Fashion From investment banker to Fashion Week darling, the designer Osman Yousefzada is turning heads.
Osman of the moment
With a degree from the University of Cambridge and a background in investment banking, Osman Yousefzada isn't your typical designer. But, as the Birmingham-born trendsetter hastens to remind me, "Dior studied political science, Armani medicine, and Pucci was an Olympic skier".
For a relative newcomer, bandying around the biggest names in the fashion world is nothing if not courageous. But Yousefzada is a brave man. In the midst of the "alpha-male" world of banking, he recalls surreptitiously sketching clothing designs behind his desk. His number-crunching colleagues may not have been able to distinguish Prada from Pucci, but Yousefzada began taking evening classes to hone his design skills. While acknowledging that "there were many perks" to the city lifestyle, he resolved to see through his dream. In 2005, he quit his job and studied fashion design at London's Central Saint Martins art school.
So what did his Afghan parents make of his new career choice? "They were a little shocked," he tells me. "I was under a lot of pressure to follow a traditional path, but now they understand why I needed to pursue this." It's a good job he did. He is a former recipient of the British Fashion Council's New Generation award, alongside Anna Wintour's favourite, Christopher Kane. His career highlight to date has been "seeing my dress sitting in between designs by John Galliano and Zaha Hadid at the Design Museum's Designs of the Year' exhibition.
We meet backstage during his show at Hyde Park's Crystal Palace, one of the most theatrical and beautiful of the London Fashion Week venues, which seem to suit Osman's romantic temperament. "I think the best way to see London is to stroll along the embankment, or better still to go on a boat ride along the river," he says. The fluidity of the natural world infiltrates its way into his "Savage Pagoda" spring/summer 2009 collection, which produces tailored volume silhouettes and sharp cropped trousers in futuristic wet-look rayon and white neoprene, as well as skirts and dresses that are cleverly made to look seamless. He accessorises with lacquered samurai straw hats and chiffon Arab-inspired head wraps and uses a colour palette that includes vibrant corals, muted nudes, pure black and "Osman blue". As one fashionista tells me of the colour: "If it isn't Osman, it isn't blue."
This season his work reflects a clear Japanese aesthetic, but Yousefzada is careful not to box in his creations. "The world is a huge shopping ground for me. I try and look at global culture and national identities and translate them into something that is relevant to a wider audience," he says. "In some ways my designs are very much a product of Great Britain, as this is a place which represents a fusion of cultures. They come together in my designs to create something quite intellectual, modern and yet still wearable. It's not necessarily about recognising that definitive something, that one stark influence. It can be about the amalgamation, the coming together, of separate elements."
This synthesis of global and transnational identities is reflected in his cosmopolitan outlook and eclectic tastes. He cites photography and tea drinking as his passions, reads "everything from Hobbes to Anaïs Nin", listens to "The Smiths, Kraftwerk and the chanting music of Gregorian monks" and is inspired by "arts and crafts, carpets and holy men". His heritage is important to him and he collects special tea pots and furniture from Afghanistan as a way of keeping his origins alive in the everyday world. They also manifest themselves in his work, with one of his collections being completely based on "an Afghan carpet that I found in the hallway of the Victoria and Albert Museum".
Yousefzada is confident and likeable, but he also exudes a pleasing modesty. Between interviews with excitable camera crews and hugs with corporate sponsors he wears an expression that hints that he can't believe his luck. "I never imagined that my career in fashion would take off in this way or expand so quickly and so globally," he tells me honestly. "The most I hoped for was to have a small shop in London's Brick Lane and to be able to sell a few dresses."
The small shop has had to make way for some of the world's most famous designer hot spots. Selfridges recently granted him coveted window space during LFW in order to secure exclusive items from his collection and stockists in London, New York, Moscow, China, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, Athens, Brisbane and Mumbai pay testament to the widespread appeal of his designs. With so much success, Yousefzada looks unlikely to suffer at the hands of the economic downturn in the UK and Europe. While some British designers have been keen to play down the impact of the credit crunch on clothing sales, the British Fashion Council is actively targeting emerging markets, inviting record numbers of buyers from the Middle East to LFW and introducing a revised "international marketing strategy". Industry insiders are claiming that the future lies in countries that are surviving this economic instability. How important is the Middle Eastern market to Yousefzada's empire and what challenges does it present?
"Each market has its own challenges," he says. "It is true that in the Middle East it is necessary for clothing to be more respectful, but at the same time, clients there are fashion-forward. The UAE is an amazing home of luxury and buyers are style conscious and discerning. I would love to show my designs there. I respect the market." With such universal appeal and aspiration, which woman, I ask him, most sums up what the Osman Yousefzada brand is all about?
"Cate Blanchett," he tells me without hesitation. "As a student, I was an usher at the Albery Theatre where she starred in David Hare's play Plenty. She left a huge impression on me." He pauses and that familiar expression creeps across his features as if he has just realised how spectacularly far he has come. "I watched her every night for six months while peddling my ice-creams."