GmbH Still Believes in Berlin
The brand’s founders, Serhat Isik and Benjamin Alexander Huseby, on how to save the city that inspired them.
Uniquely among Europe’s major fashion capitals, Berlin has never had a label that embodied its culture. Where Rome has Valentino, London has Burberry and Paris has a myriad of luxury houses like Dior and Chanel, Berlin hasn’t been represented in the same way. But the German capital — famously described as “poor, but sexy” by its former mayor — is different to other European cities. Berlin’s values are encapsulated by GmbH, the fashion label founded in 2016 which is arguably the closest to reflecting what the city stands for.
“We couldn’t imagine having started GmbH anywhere else,” says the Berlin-based label’s co-founder Benjamin Alexander Huseby. The fashion collective, led by Huseby and co-founder Serhat Isik, is inseparable from the city in which they are based. GmbH is based around the core values — community, migration, LGBTQ rights, giving a voice to marginalized groups — that Berlin has come to represent in Europe.
Equally, Berlin’s attitude to the fashion landscape has played a role in shaping the brand. “The attitude to fashion is so different here than other places,” continues Huseby, “it’s neither taken particularly seriously or something that people care about that much. I think it comes not only from being poor historically but the political aspect of people not really caring so much about consumerism in the same way as the big cities.”
“If we were to make decisions based on our careers, we would probably be living in London or Paris,” adds Isik. “But we deliberately don’t do that because life is different here. It offers a separation between those two things; you’re not just that designer working for that brand. You also have a life in Berlin that has nothing to do with it.”
GmbH, reflecting Berlin, is inherently political. The brand has always championed its core values through its collections, and its recent digital Paris Fashion Week presentation explored “how fashion can be a progressive force” by showing two films of the local community and the topics at the heart of GmbH. This political drive is mirrored in the city and its people, constant inspirations to GmbH. “People are very engaged here,” says Isik, “It is a way of living as opposed to a choice that you make. It’s so embedded into how people grew up here, into how you operate. That’s something we love about Berlin.”
“People are very engaged here. It is a way of living as opposed to a choice that you make. It’s so embedded into how people grew up here, into how you operate.”
Although Berlin is so central to what GmbH represents, the city is changing in ways that threaten the community the label is at the heart of. Earlier this year, The Observer reported that Berlin’s cultural capital was “in peril” due to changing rent structures and the local government’s perceived ambivalence towards the art world, while the Financial Times added that real estate investors and city authorities were driving collectors away.
Speaking about how the city is evolving, Huseby points to an influx of tech companies and a “Wild West” approach to rent prices, which are combining to force out Berlin’s artistic community. “Most of the artists we know have studios further and further away,” he explains. “When we moved to Berlin, everyone would have a studio close to where they lived.”
This point is echoed by Isik, who illustrates how the city has moved on. “Five or 10 years ago, it was so easy to start something here. I don’t know if that will be the case in another five or 10 years. We spoke about how important Berlin was to GmbH; financially speaking and in terms of resources, it wouldn’t have been possible to start what we started in London or Paris. We wouldn’t be able to afford it.”
With these changes, it would be easy to write off Berlin and anoint a cultural successor, but Huseby and Isik still believe in the city. When asked if they remain excited by Berlin, Isik replies emphatically: “Absolutely. The artists are still here, the creatives are still here.” There is also the chance that Berlin, like other cities, will be remade after the COVID-19 pandemic. For Huseby, the local authorities need to strictly regulate Berlin’s rental prices and guarantee spaces for artists.
“Five or 10 years ago, it was so easy to start something here. I don’t know if that will be the case in another five or 10 years.”
As well as affecting Berlin as a city, COVID-19 and lockdown measures have also impacted GmbH directly. Both Huseby and Isik have been ill as a result of the virus over recent months, which has led them to change the brand’s business model. “It was mentally and physically exhausting, but we came out of it with a very clear mind and it made us crystallize what we want to do with GmbH,” explains Huseby. “It’s not only about making and selling clothes, it’s about so much more, telling stories and connecting people, using fashion to create some kind of change.”
The first step is changing how the label measures its success, taking a more holistic approach rather than using growth as a guiding force. This new attitude is effective in two ways. “The traditional way of measuring success within an economic structure is taken away, which gives us a lot of freedom,” says Huseby. “And from a sustainability point of view, we know that we can’t go on producing so much and pursuing constant growth when the resources are finite.”
A first test of this new approach came with the brand’s Spring 2021 collection and accompanying digital presentation. “The collection was made from what we had available,” continues Huseby. “We didn’t develop any new patterns or styles because we only had limited resources. I don’t think it was a bad thing. It gave us more focus. Having limited resources helped us to be sharper and clearer in what we wanted to do.”
Alongside a traditional lookbook, GmbH launched the collection with two short films. The first, titled Guest on Earth, featured people from GmbH’s Berlin neighborhood, continuing the brand’s consistent celebration of the community around it by showing ordinary people and “the ordinary things that happen every day” in the area. The second film, Season of Migration to the North, was made by artist Lars Laumann and activist Eddie Esmail and tells the story of a fashion show held in Sudan by Esmail and other activists in 2010. Esmail and other members of the show were later arrested by Sudanese authorities for being gay.
“It didn’t make sense to produce so much, says Huseby, “so why not use art that has already been made and recontextualize it as our fashion show?” The film was chosen for a number of reasons, with Isik and Huseby both feeling like it ties in with what GmbH stands for. “It touches on all the topics that are close to GmbH’s heart: migration, fashion and marginalized groups,” Huseby continues. “For us, it was a beautiful example of how fashion can still be subversive and still be a political act.”