Fashion that ponders sex, couture and Islam
For AW22, Berlin-based label GmbH contemplates the relationships between Islamic dress codes, queerness and the high-craft of clothesmaking.
Images courtesy of GmbH.
A talisman, reads the show notes for GmbH’s AW22 collection, is “an object that is thought to have protective powers and to bring good luck” — something that we could all do with, we’re sure you’ll agree. For Benjamin Alexander Huseby and Serhat Işık, though, thinking of fashion in terms of protection is hardly new — indeed, you could claim that they’ve been exploring the talismanic properties of dress since their earliest days — crafting clothes that serve as a figurative “armour, both spiritually and physically speaking,” Serhat says.
This season, though, the Berlin-based pair lean full tilt into that investigation, braiding thematic strands it’s previously treated in various combinations — religion, spirituality, sexuality, racialised perception, and the conventions of haute couture — into perhaps its most poignant offering to date.
Departing from an Ottoman soldier’s undergarments from the 16th century they discovered while researching — decorated with protective, hand-painted calligraphy and intended to be worn beneath the armour in battle — Serhat was reminded of the muskas his grandfather used to write for members of the village he lived in Turkey — “protective inscriptions written in Arabic, that are worn either pinned to your undergarment or as jewellery around your neck,” he explains. The natural response, then, was to create their own auspicious script, enlisting Syrian calligrapher Abdelrazak Shaballot to create the bold visual motif that proudly emblazons point-collared silk-shirting, wide-cut trousers, and thigh-skimming faux-leather boots.
Here, however, they skirted the religious inflections of their source material, instead taking for a more secular, spiritual route — “The main phrase there says 'safe from harm', which is just something came to me in a dream!” Benjamin says. Prophetic indeed! This is, nonetheless, a collection that directly engages codes and signifiers of Islamic culture, particularly those that peppered Serhat’s upbringing in a practicing Muslim household. They inform jacquard and leather-effect tunics, Serhat notes, and the taqiyah caps worn by men to mosque. And while its semantic content isn’t tied to the Muslim faith, the inscription itself conjures memories of safety, homeliness and beauty, he continues: “When you grow up Muslim, voluntarily or involuntarily, these writings are something that you're constantly exposed to -- it's the only way you can pray, and they’re around you all the time for protection — like in our houses above the doors.” “The collection's a very personal exploration of spirituality based on our heritage,” Benjamin concurs.
Where the grain of personal experience really makes itself felt is in an exploration of how sex and spirituality — or religion — intermingle, informing boxy wrap blazers and plunging kaftans-as-minidresses paired with mid-thigh-high boots. While these looks may appear transgressive at first sight, the aim here — as we’ve seen in previous GmbH collections — feels less to do with crossing boundaries, and more with prompting you to question why you think they’re being crossed in the first place, and which ones. It’s an invitation to question the assumptions that the image provokes.
For one thing, “if this were a womenswear show, the idea of a kaftan with thigh-high boots would not be provocative at all,” Benjamin notes, “but I think seeing a guy without trousers, and just this little sliver of skin on the upper thigh, it becomes very seductive,” calling the gendered assumptions we irrationally foist upon artfully assembled cloth into question. It also prompts discussions about wider perceptions of the Islamic faith, in particular the problematically black-and-white preconceptions around its relationship to queerness. “Islam is the religion that's most demonised for being seen as hostile towards queer people, which always negates the idea that there actually are queer Muslims, and queer people that grow up as Muslims,” Benjamin states. “We wanted to find a personal way of expressing that -- it's neither a critique of religion nor an attempt to analyse it. It's more of a reflection of our personal relationship to it and how the world perceives it.”
More than a statement, though, it’s fashion that members of the brand’s ever-expanding community are keen to wear — and, in their own way, already are. The dad’s-borrowed-blazer-and mum’s-better-days-boots look, for example, reflects a styling savvy already being demonstrated by a new generation of “queer Muslim kids out there that are exploring these spaces and these ideas,” Serhat notes. “They just don't seem as absurd as they did for me when I was a teenager. It really comes back to creating silhouettes that we see our community wearing.”
That point serves as a necessary reminder of what’s at the heart of what Benjamin and Serhat do. While their collections may be charged with the conceptual rigour of an anthropological thesis, they are, first and foremost, fashion designers — bloody good ones at that. That’s self-evident across their collections, but where that’s made itself best known of late is in GmbH’s demi-couture line, which debuted for AW21. While the most iconic pieces from the line so far have been the Insta-friendly ‘Revenge dress’-esque pieces, this season sees an expansion of this brand pillar to totemic wool coats with hulking, pyramidal faux fur shawl collars and elongated cuffs, and geometric, yak-horn neckline tops that call the sculptural theatricality of Rick Owens and Gareth Pugh to mind. The reference, in fact, goes back a bit further, to mid-century couturier Jacques Fath — which the fashion history buffs among you may clock on peeking the reverse of the garments, with scooping v-cuts sensuously revealing the upper back, a hallmark of the French designer’s reimagined here for the male body.
Elsewhere, crisp suiting — a nod to “the ceremony of dressing up for mosque, thinking about older gentlemen like our fathers putting on their best suits for Friday prayers,” Serhat says — and insouciantly wrapped, slope-shouldered coats in glossy faux-Astrakhan bring a complementary neo-dandy flair into the mix — a sense of distinguished sartoriality that reaffirms the duo’s ability to create clothes that hold their own without an awareness of the context that informed their making.
Placed next to their last collection, an acerbic, witty critique of white entitlement, this leans a little further into the personal than the overtly political — though for GmbH, the two are always inextricably linked; codependent, even. In doing so, however, they’ve managed to introduce a frank vulnerability — a chink in the armour — that makes this their most nuanced, most introspective, and — perhaps paradoxically — most relatable work yet.
All images courtesy of GmbH