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War on Gaza: Paris Fashion Week protest designers say industry scared of speaking out

Benjamin Huseby and Serhat Isik, founders of GmbH, call for ceasefire and an end to the occupation of Palestine before their show at Paris Fashion Week
Turkish fashion designer Dilara Findikoglu modelling on the runway at GmbH's Paris fashion week show, 21 January 2024 (Supplied)

The Berlin-based founders of fashion label GmbH, who on Sunday gave a speech in solidarity with Palestine during their show at Paris Fashion Week, have told Middle East Eye that colleagues in the industry are scared to speak out about Israel's war on Gaza.

“Yes, it has been a deafening silence,” Benjamin Huseby and Serhat Isik said, when asked about the fashion industry's response to the war on Gaza, where over 25,000 Palestinians, most of them women and children, have been killed.

“We know we have many allies behind the scenes, but everyone is scared. Scared of losing their business and livelihood. We understand that fear, but we have no option but to resist,” the designers told MEE via email.

During the final show of Paris men’s fashion week on Sunday, Huseby and Isik opened their autumn/winter presentation with a speech calling for a ceasefire. 

“We have called for a ceasefire, a release of all hostages, a free Palestine and an end to the occupation, all demands we think should be uncontroversial,” the Berlin-based duo said in the French capital. 

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“As fashion designers, we are normally left to express our thoughts through clothing and leave the rest to the imagination. But we live in dangerous times, where the precision of words is needed,” Isik told the show.

At one point during the 10-minute speech, Huseby broke down, while some audience members were also left in tears. 

"As the far right - and actual Nazis and fascists are once again gaining power across Europe, and many other parts of the world, antisemitism and Islamophobia is rising too," Huseby said. 

"How convenient, then, to distract us to make us believe there is really a struggle between two already marginalised people, when in fact the struggle is rather between power and justice; exclusionary nationalism and true universal humanity; oppression and freedom."

The designers went on to quote from Indian writer Arundhati Roy's talk "Come September", which references derogatory comments made by former British prime minister Winston Churchill, who compared the Palestinians to a "dog in a manger", and former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, who said, "Palestinians do not exist".

The show contained designs replete with symbols of solidarity, including suits inspired by Palestinian keffiyeh scarves that were handmade in collaboration with Palestinian and Syrian refugees via the Social Enterprise Project (SEP).

Almost two years ago, the beginning of Milan Fashion Week coincided with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Major fashion labels, including Balenciaga, were quick to express their solidarity with the Ukrainians, while protesters brandishing banners contributed to an unusually solemn and serious atmosphere. 

The co-founders of the GmbH fashion label at their Paris Fashion Week show (Supplied)

This year in Paris, expressions of solidarity with Palestinians under attack have been few and far between. US designer Rick Owens moved his show to his home, referencing the “barbaric” times we live in, but there has been little else to note. 

Many major fashion labels - including Louis Vuitton, Ralph Lauren and Chanel - have reportedly voiced their support for Israel, or have financial ties to business interests in the country.

In 2021, Bernard Arnault, the chairman and CEO of luxury goods giant LVMH, which owns Louis Vuitton, Dior and a host of other brands, invested in Israeli cybersecurity firm Wiz.

In reporting GmbH’s show and the speech given by its designers, fashion magazine Vogue did not mention either Israel or Palestine. 

The 'power of art'

“As creatives we have always believed in the power of art, culture and fashion to make real changes in the world, when it engages with topics authentically,” Huseby and Isik told MEE.

“As two people who have believed in the idea of a free Palestine for as long as we can remember, the last months have affected us deeply and, in many ways, we felt we had no choice than to use our platform to speak up.”

The designers added that “part of the genocide in Gaza includes the destruction of culture as well, something we as creatives have an obligation to protect”.

The founders of GmbH said they hoped that the “mostly positive response we have had will encourage others to also speak up”. 

keffiyeh gmbh
A look inspired by the Palestinian keffiyeh at GmbH's 21 January 2024 show (Supplied)

Jad Salfiti, a British-Palestinian journalist based in Berlin, told Middle East Eye that, “GmbH are singular in their unerring celebration of marginalised people – both in their work and their message – from Palestinians to LGBTQ+ people. In their speech, they have shown they are not just talking the talk but walking the walk.”

Germany's raison d'etat

Since the Israel-Palestine war began on 7 October following the Hamas-led attack on Israel, expressions of solidarity with Palestinians have been clamped down on in Germany. 

Protests have been banned and leading German politicians have reiterated the country’s “staatsrason”, or reason of state, a principle that places support for Israel at the core of Germany's national identity.

'We should all be terrified, when Germany starts again silencing Jews and other dissenting voices'

- Benjamin Huseby and Serhat Isik, GmbH founders

Shortly after the war began, Robert Habeck, Germany’s vice chancellor, addressed Israelis in a video message, promising them that “we stand at your side, and we have forgotten nothing”, an apparent reference to his country's role in the Holocaust.

Between 1941 and 1945, Germany’s Nazi government and its collaborators systematically murdered around six million Jews. 

Salfiti said that GmbH’s stand came within this German context, “where Palestinian human rights have become something of a national anxiety, with constant clampdowns on solidarity with Gaza - owing in part to Germany’s own dark history.”

At their show in Paris, the designers said that: "In Germany, where we live, we have seen in the last months dozens of cancellations of artists, writers and musicians for not aligning with German state policy. The majority of those cancelled are Palestinian, Jewish, Black or brown.

"We should all be terrified, when Germany starts again silencing Jews and other dissenting voices."

Both children of Muslim immigrants, Huseby and Isik “represent a new diverse Berlin that was emerging”, Salfiti told MEE.

“As people, they’re erudite and extremely tapped into – if not ahead – of the news cycle. From the climate crisis to Trump’s Muslim travel ban, they tell the story of society in every thread of their designs.”

This article is partially available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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