For Cult Berlin label GMBH, fashion is all about telling stories: about the world, its climate and the communities we live in. And its designers, Serhat Isik and Benjamin Alexander Huseby, are determined that they – and not the fashion industry – will be the ones to set the narrative
Photography by Kuba Ryniewicz Styling by Julian Ganio Text by Daniel Rodgers
“Our fashion should respond to what’s going on in the world and it won’t destroy the planet”
“In the beginning we didn’t even want to come forward as the designers,” says Serhat Isik, half of the duo behind fashion brand GmbH, speaking from their studio in a socially distanced Berlin. “We’re very private like that. Protective of our community and what we stand for.”
It’s hard to imagine this sentiment coming from a brand like GmbH, famed for sexed-up streetwear and fashion-week raves, a brand nominated for both the juggernaut LVMH and Woolmark prizes. After all, the story of when Isik met partner in crime Benjamin Alexander Huseby in a Berlin nightclub in 2015 (founding GmbH just a few months later) has been rehashed so many times that it seems like fashion folklore.
When the brand’s first collection emerged in 2016, it resembled the kind of wardrobe that Isik, Huseby and their friends wanted to wear. Made from deadstock fabrics, it was utilitarian, sculpted and sexy. And the brand’s authentic club-kid feel coincided with the kind of streetwear championed by hype brands of the moment– leading the press to laud GmbH as Germany’s answer to Vetements, Balenciaga or Off-White. “Aesthetically speaking, we hit on a trend,” Huseby says, “but ideologically we were very different.”
For Isik, a menswear designer, and Huseby, a photographer and artist, making fashion is primarily about storytelling. And the stories they tell – epics on heritage, community and climate change – are upheld by two core tenets: that fashion should “respond to what’s going on in the world” and that “it won’t destroy the planet” in doing so. “It comes from our lived lives, really,” Huseby explains. “I’ve been part of an eco-warrior organisation since I was 14 and I’ve been very active in that movement… Long before Greta Thunberg,” he jokes. This consciousness pumps through every vein of the business. The brand’s Kreuzberg studio is run on renewable energy, and I’m told employees only eat vegetarian, local, organic food.
It’s little surprise, then, that the duo continue to use upcycled materials within their collections, although as their brand grows, they’ve been forced to change tack. “What we focus on now is using recycled fibres…wool, cotton and polyamide from ocean waste,” Huseby says. “It requires a lot of extra work, and because these materials are more expensive, our clothes are not always as affordable as we would like.” But where some brands may have shirked responsibility in favour of easy-fix solutions, GmbH continues to experiment with things like recycled apple and recycled corn in order to remain low-impact, all while ensuring that “there’s no sense of lacking with any materials,” says Isik.
Why, then, does GmbH toil with the ethical dilemma, or the oxymoron, of running a sustainable fashion brand? “We’ve always been wary of using that word…It’s been hijacked by big corporations.” All too aware of the consumerist aspect of fashion media, the duo seem reticent to bare too much. “Oh they’re a collective, oh they’re from Berlin, oh they like to go out,” says Huseby, recalling the hype surrounding the earlier days of the brand. “They’d want to know everything about our lifestyle and the five coolest places to go out… but we would never give them any of those places.” Now, the pair actively push back against the monopolising of personal values for commercial gain. So whether its sustainable or say, diverse, labels like these, their definitions and a sense of authorship have become sacred to GmbH.
You get the impression that it’s less a matter of image control, but a method of preservation – over who they are, where they come from and the communities they elevate – a theme Isik and Huseby frequently revisit. “The stories of immigrant minorities have always been one of the most important messages that we’ve wanted to put across,” says Isik, who still cuts all the patterns himself. From Turkish oil-wrestling trousers to Middle Eastern dad jumpers, GmbH’s collections read like a roadmap of the duo’s respective Turkish and Norwegian-Pakistani heritage. “It’s about elevating a certain look that I felt was never represented in fashion.”
“It’s looked down on, you know,” Isik says, reflecting on his experience of growing up Turkish in Germany. “It’s just not considered beautiful or luxurious.” In contrast to this, an intersectional cast of mostly Middle Eastern and South Asian models have become paramount to the brand’s identity. “It’s about having a seat at the table.” They’ve also become really close, Huseby says. Part of the family, even. And so they should, when the same faces are (quite unconventionally) booked season after season. It’s the idea of social sustainability – “family and community are so important to us so it wouldn’t make sense to just consume models and move on to the next.” “It’s this fashion thing of like ‘Oh we’ve seen her before,’ and we hate that,” says Huseby. “Yeah, it’s bullshit,” agrees Isik.“GmbH is all about community, if about anything.”
Perhaps for this reason, the idea of protection is always present, be it through workwear references or spiritual nazar motifs. GmbH collections make up an armour of straps, back braces and gussets, obsessively placed to create “an invisible feeling of enhancement”, says Huseby. But with harnessed tank tops and jock-strap inspired trousers, enhancement comes coded in fetishistic desire. What is fetish, though, if not an obsession with familiarity? “In many ways I think that’s what GmbH is,” Huseby says. From the generic name (GmbH is the equivalent of PLC in German) to taking elements from utilitarian clothing, it’s through recontextualising familiar things that Isik and Huseby are able to create “a sexiness that just hovers there, one that you can’t quite put your finger on.”
The idea goes far beyond sex. For these two, it’s not about becoming a mass-producing brand. Yes, they have to sell clothes but that’s really not the point, and it’s something which feels all the more insignificant in light of the pandemic. “Even though it’s a horrible situation,”Huseby says, “it’s also making everyone re-evaluate how they want to live their lives.” For GmbH, this means a focus on the community side and less on “eternal growth, which is impossible.” As Huseby puts it, “we wanted a change and now we are forced to make it happen.”
Not long after our conversation, Isik and Huseby announce their allegiance to #rewiringfashion – a global call to arms made up of independent designers and industry executives, assembled to challenge and reimagine the broken fashion system. GmbH might not have all the answers, but when so much of the fashion industry has been choked by its own excess, it serves as an important reminder that “things don’t always have to be done in the same way.”
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