Berlin design collective GmbH’s Guide to Modern Living
A conversation about life, living and diversity with the zen-like founders of Berlin’s amorphous fashion collective.
Since launching in 2016, new-gen label GmbH (meaning a corporation with limited liability in German) has quickly risen to become a synecdoche for Berlin fashion. Their native city’s reputation as a techno Mecca, the brand’s formulation as a “collective” (it consists of designers and collaborators – many of whom come from an immigrant background, including the founders themselves) and their use of recycled and deadstock fabrics are all factors which have come to define GmbH. They’ve cornered the Berlin club kid aesthetic by celebrating diversity and making sustainable clothes.
But there’s more to the brand than fashion buzz phrases.
“Club culture and music have always played a significant part in shaping our social lives,” explains designer Benjamin Alexander Huseby. After all, it was the club circuit that brought Huseby and his cofounder Serhat Isik together. “Clearly, it’s an important aspect of Berlin but I really feel that because we’re based in Berlin, people try to squeeze us into that corner,” Huseby says when I meet the duo at Huseby’s apartment in Neukolln, Berlin. “We don’t play techno in our studio and we haven’t even had time to go out since launching the brand.”
“It is part of us… but we lead quite different lives. There’s more to us than clubbing,” Isik adds.
The smartly designed interior with minimalist décor of the designer’s living space is the antithesis of a techno club run through with pulsating beats. Sat on the floor around a chabudai that faces the building’s inner courtyard, Huseby and Isik talk me through their guide to modern living.
There’s a huge cylindrical glass jar on the kitchen counter in Huseby’s apartment containing gourmet kombucha. Huseby’s interest in fermentation and cooking stems from his upbringing around animals, in the Norwegian countryside.
“I’ve always cared about what I eat,” says Huseby, “When I was 12, I lived across the street from the biggest slaughter house in Norway and it was around then that I stopped eating meat. But I usually don’t say I’m a vegetarian because that makes it sound like you’re part of a sect. So, more as a joke, I usually say ‘I don’t eat anything with eyelashes,’” Huseby laughs before continuing, “It’s not about dogma but more about how you treat the animals, how you respect the things you eat.”
Fermenting and drinking kombucha, he argues, feeds into this principle of being a conscientious eater: “If you do good for yourself, you feel good,” Isik tells me.
GmbH’s emphasis on “collective” mentality bleeds into many aspects of their professional and daily lives, from frequently collaborating with other artists to sharing meals together with their colleagues. Likening cooking to meditation, Huseby says they always cook together in the studio. “Everyone has to take turns in cooking,” Serhat adds, “We get to be together and social. That’s something we care deeply about.” In fact, Huseby argues that eating together is a “primordial ritual of humanity.”
Stadtbad Neukölln is a public swimming pool in Berlin with opulent interiors and an ornately decorated sauna that calls to mind the splendour of ancient Roman baths. And it recently served as the backdrop for a casual dinner to celebrate the launch of GmbH’s ASICS collaboration; focusing on their love of collective dining, they brought together a group of close friends and served dishes cooked from locally grown organic produce.
A GmbH collection is often rooted in what Huseby refers to as “esoteric research” into philosophical texts. It’s this approach to design that’s seen them work with the likes of Iranian-American writer and philosopher, Ashkan Sepahvand.
“We do a lot of reading in general,” Huseby explains. “And this research acts as a thread connecting all of our disparate thoughts. It accumulates in a collection. With each collection, we try to boil it down to something that’s easy for the general public to understand, like “Rare Earth” for AW 2019 collection or “Survival Strategies” for SS 2019 collection. So you could say that they are about one thing but they are not just about one thing. With “Rare Earth”, for instance, there’s all this research into ideas about brown futurism, science fiction, and going back to where we come from, where are we going.”
Our conversation about research somehow leads us back to kombucha: “I’ve been doing some research into bacteria… since we’re talking a lot about identity and human body and so on. An interesting part is that most of the cells in our body aren’t our own cells. Our body consists of four times more other micro-organisms than our own cells…”
Walk the walk
Both Huseby and Isik have an aversion to being pigeonholed into set categories. It’s important for people to know that their label is concerned less about trending buzz words, and more about the personal stories of their community. As Huseby explains, “If anything, we design counter to those terms [diversity and sustainability]. Diversity was invented by white people to sell more clothes, to pat themselves on the back and feel better about themselves. Looking ‘diverse’, that’s much easier than becoming truly representative of diverse culture. You can hire POC models but what are you doing structurally within the company? Where’s the CEO? The creative director? That’s where it has to happen. Diversity isn’t something we think about – we are just merely representing ourselves, our world.”
Isik adds, “First and foremost, fashion cannot be sustainable. Fashion isn’t something you need. The most sustainable way would be to not make any more clothes. But on the other hand, we are interested in beauty and telling stories. And fashion and garment are the medium through which we articulate our messages, tell our stories and raise awareness of socio-political issues and representation. So it’s more about damage control – trying to make things work within the existing parameters. Going out there and saying you have a sustainable brand…well, what does that mean exactly?”
“We are careful about not calling ourselves a sustainable brand,” says Huseby. “It just feels wrong to us. It feels like a marketing tool.”