Interview by Filep Motwary
Berlin-based GmbH has been one of fashion’s most prolific brands since 2016. The story has it that its founders met on a Berlin dance floor five years ago. It was the moment when Turkish/ German Serhat Isik moved out from Bless, where he was in charge of menswear design, and Norwegian/Pakistani Benjamin Alexander Huseby was photographing stories for Fantastic Man, i-D, Vogue, Acne Paper, and Harper’s Bazaar. During the COVID-19 lockdown, both Isik and Huseby caught the virus, urging them to see the world with different eyes. We caught up after their recovery to discuss what it means to be a multicultural family House, the value of optimism, and the discipline of creating wearable forms that are planet-conscious.
FILEP MOTWARY: I know you both had COVID-19. Is everything okay now?
SERHAT ISIK: Yeah, we’re fine, we’re recovered. It was very different for the both of us actually—we both had quite different symptoms.
BENJAMIN ALEXANDER HUSEBY: Yeah, for two weeks I was very, very sick!
FM: I’ve been following you since your first presentation and I’m glad we’re now having this conversation. I want to ask you what GmbH is about and why is it considered to be a multicultural fashion collective?
BAH: The way we see GmbH is really as a kind of platform that crosses fashion with art and music and is really about responding
through fashion especially to what happens in the world and how it affects us. We never call ourselves a collective. I mean we’re two people and obviously, we involve friends in what we do—artists, you know—whether it’s a one-off project or the model for us. So, it’s multicultural in that way but we’re obviously not a collective—that’s something that’s been put on us by other people.
FM: How difficult was it for you to establish your brand in Berlin while making it relevant on a global scale?
BAH: In the beginning, it wasn’t that difficult because we just did what we did. We did the lookbook with some friends—it was very casual and we sent it out to shops and they responded very immediately and it was built on that very gradually. It was a very organic process.
FM: What would you say is the most important element that your clothes reflect?
SI: In general, I would say it’s definitely about bringing people and communities together.
BAH: But, more specifically about the clothes, I would say it’s very much about the human body and about construction. I was never fashion obsessed—I was obsessed with construction and garments and textiles. That’s how I got into fashion and still, that’s very much the most important thing alongside our storytelling for us: to have really well-constructed clothes that enhance a certain kind of feeling you have when you wear them, which kind of offers
confidence and sex appeal in turn. It’s very important to us.
FM: It seems like we’re living in an era in which it’s essential for the designer to have a public persona and, especially now with this pandemic, there have been so many Instagram lives and all these designers are talking and talking and talking.
SI: Well, I definitely felt in some ways there was some oversharing going on.
BAH: I mean we’re very like: oh, shall we react to this? There are so many things that you can say but also, in our case, we’re always very conscious about not being opportunistic. I think for us it’s important that if we say something it has to be really authentic and genuine.
And I’m not saying that what these other people are saying is not authentic and genuine at the moment, but when there come so many statements about the situation and how it affects us and charity this and charity that it just becomes like this white noise. And our realities have already changed so dramatically into this strange twilight world. We were just taking a lot of time to absorb it instead of being active on social media [or] being so expressive about how we feel and felt about the situation. We thought it was much more important to go inwards and have very intimate discussions with ourselves and really assess what it means for ourselves personally and for our business.
FM: When you had your debut in Paris, what was the reaction?
BAH: I think our own reaction was that we don’t like presentations. We definitely want to do a runway show next time, that was our immediate understanding of that. I mean we had very positive reactions and feedback but…
SI: It was all unexpected—we didn’t have a three-year plan or milestones or goals or how much growth we wanted to have. We are very intuitive that way.
BAH: Our development has so much to do with time—having time to explore a new silhouette or new cuts. It’s all about that really.
FM: What are the main issues that your brand is facing right now with COVID-19 and how has it affected you? Are you changing your ways of working?
BAH: I think we just reacted very quickly, streamlined things, cut away any unnecessary costs that we could find, reduced everything that we could to kind of recover and to get through this period. And we immediately optimized our website with an online shop that before had maybe six or eight styles and now we have almost 60. And we’re finding that people are still shopping, [just] of course not so much physically in stores anymore.
SI: For me, this time has really been about gaining back control on levels I didn’t think I could. In my personal life but also for the company on many, many levels. Of course, it’s extremely exhausting but with that comes also a sense of security. I think when you feel like you have things differently under control, especially in a very challenging time like this, that feels good, to be honest.
FM: Can you tell me a bit more about your team and the people you choose to work with?
SI: Before we started the brand, I was a designer and I was offering my freelance services, and Benjamin was a photographer.
I already had a small team of people here in Berlin that I used to work or study with. Actually, those people kind of followed into the company a little bit and stayed with us for around three years before they moved on to other projects—it was very organic as well. How I got my first job was through an internship ages ago and that has actually also been the case at GmbH: people came
along as interns. It was all very personal. I mean we’re a small team, we cook together every day and we spend time together. It’s quite communal in that sense.
BAH: In addition to us, there are four other people in the studio.
FM: Can you walk me through the process from the moment you start the collection until the moment it’s ready to be presented in Paris?
BAH: We start very often with either an idea of music or a track that we like or something related to music and then research which is mostly going to libraries and museums.
SI: A lot of times when we come out of a show, we pretty much know where we’re headed with the next collection. I mean we’re not really restarting every season with a new round of research. We also work with the same models, which we think is quite important for both the development process and cutting process—not to consume faces.
For us, it really feels like building blocks on construction and making garments and like a study or research process of how we can enhance this piece on this person’s body that we’ve been working with already for five seasons.
FM: There’s always something quite athletic in the clothes you design—they empower the body and allow it to be flexible. It’s like there’s an expectation of an emergency about to happen…
BAH: An emergency?
FM: So you wear these clothes and you’re ready to deal with anything coming your way! Would you agree?
BAH: Well, when it comes to clothes, a lot of the things that we are inspired by are obviously very utilitarian elements, whether it’s uniform or workwear, which was quite influential for us in the beginning. All these clothes have a very practical origin—they’re designed for practical things but then, for us, it’s brought into like another realm.
SI: But it’s also about that invisible quality while you’re actually developing the clothes, while you’re cutting it, to really implement the invisible quality of emergency or enhancement that you’re talking about and that is, for me, the most exciting thing about dressmaking or cutting patterns. And that is also the most difficult aspect of making clothes: to really translate that energy into the garments and that the person who wears them actually feels that. It takes time sometimes. I can be sitting on a pair of trousers until I reach that goal for like two, three weeks.
FM: Is there a balance between underlining your signature each season and doing something commercial that needs to sell or is it all one and the same thing for you?
BAH: Well, I think a lot of the things that perhaps people think of as GmbH staples are actually the commercial pieces, ironically. People still remember the vinyl trousers and the sporty, utilitarian elements. When we started, we always wanted to make wearable clothes. I think when we start a collection, even though it has very specific fashion ideas that we want to do on our list, it’s very much about creating a story, whether it starts with music or a specific kind of mood we’re in—and that might relate a little bit to the kind of urgency you talked about before.
A lot of our collection has been made based on political or emotional reactions to what goes on in the world. What interests both me and Serhat very much is a sense of history and craft and I think it was important for us that this side of GmbH became more recognized somehow. For instance, Serhat has these really fantastic pattern cutting skills.
In the beginning, people saw us as this sort of hype, cool, streetwear collective which are words that we would never use because my interest in fashion came from a very different perspective. Yet I think, as we wanted the story to also reflect fashion history or fashion, we needed to do more of what is considered classic fashion, like tailoring, and really explore construction. It’s still very much working with the body while using elements that give a context to what has happened before in a much easier and more straightforward way for people to digest and understand the quality of what we do.
FM: What was the starting point for the winter collection?
BAH: We wanted to work with a friend of ours on music and we’d been talking about [it] for a while—that was one very important element. Another element was that we watched this documentary about the creation of the universe when all matter was created and then there was this specific interest we had in exploring new silhouettes. Like, let’s just work on this sleeve, let’s obsess about detail and I would say the first part of the collection especially is very much about construction.
SI: And about celebrating that as well. And I really go back to the matter of creation of what really makes GmbH what it is. Visually they might look different, but I don’t cut differently a pair of jeans or something that you would consider a bit more commercial. The
same amount of effort goes into constructing both these things—it doesn’t matter if it’s a tailored coat or a pair of trousers, that’s just what we do in general. It applies to all types of garments. Specifically, in this collection, it was fuelled by this idea of showcasing, going back to what matters. And with the creation of the universe and actually composing the music for the show and it being live, performed, the whole process was very artisanal, somehow.
BAH: But I would also say there was this urgency of wanting to get rid of all the excess noise, which is very much what everyone, or especially we felt that you’re sort of forced to grow out of this pandemic. Almost like what we had already started, our thinking process was already setting up this mood for a radical change somehow. I think it helped coming back to basics and really focusing on the things that really matter for you and in your life.
FM: Should fashion have a political role, beyond aesthetics?
BAH: Well, fashion has always been political in many ways but, as a brand, whether you want to be political or not is totally up to you. I mean it’s not for everyone. We’re having a lot of conversations with other designers at the moment from all kinds of backgrounds and experiences and it’s very obvious that a lot of people have never really thought in-depth about topics that are the most important, like, for example, the environment or even radical ways of building a business. The main problem with our environmental disasters is capitalism, right? And the main issue with capitalism is that it’s based on eternal growth. There are many other things, like the value you create in the world, which can be sometimes immeasurable. That’s definitely what we will need to work hard on and find ways of having a successful company but not adhering to constant growth in the traditional capitalist sense because it isn’t sustainable. I think that is the only way.
FM: What changes will you make in your company?
BAH: I think we’re just harnessing even stronger the values that have always been important for us, which is making a brand that has environmental and social responsibility at the forefront. It’s about storytelling. It is really very much about what we found at GmbH: that these principles of using fashion as a platform for change, whether it was showing a truly diverse cast that was related to our own experience of identities, or whether it’s about creating fashion that, as much as you can, has environmental and social responsibility at the forefront rather than financial growth, right?
SI: You have to make sacrifices. So we’ve been having conversations with other designers and when you talk about circularity and sustainability it always comes back to the point of: “Yeah, but you have to make the sacrifice.” It starts with you and it ends with you and if you don’t make that conscious decision of not riding that way [and] not obeying to measuring success or values that capitalist society has taught us, then nothing is going to change. You make the decision, you have the power, you make your brand sustainable, you are political, you are selling, you are producing, you decide how much, you decide where. Of course, it’s super difficult for older companies and bigger companies to change that way and it’s much easier for us who started their brands based on these values but ultimately, it’s you, no one else. There are going to be major changes obviously and definitely on some levels it’s exciting to see what’s going to happen and how these values are going to shift because they are going to shift. Today, if you don’t have a show or before the pandemic, if you didn’t show, everyone’s reaction was like, “Oh, are they in trouble?”
That’s a fashion thing and now it’s not about that. These values have to shift and it’s not the editors per se who are going to shift that but us demanding the industry and the editors shift their own values on what it means to not show, you know?
BAH: I’m never going to say that COVID-19 is a positive force because, you know, it’s a disaster for the whole of humanity but, at the same time, it’s bringing changes that I’ve personally been wishing for a long time…
BAH: And that makes me very both excited and optimistic.
GmbH -Benjamin Alexander Huseby and Serhat Isik Talk to Filep Motwary, AN INTERVIEW COURTESY OF DAPPER DAN MAGAZINE, VOLUME #22, SEASON FALL – WINTER 2020/21
GmbH: Launched in 2016 by designer Serhat Isik and photographer Benjamin Alexander Huseby, GmbH – a suffix used in Germany to denote a company of limited liability – is a collective that utilizes deadstock, recycled and organic materials as a comment on the fashion industry’s affair with overconsumption. The label’s provocative aesthetic takes its cues from a plethora of sources, from climate change and the Berlin club scene to cross-cultural art and rugged workwear, to convey a message of inclusivity, diversity, and humanity through its offering of neo wardrobe staples.