVID and I think it’s cool that this year we will hopefully have the chance to get back together again. It’s important that everyone takes care of themselves and that they respect their own as well as other people’s health.”
Ralph, in 2017 you became International Mister Leather and in the same year, you visited Folsom Europe for the first time. How did you experience the event?
Ralph: “When I arrived my face was on the cover of Box Magazin and inside there was a lovely interview written by Tyrone Rontganger, which also featured pics of my cock. It was nice to arrive in town with some pre-publicity (laughs). I was stunned by Folsom Europe. It’s all about having coffee, lunch, dinner, drinks, and conversations with friends and other titleholders. It was awesome and really, really, really fun. In the US we might meet friends at similar events, but we’re all basically trying to get laid.”
But that hopefully happened as well right?
Ralph: “Of course. It’s Berlin!”
Is there anything you would like to add?
Ralph: “The last event I went to was Darklands in 2020. After that we had nothing for 1,5 years. No sense of community, no dancing, no playing. People are hungry to hold each other again. I hope we can have that in the fall. That’s what’s so brilliant about Folsom Europe: Daniel took an idea from San Francisco and made it into something that is internationally renowned on its own. The whole premise is about community and showing the world that we enjoy sharing our fetishes; that we are out and proud about it. That’s incredibly special!”
What part of Folsom Europe are you most proud of?
Daniel: “Definitely thedonations we collect at the gates. When you enter the fairground the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence and current title holders ask you for a contribution; which helps a lot, people tend to react differently to them than to volunteers wearing a Folsom t-shirt. Our visitors are really generous and I’m thankful for their support. In 2019 we raised 34.000 euros for charity. 80 to 90 percent of that goes to European projects that offer information, guidance, and support around HIV/AIDS. To whoever is reading this: if you are a nonprofit organization devoted to HIV/AIDS, reach out to us through our website.Your focus doesn’t need to be on the LGBT community by the way! Our general assembly decides once a year who receives funding and how much.”
Can you give us some examples of charities that you’ve supported over the years?
Daniel: “There’s a kindergarten on Welserstrasse (one of the two streets of the Folsom Europe Street Fair) that is integrating kids living with HIV in their school. It took a lot of talks and convincing arguments for parents to agree to that. We think it’s an amazing project, especially in the heart of the gay community in Berlin. We also supportedan interesting project run by Christian nuns in Ukraine. They took care of HIV patients, back when there was no help for them at all in their country. It’s a full-circle moment: the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence raising money that went to their real-life counterparts. I love that image!”
Is there anything you would like to add?
Daniel: “I want to give a shoutout to all the international title holders – or the ‘sash queens’ as I sometimes like to call them (laughs). They spread the news about Folsom Europe, invest their private money and time to visit us, support our event with their titles and popularity in their own communities, and they help us with collecting donations during the event. There’s more and more of them joining us every year and I’m truly impressed by their generosity.”
Want to know more about Folsom Europe?
Check folsomeurope.berlinonline for news and information about the 2021 edition. We hope to see you there!
MISTER B BERLIN
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