The rising design talent Osman Yousefzada explains his minimalist philosophy to Francesca Fearon
Chaos and fusion
It is three weeks before his autumn/winter show in London, and Osman Yousefzada is a mass of indecision. On the rail in his all-white boutique is a group of 10 navy jersey dresses that are understatedly chic and glamorous. Osman has a wonderful skill for gathering and draping jersey to create dresses that are both alluring and timeless. The only problem is that these dresses are not part of the main collection he is showing for autumn 2010, which will feature bold architectural shapes with sumptuous furs and jewels, but a capsule collection available at a more wallet-friendly price.
We discuss it and decide that they should appear on the catwalk first, telling their own story before the main collection swings into view. We will discover at his show on February 22 whether he has changed his mind. Osman - he stopped using his surname last year to make it easier for people to remember his name - has a charming knack of constantly seeking out the opinions of friends and clients. Like Roland Mouret, he understands that the route to success is based on getting inside the female psyche, finding out what clothes make a woman feel good.
He likes and is inspired by strong personalities; in fact he describes it as having an "obsession with powerful women". His mother, he says, is a strong character and so are his sisters. They might come to his shows but he would never dream of suggesting what they would look good in. "They would tell me to get lost," he says. His modern, minimalist aesthetic is, though, extremely popular with the mavens of the British fashion media along with young actresses such as Anna Friel, Mischa Barton and Thandie Newton. His ideal customer would probably be Cate Blanchett, he says: "As a student, I was an usher at the Albery Theatre where she starred in David Hare's Plenty. She left a huge impression on me: I watched her every night for six months while peddling my ice-creams."
Osman sprang on to the fashion scene in London about five years ago with a series of beautifully sculptural dresses that combine the spareness of Cristóbal Balenciaga and Jil Sander with sensuous draping reminiscent of Madame Grès, but in fact were inspired by his ethnic roots in Afghanistan. He describes his work as having a "very minimalist, modernist signature, but it has an ethnic root". He adds: "I think it is a post-ghetto, post-bhangra type of world of fusion fashion, much like we have fusion cuisine."
Osman's summer collection borrows elements like the North African djellaba, the Japanese kimono, the draping of a sari skirt and the sack shapes of the Fifties couturier Balenciaga, but the fact that it is all in pure white, save for a few precisely positioned squares of gold, makes it look completely modern. The white walls of his shop, in a little street tucked behind Selfridges in central London, provide the perfect blank canvas to show of these architectural silhouettes.
Of course, this picture of Zen-like serenity does not continue down the stairs into the little studio below the shop, where there is the frenetic activity and heat of steam irons hissing, and sewing machines working flat-out getting the collection ready. With so little time before his London Fashion Week show, I expect the interview to be rushed, but two hours later we are still talking as if he has all the time in the world.
I ask his assistant if he is a neat worker or untidy. She diplomatically replies: "He is a cross between both." He interjects to explain that he is a perfectionist and very messy with it. She compromises with "organised chaos", while he bombards her with requests for his sketchbook, the scratchy printed fabrics he wants to show me and whether the crystals for the jewels have arrived. Osman also has a rather disturbing habit of being able to read my notebook upside-down, both my scribbling notes and the questions I have yet to ask.
"This is not going to be clichéd is it, about my family background in Afghanistan or the fact that I worked very briefly in the City?" he demands. No, it's not. Obviously there have been journalists who think it topical to bring up questions about whether he gets targeted at airport security? "Yes I have, but it is not nice to dwell on it. I am not going to go around saying I've been persecuted." That is plainly not his style.
"I am very proud of where I come from and I am proud of being British. Anyway," he changes the subject, "we don't want to be talking about this. It's all light and wonderful and talking about lovely clothes." Osman learnt his skills at a very young age. His mother ran a small dressmaking business in Birmingham, producing beading for wedding dresses and made-to-measure clothes for her south Asian clientele. "She is an amazing colourist, cutter and embroiderer - she is always telling me my work is too bland."
He admits she doesn't understand his minimalist aesthetic and is always dropping hints. "She says, 'Can't you add a flower?'" As if. His immediate family are Pakistani Pashtuns - his mother from Jalalabad and his father from Peshawar - but his grandfather was from Afghanistan. A family of traders, they moved to the UK and settled in Birmingham in the 1970s. One of five siblings, Osman was born in the UK (though he won't say exactly when; simply that he is in his thirties) and learnt from his mother to match chiffons, chalk up the fabrics, cut them and to run all the errands. "I was completely attracted to the whole world and would do everything, after school, on Saturdays - in fact all the time."
He moved to London and enrolled at the School of Oriental and African Studies on a development studies course, but immediately lost interest. "I had a conservative Muslim upbringing, came to London and went completely crazy," he admits. He started a foundation art course at Central Saint Martins, blew his first-year grant on parties and made ends meet by working as a theatre usher. However, he was hanging around with a "strange" crowd. "It cracked me up a little bit," he says. After returning to Birmingham for a while, he attended Cambridge University to complete his development studies and returned to London in 1999, where he found himself working briefly in the City (the financial district), for want of something to do. "It was fine but I couldn't get up at 6am any more. It came to a natural end because it wasn't really me."
However, by this point he had met Yeda Yun, the senior buyer at Browns Focus, the edgy retail space that is part of the influential London boutique Browns, and with her encouragement launched his first collection in 2005. Tom Singh, the entrepreneur who launched the fashion chain store New York, sponsored his first collection and a successful Little Black Dress project with the Spanish fashion chain Mango financed a couple of collections in 2008, but it remains tough for a young designer in London.
"Fashion has a strange business model. You have to pay for a show and a collection; you get orders on the back of that but then you have to finance those orders and wait 60-90 days to be paid - if you are lucky - and then at the same time you have to start financing a new collection. It's like fighting fire all the time it. You can't grow because you can't finance it." Kuoni, the travel company, sponsored his most recent collection and he is working on a project for it called K by Osman, which has him whizzing around the world seeking out handicrafts, which he updates and modernises to be sold online.
His own collection, meanwhile, sells in Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Jordan, London, Hong Kong and the US, and business is slowly growing, but he is looking for investors to take it to the next step. Young though his brand is, and tough to pursue, there is no doubting his talent: his work has been shown alongside 20th-century masters of couture such as Mugler and Montana in Paris, and was sandwiched between designs by John Galliano and Zaha Hadid at the Design Museum's Designs of the Year exhibition in 2007.
"What I try to do is give a voice to tailoring, whether it is a drape, a knot, a tie or a twist - I home in on that detail and make everything else quite pure," he explains. The result may be simple, but it is also highly intelligent, directional and very, very desirable.