It is clearly very difficult to get decent Wi-Fi on Stromboli, the volcanic Aeolian island off the coast of Italy. After several attempts and over a crackly line, Osman Yousefzada explains that he is not there on holiday, but has designed some costumes for the annual Volcano Extravaganza, which takes place to coincide with the lunar eclipse.
In June, the London-based fashion designer was back in his home city of Birmingham staging the Being Somewhere Else exhibition at the Ikon Gallery, a walk-through installation based on his autobiographical experience of migration alongside the city’s four-day Migration Festival of music, talks and film.
It was the first time this important art institution had given its space over to a fashion designer, and Yousefzada says it was a phenomenal experience. He is the son of working-class Afghani-Pakistani parents who migrated to Birmingham in the 1970s, where he was born. “It was a platform for different people to come together, the great and the good and the aspiring to talk about their experiences [of migration].” He strongly feels part of that community; although he is now a very successful designer in London with a global clientele.
“There are all these disparate communities, but we are all migrants who had to navigate and find our homes, the differences of colour and language creating an additional barrier,” he says. His parents never learnt English, but had the support of the tight-knit Pashtun community.
One of the most poignant features of the exhibition was a film about fast fashion. Yousefzada scooped up clothes (many originally made for Primark) from charity shops that had been produced in Bangladesh and took them to Dhaka for garment workers to try on and interact with. “These women were cogs in a wheel and would never have been allowed to try on the clothes they had made; it was really heartbreaking to watch them. Although these clothes were cast-offs, they had a real respect for them, folding them neatly and packing them away afterwards,” the designer says.
It is worlds away from the environment in which Yousefzada normally works. He launched his eponymous Osman label in 2008, and has dressed celebrities such as Beyonce, Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga, and earlier this year opened House of Osman in London’s Fitzrovia area. Among his early customers were magazine and fashion editors, whose feedback he soaked up and poured into his designs. His flattering shapes, modern but not minimalist and a little more feminine these days, have a wide appeal. “It is important to know the women you dress; whether they are 25 or 50, you have to give them what they want because everyone wants to look like a better version of themselves,” he explains.
The Osman aesthetic – clean lines and bold use of colour and drapes – speaks to a clientele that circulates in the world of arts, architecture and design. Almost a third of his sales are to the Middle East, although his American market is slightly larger. “I think it’s about colour, about vibrancy and the shapes, which aren’t overtly sexy, but that appeal to the Middle Eastern customer,” he says. “There are little touches that are seen as exotic or ethnic, which speak to that customer, touches that have a regional connection in a culturally appropriate world.”
Yousefzada’s jacquard-patterned kaftan collaboration with Ounass has been very successful and his designs are also carried by The Modist. His fashion shows are like house parties you want to be invited to. Some of the new autumn/winter collection clothes were modelled by his friends, including textile designer and muse Tiphaine de Lussy, because Yousefzada wanted to show his clothes are “easy to wear and fun – clothes to dance in”. The line features fine gold lurex dresses and tops with fluid trousers, fitted jacquard pants and languid pyjamas, as well as a black evening coat with multicoloured puffball beading.
These are now filling the rails of the House of Osman, which, is not just about fashion, but also reflects the designer’s other interests: art, homeware and antiquarian first- and limited-edition books, which are “an easy gift if you are going to dinner and buying a dress”, he helpfully points out. His father didn’t allow his children to watch television, and so Yousefzada found escapism in books, which he picked up at jumble sales, and was a voracious reader. It’s easy to see why he chose Fitzrovia for his town house, it is, after all, the literary heartland of the Bloomsbury Set.
The designer paints a vivid picture of his childhood and life as a young Muslim in the Balsall Heath area of Birmingham in the late 1970s and 1980s, of his parents retaining the codes and rituals of their background, and how the mosque was central to their lives. The family (Yousefzada is the third of five children) went every day and were quickly ushered home as the city’s red-light district was only a few streets away. Yousefzada’s mother (who comes from generations of tailors) ran a booming dressmaking business from her bedroom, and young Osman immersed himself in her world of colours, exotic synthetic fabrics and chattering ladies who would drop by to get their clothes made. He did well at school and escaped to study anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, although his parents thought he was studying business. He rebelliously dropped out to study fashion at Central Saint Martins, then pursued an MPhil at Cambridge.
In 2007, he returned to his first love – fashion – and won the Newgen sponsorship from the British Fashion Council and staged his first shows, swiftly being picked up by Browns and a host of top international retailers. He designed the critically acclaimed Little Black Dress collection for Mango in 2008, and built a loyal list of fashion editors and art world clients who continue to be drawn to his designs.
When asked what his family and community make of his success now, he says: “They only get it when they see a Hollywood celebrity wearing one of my dresses. I live in a rarefied circle of dressing.” They see success “as the immigrant dream of a detached house with several Mercedes cars parked outside”, not, he adds, that his parents can drive.