In Conversation with Osman Yousefzada in Dubai

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Photo: Courtesy of Osman Yousefzada

The concept of giving back is one that is often thrown around and rarely applied, but it is undeniably crucial for the growth of an industry and the grooming of young talent. It is this very idea that lead London-based designer Osman Yousefzada of Osman to Dubai to judge the International Woolmark Prize. Having come from a conservative Afghani background and struggled to find his footing through his early professional life, only to become one of the most celebrated emerging designers in the UK and the receptor of numerous awards and sponsorships, he knows a thing or two about the importance of supporting young talent.

Savoir Flair sat down with Yousefzada during his trip to Dubai last week to to talk about his personal journey and how he hopes to help budding designers on their own.

Welcome to Dubai. Is it your first time here?
It is! I got in yesterday from Australia.

Does that mean you flew Emirates Airlines? 
Yes, it was really impressive. I flew it from London to Australia, but was on a Qantas flight from Australia to Dubai.

You’re in town to judge the Woolmark Prize, but have you planned anything else during your stay? 
Just seeing some friends, going out for dinners. I went to Zuma last night – that was a lot of fun!

Living in London, you must have visited the original one there, right?
Yes – I’ve been there quite a few times.

Speaking of London, you grew up north of the capital in Birmingham. Can you take us back in time to your first fashion memory?
Well I was very lucky, because my mother had a dress-making business, so I was quite submerged in it from a very young age. One of my first actual memories is probably dressing my sister’s doll and making clothes for her. I actually created a little shrine for my sister’s Barbie and I made her a few outfits. I probably had quite a natural aptitude for fashion in difference to my other siblings; I got very much involved in what my mum was doing. I was making clothes from the age of nine or ten. My mother used to have a room in the house where she had her business and everyone used to come in. We all grew up in that room, basically. My younger sisters slept on the cutting table and we grew up with the business.

When were you first introduced to fashion as a larger industry?
I think it was when I was exposed to the television. There was the Clothes Show, an iconic British show on the BBC. I started dressing differently from 15 onwards. I used to put a lot of safety pins on my jeans and I used to draw on them too. I still came from quite a conservative background, so I couldn’t really do it so often, so when I went to London I probably went a little bit crazy [laughs].

Was that always the goal? To work in fashion?
No, I started studying a degree in anthropology when I moved to London, but I dropped out of that. I had never heard of Central Saint Martins or anything like that, so I enrolled in a part-time foundation and I worked for a little bit on the side. It was a bit of a stop-start kind of journey, basically. Coming from quite a conservative background, I had to rebel against that. After I had finally started my BA at Saint Martins, I let that go for a little bit. During that time, I did some temping and lots of different things, but then I eventually went back and finished my degree. After that, I worked for a couple of people, like Joseph and Gaultier, then I decided to make a few dresses myself and showed them to a buyer at Browns – and they bought them! I was still consulting at Joseph at the time, but I just carried on developing what I was doing. I was quite lucky in the respect that London was actually very exciting at that time, in the late 2000s.

Was there any particular person who really believed in you and helped you on your way?
I think a lot of people do help you on your way. Sometimes it’s not just one person, but lots of different bits of help from lots of different people. Generally, people want to support talent, but part of it is “I want to be the first one to find a talent”, and that becomes a little bit egotistical as well.

I couldn’t agree more. Let’s talk about your roots. You’re originally Afghani, but have you ever been to Afghanistan?
I’ve only been once.

Some of the more ornate fabrics in your Resort 2016 collection have a distinctly ethnic, Middle Eastern feel to them. How much influence do your roots have in your designs? Is Afghanistan always in the back of your mind?
When I was growing up, I was surrounded by brocades and gaudy fabrics and everything was shiny, silky, and so on. When I started my work, I think I naturally rejected all of that and I tried to concentrate on the purity of line and architectural detail. And then, slowly, after I had learned the craft, I was ready to bring in some of my DNA or some of my heritage into what I was doing. So I rejected everything initially, but then once I felt that the frame was there, the tailoring was there, the structure was there, I could really play with stuff. The thing about fabrics and patterns is that you can hide a lot with them – you can create a dress that doesn’t have a super structure and you can hide that by using a print. It was important for me to work on structure first. I was never a print-based designer.

Has your heritage ever felt like a burden or has it always been a gift?
Having been born in one country and transplanted in another, and having been brought up in a certain way but surrounded by another culture – for me it’s been amazing. I cherish difference. I cherish the fact that I can really be a part of something and not be a part of it at the same time. It’s like having your nose up to the window and absorbing what is outside, but you are not quite outside. I think that’s actually amazing.

You’ve often been on the receiving end of major fashion awards, but now the tables have turned. What has it been like judging the International Woolmark Prize
I think it is always good to give back. People have been very kind to me, very supportive. Giving back keeps the cycle going.

Do you have any words of advice for young, budding designers?
Whatever you create has to help people look like a better version of themselves. That’s what good tailoring does for you basically. If you want someone to actually go into a shop and part with good money to buy something, they need to feel like, “Hey, this is going to make me look really hip or really cool or whatever it is I’m looking for.” So you’ve got to know your customers and what they’re looking for. If you do that, there will always be someone to buy your designs.

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