The attention-averse designers behind GmbH are expressing themselves by tapping into their immigrant backgrounds.
There’s a photograph taken in Berlin circa 2016 that casts a group of men and women against a sparse, industrial backdrop in what looks to be the fading afternoon light. Their clothes, much like their surroundings, are minimal and hard-wearing, their gazes direct yet soft as they stand, sit, or lean against one another, interwoven like a gang of old friends. For many of us, this image served as an introduction to GmbH, the (then) newly launched Berlin-based fashion brand making club-inspired clothing with a conscience.
Benjamin Alexander Huseby and Serhat Isik stand among those pictured—they are the creative force behind the operation, but from the photograph, you wouldn’t know it. It is a perfect example of the design duo’s partiality toward anonymity, preferring, especially in the early days, to appear together with their cohort of friends and collaborators like two links in a chain made stronger by the support on either side.
The inconspicuousness of the brand’s name—in Germany, GmbH means ‘Ltd.’ or ‘Inc.’—is further proof of the pair’s original intent to remain, for the most part, nameless. Despite this predilection, Huseby and Isik recognized early on that in order to be heard, really heard, and better yet, understood, it was vital that they lift the veil.
“We weren’t really so interested in having attention on us as people, as individuals, but we soon realized that in order to communicate our ideas and our thoughts, we’d really need to come forward,” says Huseby, down the line from the “more quiet” room in their two-room studio located in an old, industrial building in Kreuzberg, a Turkish-influenced neighborhood in Berlin populated with artists, activists, and immigrants.
Huseby, a fashion photographer and contributor to titles such as Dazed & Confused, Self-Service, Another Man, and i-D, and Isik, a menswear designer and consultant for various designers and artists, met on Berlin’s club circuit in 2015. “I had an idea for a small collection, sort of a side project to design clothes,” Huseby recalls. “When I showed Serhat what I wanted to do, he said it was very similar to what he’d been thinking about, and when we looked at each other’s references, we realized then and there it made sense to join forces and create a label because our minds were so aligned.” And so, GmbH was born, and the fashion world quickly took note. The label has since emerged with a bold yet refined aesthetic and a voice worth listening to. As Isik explains, GmbH has always been a vehicle for expression in more ways than one. “We try to put a message not just in the garments but in the whole story of the brand ....We care about what it means to do this project, and what it means for people seeing it.” From the choice of materials—the majority of pieces are made from vintage, deadstock, and recycled materials—to the iconography incorporated into the collections to the diverse casting of their shows, Huseby and Isik imbue every available surface with stories and sociopolitical statements that are at once deeply personal and universal.
Take, for example, their Spring/Summer 2019 offering—the duo’s fourth collection, third Paris Fashion Week appearance, and first official endeavor into womenswear—where notions of endurance, protection, and instinct pervaded the lineup of body-hugging sportswear, contemporary streetwear, and elegant evening wear for which GmbH has become known. The collection, aptly titled “Survival Strategies,” delved deep into the history of its creators, drawing on their differing immigrant backgrounds (Huseby is Pakistani-Norwegian, Isik is Turkish-German), an ongoing theme that has informed their creative output from the start.
“Since [the collection] was equally womenswear, we thought it was natural to start speaking to our mothers about their experiences,” Huseby explains, “Serhat’s mom as a Turkish woman coming to Germany in the ’70s, and my mom who is Norwegian and white but dating a Pakistani man in the ’60s and ’70s in Norway.” Isik adds, “[The collection] leant to our mothers teaching us strategies to survive and understanding what their strategies were when they came here: You have to groom yourself, you have to be prettier, you have to earn your place here.”
Previous collections have been equally charged. Spring/Summer 2018, Huseby says, “was very much inspired by our fathers coming to Europe.” “And then [Autumn/Winter 2018] was a reaction to the hostile environment we felt was growing in the world and this kind of need for clothing as protection and armor.” These underlying sentiments are manifested in the duo’s innovative approach to material and cut. The utilitarian garments accessorized with belts and braces in “Survival Strategies,” for instance, worked to enhance and influence the body’s posture by offering corset-like support. Safeguarding materials like the chain mail and recycled leather were incorporated into Autumn/Winter 2018’s “My Beauty Offends You,” which saw garments functioning as, in Isik’s words, “extensions of the body like armor, protecting not only the body but also the soul.”
“My Beauty Offends You” further served to showcase the pair’s interest in blending together the traditional apparel associated with different regions as a way to illustrate the cultural exchange that has been going on for thousands of years. In this instance, traditional Norwegian knit sweaters were cut apart and mixed with what Huseby describes as “Middle Eastern dad [sweaters].” The project, he notes, was directly related to the inspiration behind the show: The discovery of a Viking burial gown in Sweden that had Arabic characters woven into the collar.
“It’s always important to look at history to acknowledge the present, and a good example of why we shouldn’t fear immigrants coming to Europe because it’s always been going on,” Huseby says. ”People have always traveled and met other groups of people and that’s how culture moves on, grows, and becomes something new. So it’s kind of a metaphor for that.”
The beauty of diversity is further championed through the casting of their shows, which feature a mix of friends from the club scene, working models, and people found on the streets in and around their neighborhood, most of whom are from immigrant backgrounds. “We look for people that we feel some connection with that either fill a role or persona related to someone we know or someone we could relate to,” Huseby explains.
And then there’s music—an ongoing source of inspiration drawn from the pair’s immersion in Berlin’s club scene and their expansive musical palette, which, if you listen to their show music, includes anything and everything from choir music to chanting to Medieval music to hard techno. It is this mutual love of music and club culture that has in many ways determined GmbH’s creative path. It was, after all, on the dance floors of Berlin’s nightclubs that the initial bond was forged, the friendship struck up, and the seed planted for what was and still is to come.