He’s the designer and artist who’s dressed everyone from Gaga to Beyoncé. But Osman Yousefzada is now reflecting on his Pakistani-Afghan roots. He tells Hattie Crisell what that means when it comes to escape and glamour.
The London-based artist and designer Osman Yousefzada knows more than most about glamour and celebrity. His womenswear – impeccably tailored and often playing with inventive textures and beautiful prints – has been worn by Ariana Grande, Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, Halle Berry, Taylor Swift and a dozen other household names. For the last three years, however, he’s spent almost every weekend at his family home in Birmingham, in a world that has very little to do with red carpets or champagne receptions. There, he’s been caring for his beloved Pakistani-Afghan mother, who moved to the UK in 1971, and died this year on 1 January. Two-and-a-half thousand people came to pay their respects over three days of funeral prayers.
It’s this life of extreme contrasts that forms the focus of Osman’s new memoir, The Go-Between – a title that alludes to a childhood flitting between his closed, orthodox Pashtun Muslim community (prayer; honour; Halal food) and his mates at school (pop music; porn mags; irresistible non-Halal sweets). ‘The book’s a meditation on identity, really,’ he explains. ‘I feel like an outsider in many situations, so I want to give hope to other misfits, outsiders and dreamers. And I really wanted to give a view into a hidden world – these are stories that don’t necessarily get told.’
The book is sensitively written from Osman’s perspective as a little boy; the harsher facts of his background aren’t hidden, but they are presented without judgement. It wasn’t until he was older, for example, that he questioned the fact that his sisters were permanently taken out of education when they hit puberty – a common practice at the time – or why women in the neighbourhood rarely went outside. He also recalls the many beatings that his mother endured from his father (who died three years ago), which were echoed in other families they knew.
Despite all this, he feels sympathy for the adults of his community – many of them illiterate – who were thrown into the unfamiliar and often racist world of 1980s Britain, and had to protect their families as best they could. ‘They weren’t embraced by the UK,’ he says. ‘They were brought over as cheap labour, and then when the deindustrialisation of the north happened under Thatcher, they were discarded.
Often people want to integrate, but the opportunities aren’t there. I don’t judge the value system of the older people in my community – I have a different value system, but I try and put on two hats and navigate both of them.’
The book is also a love letter to his mother, a talented seamstress who made dresses for women in their community; though she dressed in a low-key way herself, he remembers her creating flamboyant designs for other people. It was at home, long before his degree in fashion, that Osman learned to cut patterns and sew. ‘I see my mum’s touch in everything I do,’ he says. ‘But I think being an artisan and being a fashion person are two very different things. She was a craftsperson: someone comes in, you make them something and then they pay you. The fashion industry is often about freebies, influencers and gifts. I think what she did was more honest.’
Towards the end of the memoir, Osman recounts the eye-opening experience of moving to London to do an anthropology degree at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and discovering the club scene. It was through new friends and wild nightlife that he began to pursue his talent for designing and making clothes, and won a place to study fashion at Central Saint Martins. In this new world, misfits were welcomed: ‘Fashion celebrates difference,’ he nods.
And yet, despite remarkable success over the past 15 years and a long list of fashion award nominations, his love for the industry seems to have faded slightly. He has deliberately cut the output of his designer label to around 10% of what it was, and is focusing on a host of other artistic projects, including a summer show at the V&A Museum, a film that will be shown at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney, and a PhD that he’s studying for at the Royal College of Art.
‘The last four or five years, I’ve been slowly trying to change the conversation that I really want to have,’ he says. ‘I don’t like those fashion conversations that are about, “I’m cooler than you,” and always looking at what’s coming next season. I think textiles hold memory, and I want everything that I make to last, not be replaced by the next collection. So now I’m weaving something myself, I’m painting, and I’m trying to be more of an artisan.’
In the end, while the world Osman lives in might be unrecognisable to his mother, he’s returned to many of the principles that he learned from her – both in work and in life. ‘She was a really open person, and she was kind of a mother hen to many people. Anyone who comes to my house, I still have to give them a doggy bag, because of her.’
That’s not to say that he and his mum saw everything the same way. ‘She said that writing a book was the stupidest idea,’ he says with a laugh. ‘But of course she did – it’s a community that never shows itself.’ He shrugs: just another cultural difference that he’s starting to bridge.
‘The Go-Between: A Portrait Of Growing Up Between Different Worlds’ is out now (£14.99, Canongate)