Osman Yousefzada is reinventing the little black dress
Sunday 08 June 2008
The perfect wardrobe, we are often told, is built around a core of garments known as "investment pieces". Expensive, timeless and perfect-fitting, the theory goes that these items will carry us seamlessly from one season to the next with the help of a judicious update in the form of a chunky bangle here, a platform wedge there. Jeans are one example of these elusive basics, the white shirt another, but it is surely the little black dress (LBD) that tops the list of sartorial priorities.
Smart but understated, sexy but demure, the LBD has provided fashion moments too numerous to mention, from Audrey Hepburn's demure Givenchy shift to Liz Hurley's rather less modest safety-pinned Versace number. But, despite its potential to make icons of us all, in reality it can, like all those other sensible purchases, be underwhelming – flattering but a little unexciting.
Unless, that is, it is in the hands of Osman Yousefzada, the young London designer whose shows are fast becoming one of the biggest draws at the capital's Fashion Weeks. He has earned a reputation for structural tailoring and striking global influences, but it is the dresses that form the core of his collections that have created the biggest stir, prompting US Vogue to hail him the "re-inventor of the Little Black Dress" and winning him celebrity fans, including the actor Thandie Newton and the model Alek Wek.
Earlier this year, a capsule range of 10 dresses for high-street chain Mango – an unusual commission given his relatively low profile outside fashion circles – scored Yousefzada a critical and commercial hit. Now London's Fashion and Textile Museum will honour the 34-year-old as part of an LBD exhibition that opens later this month, where four of his creations will be shown.
Yousefzada seems both delighted and surprised by the accolades heaped upon this aspect of his oeuvre. "I never set out with any kind of mission," he explains. "My first collection focused on black dresses more through necessity than anything. Like most young designers I didn't have a lot of money to spend on dyeing and embellishing fabrics, so instead it was about volume and cut."
Nevertheless, it seems fitting that he should be the master of a so-called investment piece: he studied development economics at university in London and Cambridge before dedicating himself fully to the passion for designing clothes he acquired as a teenager while assisting his mother in her dress-making business, and later at the cradle of British fashion talent, St Martins.
The training has served him well: Yousefzada has a rare talent for creating clothes that flatter, enhancing not only the lithe bodies of teen models, but also those of curvier women. "I use tailoring in the same way a plastic surgeon might use a knife," he says. "It can smooth out a bump here or pull you in there."
While the clean lines that characterise his designs are the classic ingredients of the quintessential LBD, Yousefzada's pieces also retain a boldness that sets them apart.
Brought up in Birmingham by Afghan parents, he developed an awareness of his mixed cultural heritage that has come to define his aesthetic, incorporating elements of traditional costume from around the world in fresh ways that avoid "ethnic" fashion clichés.
"Western fashion has never really recognised design from other parts of the world as a valid part of couture – it's just seen as a form of decoration without much substance," says Yousefzada. "What I wanted to do was strip away that side of it and show you can draw inspiration from other cultures without creating that jangly, boho look."
For this season's catwalk collection Yousefzada has added touches of Burmese tribalwear to elegant black silk shifts with intricate wire bodices and visors, while for autumn he has reinterpreted the drapery of Japanese Buddhist temple sculptures and the powerful silhouette of the matador's costume. Though this has taken him further into a varied palette of rich blues and purples, the designer assures that many of the pieces will also be available in basic black.
"Of course I now want to sustain the momentum and produce a certain number of black dresses every season," he says. "But I don't want to be limited to just one garment." It's fortunate, then, that Yousefzada is becoming known as the master of another wardrobe essential – his precisely tailored white shirts have a cult following too. At this rate, it won't be long before Yousefzada has entirely cornered the market in investment pieces.
Osman Yousefzada's collections are available from Selfridges www.selfridges.com). The Fashion and Textile Museum's Little Black Dress exhibition runs from 19 June-25 August (020 7407 8664, www.ftmlondon.org)
The little black book of little black dresses
A one-stop shop for designs by hot new names as well as established greats. This Lanvin number with ruffle sleeves is cute but chic. £315, www.brownsfashion.com
You won't regret splurging on a modern classic with character – which is exactly what you'll get here. Next season looks like being particularly fruitful. www.prada.com
Great for catwalk-led designs, such as this ruffled shift, without descending into throwaway fashion territory. £120, www.french connection.com
Good-quality fail-safes at high-street prices. This season there's even a dedicated LBD mini-range, including this curvy number. £90, www.oasis-stores.com
You're guaranteed to find an original classic if you scour the rails at one of London's finest vintage emporia that stocks labels from the 1920s to the mid-1980s. www.relliklondon.co.uk
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