Born into a family of artisans in Birmingham, Osman Yousefzada had a needle in his hand well before the age of 10. Learning his trade from his Afghan and Pakistani mother and father, a tailor and a carpenter, he founded his eponymous label in 2005. His rigorously tailored designs soon became a favourite of stars such as Beyoncé; the Osman jumpsuit she wore to the 55th annual Grammys Awards went viral. Yousefzada's clothes, however, go further than the red carpet. Social commentary runs throughout all of his work, and over the years the designer has floated between the worlds of art and fashion, using his platform to speak on subjects such as cultural displacement and ethical supply chains.
In 2019, the brand finally parted ways from what Yousefzada describes as a series of rather 'nasty' partners, allowing him to bring his roles as an artist, fashion designer and activist, together as one. This year, he was tapped by the British Fashion Council as one of six designers to showcase in a new film London: City of Connectivity, and is set to unveil his first piece of public art on the Brum Bullring, a Birmingham landmark. It's a new dawn for Osman Yousefzada, no better illustrated than with his new A/W 21 collection.
Before the pandemic hit in 2020, Yousefzada had already begun setting his brand up for alternate horizons. ‘There was the multimedia Osman doing art and stuff on the peripheral, then Osman in fashion. I really needed to feel in my new world that I could marry everything together. I wanted to plant my garden in a different way, working with communities again', he explains. He goes as far as to describe his eponymous 15-year-old brand as reclaiming a somewhat emerging status. Explaining the thinking behind a more focused approach to his namesake, he says he wanted to ‘Make a business within an anti-capitalist world and within a community, rather than it being this "I win, you lose" kind of situation.' That meant honing in on the brand's supply chains. In 2018, the designer released a powerful short film exploring the disconnect between garment worker and consumer. Her Dreams Are Bigger riffs on concepts of beauty and fast fashion. By gathering clothing from UK charity shops, on a trip to Bangladesh Yousefzada recorded seamstresses describing the women they imagined they were creating for; 'As far as I know she doesn't use a dress for more than two weeks'. It's hard not to feel your stomach drop, whether you buy into fast fashion or not.
Yousefzada is a consciously minded designer focused on giving back to communities and artisans by using local products and choosing the right fibres with a shorter end of life. His open approach to fashion illustrates that value is found in the maker's hands. 'You really add value by connecting to your production line; you value the embroidery, you value the workmanship, rather than it being cheap sites of production and these weird architectures that are neo-colonialist really. Because [people think] it's fine, it's all in your back yard, it's all really great because we can just push everything out. But you as a company have the responsibility for the life and welfare of the workers, for the ecology that you’re making your garment in basically,' the designer explains.
Osman Yousefzada's collections are now item-based; the designer sets out with the idea of each garment becoming an heirloom. Last Yards is a concept the brand has had in place for over a year, encapsulating a limited line made from pre-existing fabrics collected by Yousefzada on his travels, and all his garments adhere to this sustainable and ethically minded concept. For instance, the A/W 21 collection includes machine washable organic cashmere from Mongolia and organically farmed vegetable tanned leather from South Korea and Pakistan - a preview for Yousefzada's upcoming 'affordable-with-a-conscience' line. A new website, Osman’s Studio, is also due to launch in the near future, described by the designer as being ‘About multimedia clothes, making and also worlds’.
In recent months, Yousefzada and his team were able to return to working in their Hackney studio together (under COVID-19 safety regulations), following a period of trying to co-ordinate making a collection whilst separated in their homes. ‘It’s a physical thing that you’re doing, you can’t do it without touching and feeling. Otherwise the decision making process takes so much longer,’ the designer says. Mulling over the strange times we find ourselves in, he goes on: 'Everything’s much slower, the concept of time is very different. I also think it’s actually better to make with less; that’s been really interesting, living within your means [rather than] this rat race we’ve been living for so long.' He describes the new co-ed, fully digital London schedule as still being 'This cliff that you're running towards'. Meanwhile, the studio has struggled with packages stuck in Germany due to the snow; now they're stuck getting out of the UK due to Brexit.
This season Yousefzada illustrated just how powerfully he is able to communicate as a multidisciplinary artist and activist, fashion designer and writer. At a moment when Yousefzada is consolidating his brand and what he wants to say, A/W 21 is aptly titled I'm Coming, with clothing acting as just one of his chosen forms of language.
This season features a collaboration with jewellery designer Alighieri, previous winners of the Queen Elizabeth 11 Award which recognises fashion designers demonstrating sustainable and community driven practices. Supporting artisans in Uzbekistan, Yousefzada's coats for A/W 21 have been hand-woven in silk yarns, using traditional techniques. A pomegranate rendered in tambour beading appears on tailored and bolero-style jackets, embodying the designer's fusion of Western tailoring and Asian references. Mirror embroidery comes from Rajasthan in India, whilst the protective hand of Fatima can be found on hand and heart motifs. The underlying theme for A/W 21 is about protection, and taking harm away.
Unveiled in a short film, co-directed by Yousefzada and the artist Zoe Marsden, together with a lookbook, the collection was shot from three locations, with a lot of Zoom-ing involved. Musician and artist Eniye Daisy Kagbala tunes in from St Vincent; Tabla artist Naresh provides a soundtrack direct from the desserts of Sind in Pakistan; trans activist and dancer Sakeema Peng Crook plays the role of the High Priestess straight from Hackney, London, joined also by models Akuac Thiep, Sarah Hornby and Jasmine Hussain. The stellar line-up is first introduced in silhouette against a sun motif, later lit up in the orange haze of a studio set up, finding a parallel to shots of distant skylines and shorelines.
'This film is a ritualistic journey of healing and coming together, in hope of building a value system that allows humanity and our environment to come first' the designer explains. ‘You have to have endings before you get new beginnings’ he tells me of the rising and setting sun motif which runs throughout the film. After all, the sun never sets in the Empire. From East to West, sunset brings us back to the brand's studio in Hackney Marshes.
Last season, Yousefzada introduced the mantra Here To Stay, which returns for A/W 21. 'These words were a chant that my uncle and elder cousins used in the 80s to fight racism on the streets: against police brutality; against the racism of state institutions in housing and immigration; against the pay gap; and for equal access to education. The chant still feels relevant today, at a time when BLM activism has given a voice to marginalised communities. Here to Stay is the political and social justice platform for our brand, that gives us a powerful message that we will continue to fight for, across issues of Race, Gender and LGBTQIA+' he explains in his show notes. Here to Stay 2.0 comes in the form of WFH-minded attire, with the message printed on hooded dresses, tracksuits and bodysuits as part of a complete wardrobe offering.
Following the Black Lives Matter protests and the political upheaval which defined 2020, Yousefzada rightly wants to ensure that the voices of marginalised communities aren't drowned out. The rise of young British-Asian designers such as Supriya Lele and Priya Ahluwalia, together with Black designers including Grace Wales Bonner, Nicholas Daley and Saul Nash is encouraging, but Yousefzada tells me he's a self-confessed pessimistic. ‘It’s been a year of pain. Even when you’ve got the young poet laureate getting up and giving a message of healing and hope.' His voice quietens. He talks about the Biden Trump division in the U.S, how the half who voted for Trump are still there. 'You can't necessarily deny them', Yousefzada points out. Ruminating over the idea of healing as a global community, the designer goes on:
‘Some of us will want to be part of this community, others will want to be divisive. It’s kind of like where do we go from here. We’ve had this kind of year lead by BLM and marginalised communities having a voice, and people actually trying to address stuff. Then there are the piles of anti-racist literature that hasn’t been read by people’s beds. Also, the fundamentals of greed and wanting stuff, man’s innate desire for wanting something cool or to be better than someone else - it’s always going to be there.'
Yousefzada has always had the Osman woman on his mind and has never been afraid to do things differently. With a memoir about his experience growing up in Birmingham in the 1980s as the son of illiterate immigrants in the works, we close our conversation with a parting thought from the designer: ‘I hope fashion will become political again basically, and that it will send the message of being a disruptor’. World get ready, because Osman Yousefzada is coming.
I’m coming, a poem by Osman Yousefzada for A/W 21
Bring the dark dust from my feet
Our footprints that intermingled in the past
To protrude forward and create our new cosmos, to heal, to muster up our amulets and potions
To flower and let them feed off me
To germinate and activate my metabolism, to rise each morning when the sun breaks its dawn, and each future is new
And when I’m gone... the animals trample over me, and the roots of the plants entangle and sustain off me
When I turn back to see its cycles... it’s haste... it’s speed... it’s consumption... it’s harm... it’s humanity...