The many lives of Osman Yousefzada: inside the designer's mission to find 'deeper meaning'

The multidisciplinary artist reveals why the themes of migration, ritual and exclusion underpin his work

“I am in a cafe, I hope you don’t mind,” says Osman Yousefzada as we connect over Zoom. He's been rushing between meetings so has to make do with the impromptu venue.

It's little wonder he is busy. The day before, he unveiled his first public artwork, the spectacular Infinity Pattern 1, a giant 10,000-square-metre canvas of pink and black tumbling blocks that wraps the entire Selfridges building in Birmingham in the UK.

While the pattern feels light and cheery, as with much of Yousefzada’s work, there is a deeper meaning underpinning it. The repeated, cascading shapes echo the strict geometry of Islamic design, and the artwork as a whole, representing bridges connecting "continuously shifting cultures", is a nod to the thousands of migrants who have moved to the UK and the traditions they've brought with them.

It captures the "trauma of globalisation, migration from global south to global north", says Yousefzada. Born to migrant parents himself, this is a topic that is deeply personal.

Scroll through the gallery below for a closer look at Osman Yousefzada's 'Infinity Pattern 1' installation:

“My parents come from an underclass; they were illiterate and couldn’t read or write in any language,” he explains. They came from "humble rural areas" in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and moved to the UK in the early 1970s to fill the low-level jobs no one else wanted.

While Yousefzada now prefers to be known as a multidisciplinary artist, he made his name as a fashion designer, setting up his own label in 2008.

With a deft eye for sleek, sophisticated cuts infused with a subtle hint of subversion – in the form of colour, volume or decorative features – he shot to fame in 2013 when Beyonce wore one of his jumpsuits to the Grammys. His designs have also been worn by Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Jennifer Lopez and Queen Rania of Jordan.

While others would have revelled in the sudden fame, Yousefzada went on to launch an art publication called The Collective.

“I really enjoyed what I was doing,” he says of working in fashion. He says the publication simply offered him a new creative outlet.

“I was basically doing more collaborations with different artists, so it allowed me to broaden the conversation. I did anthropology at university before I did fashion, so I really approach what I do in a multilayered way."

Today that conversation has expanded to incorporate not only fashion, but also filmmaking, writing, artworks and installations.

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Fashion is always this very hierarchical, elitist club, where being a posh kid is beneficial to some extent
Osman Yousefzada, designer and artist

“I don’t really want to be making clothes the way I was making them before," he says. "It's not that I have turned my back on making clothes, it’s just that I feel I need to change my processes and the conversations about those processes. I am still making clothes, but I just want to do it so that it is not so disposable, so cyclical, with no seasonality to it, but a product that has value.”

His manifesto states that "fashion should be about the creation of human value from weaver to wearer", an ethos that is encapsulated in his autumn/winter 2021 collection.

A celebration of the handwork of artisans in Uzbekistan and India, it offers coats of luscious velvet ikat, tops heavy with Banjara mirror work, and jackets and dresses strewn with hand-stitched pomegranates and evil eye motifs. The result is wonderfully decadent, feels lovingly made and is worthy of being passed on to future generations.

Scroll through the gallery below to see more from Osman Yousefzada's autumn/winter 2021 collection:

Amid the sharp cuts and lavish handwork, a few pieces are graffitied with the words “here to stay", in reference to Yousefzada's spring/summer 2021 collection of the same name, which tackled the issue of racism in the UK. While not as overt, Yousefzada believes prejudice also exists in the fashion system.

“I think that as a creative, there are spaces and opportunities it takes a lot longer to get to. I don’t come from a middle-class background, so it has taken me a lot longer, even though I have been making clothes for a while.

"Fashion is always this very hierarchical, elitist club, where being a posh kid is beneficial to some extent. Or knowing the codes, because you don’t necessarily know them if you come from the sort of background I come from. You have to learn those codes, and learn what you have to say.”

Case in point, when starting out, he was often given advice that ran contrary what he was trying to achieve, but felt under pressure to act on it. “You feel you have to be grateful, as the advice is coming from the people who know what they are talking about, even if they come from a position that is completely unrelated to your position."

Much of that advice, he realised, was telling him to step back from the very heritage that made his work unique. Not surprisingly, he found this difficult to reconcile.

“It doesn’t really work if you can’t be yourself and what you have to offer authentically as a creative. [Or if] you are always trying to fit in and assimilate, thinking, ‘OK, I need to Anglicise my ways before I can be accepted and be part of this stable.'"

Now, 13 years after starting out, Yousefzada has successfully created a space where he can fully express his ideas, across a variety of mediums.

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There has to be meaning behind what I want to present to the world
Osman Yousefzada, designer and artist

“My work stems from three things – migration, ritual and exclusion. All aspects of my work stem from that, whether it's garment-making, moving images or art installations. It stems from one source, but it becomes many different things. I don’t see them as separate things, I see them all rolled into one. Making clothes becomes the very performative part of it for me.”

Part of that message involved Yousefzada skipping two fashion seasons entirely, instead creating a documentary-style film called Her Dreams are Bigger. In it, he took "made in Bangladesh" clothes back to the garment workers who made them, shining a spotlight on the women who are still so often ignored by the industry.

Another strong inspiration is his mother and her experiences, which he has referenced many times, particularly in the artworks A Migrant’s Room of Her Own and Leaving Your Mark, both of which have been shown at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham.

“When my mother came to this country she was asked to sign her name with a cross on official documents. Leaving your Mark was a piece of work I did all about crosses, and I got her to sign her name with a cross again."

He is unafraid to tackle difficult issues head-on, but the question is, why does he feel so compelled to? “For me it is about being an artist and an activist for social change. So the clothes have to be fully sustainable, the visual arts have to have a strong defined message behind them, and the workshops have to have objectives of healing and understanding. There has to be meaning behind what I want to present to the world.”

To that end, Yousefzada is moving forward across many fronts. Having scaled down his fashion collections to only two a year (“bespoke projects, not as full on”), he still has a packed calendar.

“I am doing a commissioned piece for the Museum of Contemporary art in Sydney, I have my book coming out in January, and a few other projects. I am doing a residency and I start my PhD in September at the RCA, so there is a lot of stuff happening."

And when does he find time to sleep? He laughs. "It's a lot of juggling." For now, he is still buzzing from the Selfridges project and from seeing his artwork on such a huge scale. "It’s something that is very important in my home town.“

Updated: September 7th 2021, 3:37 AM
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