One of the hottest tickets at London Fashion Week is the Afghan-British designer Osman Yousefzada. His work is a perfect fit for these cosmopolitan times, says Carola Long
Monday 11 February 2008
The little black dress is such an iconic garment, it can at times veer into the realm of cliché, but Osman Yousefzada's take on it feels fresh and modern. The designer has created 10 dresses for the high-street chain Mango, mainly in black with splashes of cobalt blue and gold. Even those suffering from "collaboration fatigue" should put the March launch date in their diary.
The difference is that these dresses feel grown-up without being staid, and chime with the high street's new interest in clothes that suit people who are over the age of 21 and more than a size 6. And, unlike the elastic in a pair of Primark tights, they actually last. Yousefzada's designs are defined by clean lines and bold details – many of which are inspired by surprising sources. Yousefzada explains: "The gold-collared dress evolved from Masai clothing, while the style with a draped back was inspired by an Algerian chador when it billows out in the wind. The silk dress with a drop waist was inspired by the tunics worn by the Kochis, a nomadic tribe from Afghanistan."
Although Yousefzada was born in Birmingham, his family come from Afghanistan, and the nation provides one of many global influences in his work. None of his clothes, however, feature the kind of conspicuously boho details that tend to be described as "ethnic", such as the batik or beading used by Matthew Williamson. Instead, Yousefzada, 34, is aiming for "a lightness of touch", whereby motifs from different cultures are transformed into totally new and modern details.
"I don't want my clothes to look as if they are straight out of Africa or India. It's a magpie effect of different cultures, but bringing in tailored lines." He called his first capsule collection Kalashnikov, but says his clothes aren't meant to be overtly political, so much as "aesthetically political. It's about creating something quite wordly, and also a product of 60 years of immigration in Britain, and about me trying to find my own space here."
Finding his own space – and career path – took some time, even though he was brought up around clothes. His mother had a dressmaking business, making wedding dresses for the Asian community. Yousefzada ran errands for her, buying chiffon, brocade and haberdashery, and developed an affinity for clothes, but his parents expected him to follow a more conventional career path. "A little boy making frocks is probably not the done thing when you come from a traditional background. I always thought of creativity as a luxury," he says. Instead, Yousefzada went to SOAS in London, but soon became distracted by the club scene, and ended up "losing the plot and partying a bit too hard and stopped going to college after a few months". He enrolled briefly at Central Saint Martins, but had to return to Birmingham when he fell into debt. It wasn't until he had studied at Cambridge and worked in the City that he finally decided that fashion was his métier.
He put a very small collection together, which he showed to a buyer at Browns, Yeda Yun. She liked it, so he went back to Saint Martins to focus on pattern cutting and drawing. His first full collection was shown in September 2006 and bought by Selfridges. He soon began to be noticed by the press, who drew comparisons with Alexander McQueen, and was featured in US Vogue. His first on-schedule show at London Fashion Week in September last year, sponsored by Mango, was also a critical hit. Shantung-silk pencil skirts and cropped trousers were teamed with crisp, white silk shirts, then given an architectural twist with bronze wire structures derived from Burmese tribalwear. Yousefzada, who has been nominated for the Designer of the Year Award 2007 in the fashion category, alongside Jil Sander and Pierre Hardy, describes the cut of the dresses as being "like plastic surgery. They push you up and pull you in, in the right places and make your legs longer."
Yousefzada gives much consideration to the women wearing his designs; the scarves or square apron details can serve to disguise the wearer's stomach. He considers wearability and longevity to be more important than trends: "I want these pieces to last for 20 years or more."
This is obvious from the organic manner in which his designs evolve, rather than lurching erratically from trend to trend. At yesterday's show at London Fashion Week, for autumn/winter 08, he introduced more decorative elements. This is the first time his clothes have featured embroidery – here, inspired by monastic prayer books – and more dramatic colours, such as royal purple. But there is still his signature fitted dress shapes, structured tailoring, and a palette of blues and nudes, while the draped fabric at the front of the dress is a continuation from last season. Among its influences are Japanese Buddhist temples and matador outfits, but it feels sleek and contemporary.
Yousefzada's range for Mango bears a much closer resemblance to his mainline collection than other high-street collaborations. Mango's creative director, Damian Sanchez, explains: "We thought his designs would add an avant-garde designer edge to the collection." The designer had even succeeded in reinterpreting his vision on a budget, with prices from £40 to £80 (the dresses opposite are £50).
It might seem strange to have a relatively new – and challenging – designer sitting alongside the chain's latest range by Penelope Cruz and her sister, but perhaps this odd coupling proves that there is room on the high street for both the unashamedly celebrity-driven and the intellectual. Here's hoping.
The MNG by Osman Yousefzada collection will be launched at the new Mango concession in Selfridges Spirit on 10 March, and from 17 March worldwide
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