Designer Osman Yousefzada’s new memoir explores more than just fashion

The British, Afghan-Pakistani designer reminisces about his upbringing in a conservative community in Birmingham

Osman Yousefzada's memoir chronicles his journey growing up in a conservative Muslim family in Birmingham to becoming an international fashion designer. Photo: Ophelia Wynne
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A rainbow-shaped collage of eclectic prints borders a black-and-white childhood photo of Osman Yousefzada on the cover of his memoir, The Go-Between: A Portrait of Growing Up Between Different Worlds.

Upon closer inspection of the frayed edges of the patterned strips, it becomes clear that they are swatches of fabric – a fitting ode to Yousefzada’s mother, who ran a makeshift neighbourhood tailoring business from her Birmingham home. Her expertise with textiles and stitching was passed down to her son, who is a multidisciplinary artist and fashion designer with a celebrity clientele of Beyonce, Celine Dion, Taylor Swift and others.

In his memoir, the author gives incredibly detailed glimpses of the reality of his immigrant community in Britain. Photo: Cannongate Books

Yousefzada’s family is from the Afghan frontier of Pakistan, and throughout his childhood, he flits in and out of the worlds of men and women, who are kept segregated. In a culture where women often wish they were males because of the extra freedoms they are given, Yousefzada is the opposite – he enjoys the colours, fashion and overall excitement of the realm of women, as opposed to the boredom and rigid severity of the men’s quarters.

A designer’s lens

Throughout his memoir, Yousefzada pulls back the curtain to give incredibly detailed glimpses of the reality of his immigrant community in Britain. While the overall picture he paints is often bleak, it’s punctuated with some colour, particularly when describing the joy and escapism that fashion brings him.

Yousefzada’s writing comes alive when describing fabrics, jewellery and accessories. The designer’s eye for aesthetics and tendency to describe outfits comes off as innate – yet, fashion is only a small piece of this multifaceted story. It’s frequently juxtaposed with cultural interpretations of religion, as Yousefzada recounts how fundamentalism had an effect on the ambience of his own home.

High heels, for instance, are deemed unfit for the God-fearing; respectable women wear flats only. The auntie who dares carry a mock-croc handbag is something of a novelty in the community, where the local imam preaches that women who flaunt handbags would go to hell. Fascinated by purses and determined that his own mother should own one, a young Yousefzada saves up and buys her a patent leather handbag, which she swiftly hides away and never uses.

As a child, he enthusiastically fashions a pink burqa for his sister's replica Barbie doll. He names her Roxana and creates a shrine for her, but is then called an idolater and strongly chastised by his mother.

A culture of patriarchy

Throughout, Yousefzada’s tone is laced with sarcasm and a hint of disdain for ultra-rigid orthodoxy. His father’s generation, he remarks, “created their own cosmos” – a tight-knit circle of conservatism within multicultural Birmingham, further inflamed when the mujahideen triumphed over the Russian forces in occupied Afghanistan. A “new breed of imams,” writes Yousefzada, brought “new, puritanical doctrines and strict interpretations.”

Yousefzada notes his community’s strained assimilation into Britain, particularly with women, who are not allowed to drive, and frequently endure domestic abuse. Girls are sent to school only until they reach puberty, upon which they are whisked back home and covered in purdah, a form of modesty “fiercely observed”, to await their impending marriage.

Oftentimes, girls are hidden in the cellar when local officials come knocking to inquire about their absences from school (while parents continue to cash in on weekly government child-support benefits). Yousefzada’s family even forge airline tickets as evidence of the girls’ travels abroad. In the case of his own sister Ruksar, she “illegally disappears” when she is aged only 10. Yousefzada draws chilling comparisons to the reality in present-day Afghanistan, where the Taliban have continued to deny women entry to schools.

A double life

He describes this pocket of people as a “transplanted community” from the Afghan frontier of Pakistan. He also explains that the concept of “home” is complex, pointing out that their British existence was underlined by a constant fear of being sent back home – graffiti spelling “Pakis go home” serving as an ever-present reminder of the country’s racism.

“I was born here. Where was the home I was supposed to go to?” asks a young Yousefzada. He ultimately leaves Birmingham to study South Asian studies and anthropology at SOAS University of London. He then moves to Central Saint Martins to study fashion, and goes on to become a successful fashion designer – a staple name at seasonal London Fashion Weeks.

The contradictions between his two lives don’t dissipate with Yousefzada’s fame, rather, they’re perpetually in tension with one another. Back home, his father burns his portfolio of sketches, but Yousefzada resigns himself to a compromise: “He lived in his world, and I lived in mine.” Beyonce wins a Grammy while wearing his jumpsuit; meanwhile, his mother cannot fathom how a dress can cost more than £500 ($677).

While much has changed since Yousefzada’s childhood, The Go-Between does more than reveal the humble foundations of a world-famous fashion designer – it captures the spirit of a community at a crossroads, chronicling the volatile ingredients of racism, fanaticism, patriarchy and culture that combine to create this insulated little world within Britain’s diverse melting pot.

The Go-Between: A Portrait of Growing Up Between Different Worlds, published by Canongate Books, was released in the UK on January 27 and will be out in the Middle East later this month

Updated: February 05, 2022, 8:38 AM