The Go-Between

A memoir by Osman Yousefzada

Published by Cannongate
Jan 2022

‘Osman Yousefzada’s - The Go Between is a coming of age story set in the 80s & 90s, opening up a window into a closed migrant community.

Osman explores the clash of cultures; through a series of vignettes seen through his eyes as a child, universal stories unfold of the battle of genders, of female erasure, and of honour based violence in patriarchal communities. This is set against the background of a search for belonging whilst burdened with the baggage of race, class, community expectations and the legacy of colonialism and empire.

The stories from these parallel communities, all living cheek-by-jowl in a red-light district, takes you on a true but fantastical journey. They range from his encounters with prostitutes, the sermons of the local mosque, to his Jewish school teacher, to Thatcher and Reagan, to Malcolm X and Mohammed Ali, to the banks of the river Kabul and the river Indus, to the stirrings of Jihad and Salafism, to alternative masculinities, and the divide between the world of men and the world of women.


︎︎︎ Amazon UK
︎︎︎ Foyles
︎︎︎ Waterstones

Osman Yousefzada On How Coronavirus Has Devastated “Forgotten Voices” In The BAME Community

Published by Vogue UK.
4 June 2020.

Photograph: Ophelia Wynne
In March 2017, a notification popped up on my WhatsApp feed: “Salam Bro, we are famous!... For the wrong reasons.” It was followed by a link to an article in the Daily Mail, with the headline “So How DID Birmingham Become The Jihadi Capital of Britain?”

The piece was referring to the working-class, inner-city area I grew up in: Balsall Heath, Birmingham, England. I prefer to think of it as similar in atmosphere to the Netflix TV show, Unorthodox – full of tight-knit, insular communities who migrate to a place and perhaps feel that they have to hold onto the values they arrived with, even if those values have since been fossilised.

At one time, Balsall Heath was one of the largest red-light districts in England. There were hundreds of women working here up to the mid-’90s, some of them doing business on the street where I lived. When the sun set, the streets would come alive with heels clicking, kerb crawlers, pimps. In the aftermath, we waded through the debris of used condoms and syringes to get to school in the morning.

Our community comes from the Afghan border region of Pakistan, sometimes called the frontier. It’s an ultra-conservative area which came under the Taliban influence for a while. It was a patriarchal system: the men came to England in the 1960s, invited to work as cheap labour in the foundries.  They were a class of very low-skilled workers, most of whom couldn’t read or write. The women followed in the 1970s, and they gave birth to their children. But, by the time the 1980s came around, the deindustrialisation of the north had begun. A community who came to do manual jobs, which were fast disappearing, found they couldn’t retrain. Many of them didn’t speak English, and they were illiterate – they couldn’t exactly go and find work in a call centre. They wanted to work but the only alternative, when the factories closed down, was to live off benefits. The economic situation in general was quite desperate.

The community became more insular. These people feel British, and are happy to be here, but they have never really assimilated. Up to the late ’80s, you would regularly see neo-Nazi slogans spray-painted on walls and bridges: “Pakis, go home”. A distant relative, who lived across the street, was beaten up so badly by white supremacists on his way home from a nightshift that he never left his house again. Another uncle, my Dad’s friend (we call everyone uncles and aunts) used to tell me stories about how he was spat on, on his way to work. At the factory, he couldn’t use the main toilets in the building. They were only for the white employees. Instead, he had to go outside. Still, in 2017, a wall near our home had the words “No Pakis” spray-painted on it, accompanied by a swastika.

As the coronavirus has spread, I have seen Birmingham, and particularly the BAME communities where I grew up, become some of the hardest hit in the country. Four people have died on the street where my mum lives, and nearly 70 people have passed away within our close community. This week, a report by Public Health England confirmed what we have all known for weeks: that people from ethnic minorities are at a far higher risk of dying from coronavirus. The report says people of Bangladeshi ethnicity, for instance, have twice as high a risk of death than people of white ethnicity. There are many reasons for this, but fundamentally, it comes back to poverty. For families in my community, three generations all live under one roof because they have to – they’re all on Universal Credit. There was a shooting two weeks ago a few streets down – stuff like that just happens regularly, predominately over drug turf wars. Last week, the local chippie was robbed at gunpoint. Living there is not a choice.

I have seen the ravaging effects of the coronavirus first hand. My mother and my three sisters all became extremely ill in March. Mum got ill first. She had already been in and out of hospital for the last few months with a chest infection, and then again with low kidney function – the “underlying health issues” that plague BAME communities. Then, she had a fall in the kitchen, and developed breathing problems. I called for an ambulance and they took her in, but they wouldn’t let me go with her. By this point, all my sisters were unwell too, some more than others, coughing and spluttering. I sat down with the doctors in a cordoned area, post Mum’s admittance, and it felt like a TV programme, where they take you aside to tell you the bad news. They wouldn’t let me see her: it was the first day the hospital had gone into full lockdown mode. I sat opposite the doctor in her scrubs. Looking back on it now, consoling someone from two metres apart felt so unnatural, but it was soon going to be the new normal. She nodded, and tried to answer my long list of questions, with my sisters and brother on speaker phone. At the end, she concluded: “We will do our best, but we aren’t hopeful.”

Mum was pumped with antibiotics, and they moved her into a Covid ward where, slowly, she began to improve. I could only imagine the isolation that mum felt – she doesn’t speak any English, so had no way to communicate with the NHS staff who were looking after her. She can’t read or write, not even in her mother tongue, which is Pashto, (one of two official languages of Afghanistan, and also spoken in the Frontier region of Pakistan). I managed to get a smartphone to her. She couldn’t use it, but with the help of the nurses we could speak to her on FaceTime.

Just as we got Mum out and back home, our eldest sister got worse. This turned into days and weeks of real touch-and-go moments. The doctors couldn’t get her off the ventilator in the ICU. They kept trying, and her stats would drop. She got better; she got worse. Again, no one was allowed to visit.  We tried to send recorded voice messages that her medical team could play to her: messages of strength, love, messages asking her to pull through. But the doctors said that she was too deeply sedated for these to have any effect. Once a day, we would get a call from a fourth-year medical student, giving us an update. “She’s still on active resuscitation.” Which meant that they hadn’t given up. Mum prayed, everyone prayed, and we were lucky: she has made a recovery, and is now at home.

What coronavirus has done is turned everything on its head. The nurses who are underpaid are life-saving heroes, the supermarket workers who stack shelves are key workers, the care workers are frontline defenders. Many are from BAME backgrounds. Forget the glitz and glamour of my world in London, of fashion. The dedication from these people has been amazing, and I am so grateful to the NHS staff for caring for my family. 

The extraordinary number of deaths in Birmingham, too, has made me think again about my identity. I don’t always feel like I belong here; but I don’t necessarily belong where my parents came from, either. I was born and raised here, I am British, and I see England as my home; but sometimes it doesn’t feel like it sees itself as my home. This also applies to my work. When I started out, there weren’t really many designers from BAME backgrounds. The fashion industry was very much about presenting and being part of an elite and exclusive club, and I felt I had to downplay or hide my background in order to be accepted. I had to be one of those Asians who puts on his best accent and tries to learn the codes.

While I’ve been very lucky to have always sold my clothes, allowing me to gradually build my brand from one collection to another, my core approach of fusing western tailoring with Asian cuts and construction was never really of interest as a story. It was always different aspects of my work that were picked up by the fashion press. Thankfully today, the industry has really changed and there are a lot of new designers from a multiplicity of different backgrounds. Yet, the Asian narrative is still not strong. I’m hoping that in the near future we’ll finally see more designers emerging from British-Asian backgrounds.

I have been reconnecting with my roots over the course of the last year, going back to Birmingham from my home in London almost every other weekend since my father died last year. I am very close to my mum, and she lives alone, so I go back out of a sense of love and duty. Life revolves around the mosque, though it had been many years since I had attended – I left Birmingham when I was 18 to study at university in London. But, when Dad died, there was a huge outpouring. My dad was a carpenter (my mum is a dressmaker) and he was one of the people who built the local mosque: the ablution areas; the areas where you pray; the Mehrab, which he made of bathroom tiles, and which denotes the direction of Mecca. The community is simple, and apart from the reading of scriptures rarely does a sermon happen for anyone who dies. But they did a sermon for my dad. Three thousand people came to pay their respects. There was this strong sense of community that I realised I’d missed.

Every weekend, before lockdown, I visited an elder on behalf of my mum (she had to nag me a bit). Before, I used to hate the formalities of conversations with the elders, the ritual of saying a proper hello, asking after their health, how their family is, or how someone’s mother or father is keeping, and so on. But now, I kind of cherish it, these niceties that reveal a well-oiled machine of community. I have realised the importance of keeping those ties together, reflecting on the fact that these are the forgotten voices who came from the Empire to actually build this country – who took those jobs in the foundries that no-one else wanted. These people, too, are the salt of England ­– and they are the ones who have shouldered the burden of this pandemic more heavily than anyone.

Writer’s note: I am thankful to Vogue for giving me the opportunity to tell this story. When I began to write this piece, Covid-19 was the global issue on which the world was focussed. Due to the tragic death of George Floyd, and the crucial actions of protestors, the world is now finally waking up to the real and ubiquitous issue of racism. I would like to take the opportunity to say that I stand with the black community at this critical time and to repeat that Black Lives Matter.

Click here to view this article on the Vogue UK website.

Osman Yousefzada: 'Shades of Unity, In Hope of a new Brown Black Coalition'

Published by The Guardian News.
22 Nov 2020.

Osman Yousefzada in his London studio: ‘The colour of my skin and my Muslim name was used to assess the level of risk I posed to society.’
Photograph: Suki Dhanda/The Observer

Designer and writer Osman Yousefzada’s jumpsuit for Beyoncé shot him to instant fame. But it’s being the son of Pakistani-Afghan migrants that shaped him most. Here, he describes his personal and political struggle against racism, and why ethnic solidarity is paramount.

Don’t go to bed!” my PR messaged from LA. It was midnight in the UK and Beyoncé was about to step out wearing one of my designs at the 2013 Grammys. The image of Beyoncé in my jumpsuit was everywhere the next day. The phone calls and emails flooded in; there were interview requests and order inquiries. With just one appearance, Beyoncé had put my emerging fashion label on the map. My appointment book was filled back-to-back for the international buying season in Paris the following month. Armed with my latest collection in two gigantic wheelie suitcases, I passed through security screening for the Eurostar train. Snaking through the immigration queue, I stepped forward to the counter with my British Passport in hand…

Before I tell you any more, there are two things you need to know about me. The first is that I am the British-born son of Pakistani-Afghan immigrants who came to the UK seeking a better life for themselves and their children. The second is that my skin tone is brown – brown enough for people throughout the course of my life to hurl a variety of racial slurs at me.

The elder kids had taught us to run away from the police, but there was nowhere I could run at immigration. Yet today was going to be different. I remember the officer was wearing a green tie and a grey suit that shone, and I wondered if it was maybe the result of ironing directly on to the fabric. But his questions snapped me out of my musings. How much money do you have in your account? When was the last time you went to the mosque? Why did you go to Pakistan? Where exactly did you visit? What do your siblings do in Birmingham? Which mosque do you go to? What line of work are you in? What book did you last read?

Golden moment: Beyoncé in her jumpsuit at the 55th annual Grammys in LA in 2013.
Photograph: Steve Granitz/WireImage

In my previous immigration interviews, the questions had been generic. I would be taken aside and I would give my responses, an officer would tap them into a computer, and eventually I would get back my passport. But this guy was different. He wanted to know my eating habits, my spending habits. I was perplexed. I asked: “Why have you detained me? It’s been nearly an hour now?” He replied that if I didn’t cooperate, he could lock me up at Paddington Green police station for 14 days under the Terrorism Act, without an arrest warrant.

I changed tack in the hope that the unlikeliness of a designer/terrorist crossover would ease suspicions. “Look at Google,” I said. “I make clothes. I just dressed Beyoncé for her win at the Grammys. And I’m going to Paris to sell my new collection.”

It didn’t work, the questions continued. He asked for my phone. I handed it over. Then he walked out of the room. Two hours passed. Had I done something wrong? Was there another Osman Yousefzada, one with unsavoury links? Without my phone, I reflected in flashbacks and memories on how I got there. This kind of experience had been reality for some of us since 9/11.

As a young child in the 1980s, I had been called a Paki, a Wog, a black bastard. In the New Labour dawn of the 90s, I was an acronym: BME, for Black Minority Ethnic. Then the Twin Towers were struck and I became the enemy within – the homegrown terrorist.

Three hours passed in the pokey grey immigration room. The person I was due to meet in Paris had probably left and there was no sign of my interrogator. The fourth hour came and I was still waiting to be released. Did I have to apologise on behalf of the nearly two billion Muslims out there for the tiny number of fundamentalists who have brought our faith into disrepute? Growing up, I wanted to be white for a while. White people were the norm. They didn’t have to apologise for their bad apples.

The immigration officer finally reappeared. My whole sales campaign and my livelihood for the following season were in jeopardy. I needed to get to Paris. Finally, after my lengthy protestations, the silence broke. “If you see anything, or if you go to your local mosque and meet anyone who may be doing something wrong, I want you to call us. I will give you a number.” I must have looked confused, the cogs turning in my head. Was he trying to recruit me? The romance of espionage flickered through my mind for a nano-second. I replied: “But I don’t really go. I haven’t been to the mosque for ages.” My phone was finally handed back, a new ticket issued and he escorted me through immigration.

Thinking back, this was a small, personal reminder of how the colour of my skin and my Muslim name was used to assess the level of risk I posed to society. Recently, on a much larger scale, it’s the same racial markers that sections of the media have instinctively applied to Black Lives Matter protesters, undermining the moral righteousness of their simple demand not to be killed with descriptions of the protests as “chaotic”, or focusing on “thuggery” and “looting” – two Hindustani words introduced into English by colonialists, connoisseurs in those same arts.

United we stand: Malcolm X in Smethwick and Birmingham during a visit to the Midlands. He was assassinated nine days later on his return to the United States on 12 February 1965. Photograph: Mirrorpix/Getty Images
Growing up, my identity was shaped by a sense of the injustices of colonial rule, through tales I heard from my parents and elders in the community. The migration stories of those who arrived in the UK are all different. We come from different classes, different backgrounds, different privileges and had different skill-sets. In the United States, many South Asian migrants arrived with a university degree. In the UK, quite a few migrants from Pakistan came from the peasant classes, invited to do the jobs no one wanted in textile mills and foundries.

When they arrived in England, my parents couldn’t read or write. As illiterates, they felt unworthy, bowing their heads to others, hoping their children would be able to join letters to form words in order to better navigate the system and eventually overcome the barriers they had experienced. But for now their sweat, blood and hard work was met with insults, spit and beatings at the hands of racists.

But the stories of my elder siblings, cousins and younger uncles were different. They shed their fears and chose to stand up and fight. In 1965, when they were young, Malcolm X visited Birmingham to show solidarity, invited by the Indian Workers Organisation. (He had just visited Mecca on the hajj pilgrimage.) As he stepped out on to Marshall Street in Smethwick, he said: “I have come because I am disturbed by reports that coloured people in Smethwick are being treated badly. I have heard they are being treated as the Jews were under Hitler.” That evening he spoke at Birmingham University’s Islamic Society, followed by dinner at a Bangladeshi restaurant called Chamon. Nine days later he was assassinated.

Another of America’s greats, Muhammad Ali, visited the city numerous times, and the city named a community centre after him. This wasn’t Birmingham, Alabama, this was Birmingham, England! In its central mosque, different communities – West Indians, Africans, Bangladeshis – stood shoulder to shoulder with the greatest boxer the world had seen. Our visitors were some of the leaders of the civil rights struggles in America standing together with us. They did so much to highlight and fight against the injustices suffered by their communities – and in doing so inspired other marginalised communities around the world.
A familiar face among the faithful: Muhammad Ali sits among the congregation at Birmingham’s Central Mosque, after shunning a special seat placed for him to face his fans and fellow-worshippers on 7 August 1983.
Photograph: BPM Media
That included us in Britain – no less racist, no less tokenistic, no less cruel than the United States as an offshore centre for the profits earned from slavery and colonialism. What rose out of this was a comradeship across black and brown ethnic lines, solidarity across ethnic groups, a coalition of young men and women that fell under the umbrella of “political blackness”. This position was radically different from the positions of their parents, who mostly preferred to keep their heads down. These were young people inspired by Black Power and the freedom movements taking place around the colonised world. It didn’t matter if you were from the West Indies or Pakistan or Bangladesh. Political blackness was a united front against racism, an effort to protest the injustices being inflicted on all non-white groups. Political blackness was the colour of politics, not skin.

Recently, I asked my cousin, who was active in the Asian Youth Movements (AYM) in the north of England in the 1980s, if he still considered himself black. He replied, “We are still black.” I left wondering how a 60-year-old British Pakistani man, living a very simple, modest life in a deprived Asian, predominately Muslim part of Birmingham, considered himself to be black. He wasn’t saying it to appropriate another culture, to impress anyone, or to jump on a bandwagon. It was his personal interpretation of his own lived experience. For him, black simply meant non-white.

Along with Paki, he had been called black, or more accurately black bastard, as a term of abuse many times. He had arrived in the UK a few years before Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood address, a toxic, racist speech delivered a mile from our Birmingham house. Powell’s words – “In this country in 15 or 20 years’ time the black man will have the whip hand over the white man” – incited and gave strength to racism. White supremacists would come “Paki bashing” as a regular Sunday activity. My cousin once witnessed the aftermath of a terrible beating of one of our family members, an uncle who never left his home again. It was under the banner of blackness, the universal “other”, that marginalised communities got together to protect themselves and fight back. Political blackness was a vehicle of unity and change.

Language changes over the course of time and words take on new meanings. When Malcolm X said: “There is a new type of negro, who calls himself black,” he was noting a new insistence on self-definition, of taking control and being able to label yourself and your own struggle. Black was strong and proud.

Leila Hassan, an inner member of the British Black Panthers, told me that when the BBP was launched, in 1968, black was a political statement. There were five prominent south Asian members of the British black panthers: Mala Sen, Farrukh Dhondy, Sunit Chopra, Vivan Sundaram and also the artist Rasheed Araeen. It included everyone and all forms of struggle against oppression at that time: Palestinians, Asians, West Indians. “To be honest, I didn’t really comprehend the term until recently,” she told me, “but it appears that individuality is far more of an important factor today, or what they call sectionality. I am this or you’re that, rather than a collective common struggle against an oppressor.”
The good fight: Leila Hassan, a core member of the British Black Panthers. She went on to become one of the founders of the Race Collective.
Photograph: Neil Kenlock Archive
Perhaps she was referring to the fact that solidarity across ethnic lines soon began to crumble. I went to university during the 1990s, when Tony Blair’s New Labour party clinched a landslide victory and Cool Britannia was in full swing. This is when I started to see representations of myself on TV. Goodness Gracious Me challenged stereotypes about Asians being submissive. It was the decade that Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things won the Booker prize, Ayub Khan Din’s East is East won the Bafta for best film, and the indie song A Brimful of Asha made it to No 1. Bollywood culture entered the mainstream – henna tattoos, bindis and Hindu goddess T-shirts became available in upmarket designer stores. Yoga centres popped up everywhere as meccas for white, able-bodied, middle-class women. At that time it didn’t seem like appropriation – it seemed that we were being accepted and our culture was being embraced. We were sharing, we were assimilating, and we could just about get our foot through the door. We were having our moment. Suddenly, Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis had become the largest minority group in the country and certain elements within the community, such as Asian businessmen and some community leaders, didn’t want to see themselves as being part of the black coalition any more. This is when the A in BME was added. BAME. Black Asian Minority Ethnic. For many, “political blackness” disappeared.

But the superficial romance of white acceptance of Asian culture proved to be short-lived. While some Asians straddled the ladder of model minority, others fell towards the bottom of the heap after 9/11.

I asked Leila: “If political blackness is dead, do we need another umbrella term to harness our unity today? To keep this momentum going? To learn from the past, when unity fragmented along identity lines and racialised communities found themselves competing against one another for government resources?” Like colonialism, the system had divided us again. Those who had fought against the system became part of it.

She said she thought it was up to the current activists to determine a term for a common struggle against oppression. So, can that term still be “politically black”? Some people think so. Writer Rahila Gupta, a member of the Southall Black Sisters, a regional collective established in 1979 to support African, Caribbean and Asian women who had experienced gender-based violence, still describes herself as a black feminist. It has been her identity since the late 1970s. To her, blackness is a politics of solidarity. The word black gave her and other activists an inclusive identity, and allowed for a powerful politics that is expansive. To introduce herself as black, allowed her to combat colourism, and any anti-black sentiments that she came across in her communities. She says it has never been about denying cultural differences between ethnicities, or erasing distinctiveness, or appropriating each other’s culture. It wasn’t a term to flatten our difference; it was a term that brought us together, allowing minorities to come together to fight racism.

Minorities came together to fight racism: Southall Black Sisters marching in the 1980s in Southall. Photograph: Courtesy of Southall Black Sisters
Political blackness is a unique part of the British civil rights struggle and shows what diverse racialised groups were able to achieve together. There are still individuals and groups of people who identify themselves as politically black, and who have invested a lifetime of work into these politics. We still need to honour their struggles and the racism they faced, and fought against. It is also on their backs that the next generation stands. Perhaps there is something that can be salvaged from it, and the current conversation of its demise is an intergenerational struggle of semantics. I wondered where I stood in this conversation, for me the colour of my own politics is about solidarity, inclusion and a collective voice without the need to marginalise other voices. Joshua Virasami of BLM UK once told me for the downtrodden masses, solidarity is our superpower and we ignore it at our own risk. These words stuck with me.

If political blackness is dead, then maybe we need a new set of ideas with its own terminology, a language that allows us to come together to fight, especially as often our struggles have more in common than not. A term that doesn’t divide us or fragment us, that doesn’t pitch us against one another fighting for scraps of regenerational grants from an elitist system built on race and class privilege. Together, we are stronger!

Click here to view this article on the Guardian website.

On Racism and British Fashion

The designer Osman Yousefzada reflects on change in the industry, straddling cultures and why he looked beyond fashion to find his voice.

 An interview with Elizabeth Paton,
published by The New York Times.
19 Sept 2020

The fashion designer Osman Yousefzada, a British designer of Afghan-Pakistani heritage. Mr. Yousefzada is focused on the plight of garment workers and made a film about them in June where he interviewed workers and asked them to imagine the women who ended up wearing their clothes.Photograph: Lauren Fleishman for The New York Times
“I’ve always considered myself an outsider,” Osman Yousefzada said last week, sitting on a park bench near his home in North London. “Often, I’ve also been made to feel like an outsider, working in and around institutions and industries like fashion that are rooted in white codes and elitism.”

At 43, he is an established fashion designer (his sculptural silhouettes have been worn by Lady Gaga, Beyoncé and Taylor Swift); an artist (see 2018’s “Being Somewhere Else,” an exhibition on the subjects of race and migration at the Ikon Gallery); a filmmaker (for June’s digital London Fashion Week he showed “Her Dreams Are Bigger,” about Bangladeshi garment workers imagining the wearers of the clothes they made); and the author of “The Go-Between,” a memoir that will be released next year.

The book traces his life from his birth, in 1977, to Afghan and Pakistani migrants in Birmingham, England, to the founding of his eponymous women’s wear label, Osman, in 2008.

While he spoke, Mr. Yousefzada was taking a break from preparations for the socially distanced appointments he would hold with a handful of editors and buyers during London Fashion Week and meditating on the racial reckoning currently facing fashion in all its capitals.

“At the end of the day, I am in the business of making and selling clothes,” he said. “But communicating through other mediums has let me say much more about what really matters to me. And I have stuff to say.” Here is some of it.

Did growing up in Birmingham expose you to racism?

In many ways, 1980s inner-city Birmingham was a proper immigrant melting pot, but we had an extremely conservative and segregated upbringing, despite being side-by-side with the red light district and gangs.

I grew up in an artisanal family within a tightknit, inward-looking Muslim Pashtun community. The mosque kept us off the streets, but we weren’t allowed to watch TV. I wasn’t allowed to draw. My sisters left school at 11. My neighborhood has sometimes been described as “Jihadi Britain.” Racism was a daily reality in Britain; police brutality, race riots and systematic racism were all culturally endemic.

Beyonce at the 55th Annual GRAMMY Awards red carpet wearing Osman in 2013.Photograph: Jason Merritt/Getty Images
Why did you go into fashion?

My father was a carpenter, and my mother owned a dressmaking business. At 10 years old, I could cut patterns, sew and even buy chiffon and haberdashery, and I would make burqas and dresses for my sisters’ dolls.

My family was very artisanal, but that came out of necessity. Creativity is very much a middle-class luxury. That’s something I came to realize when I left home and encountered a whole new set of codes when I went to study, first at London’s School of African and Oriental Studies, then Central Saint Martins and Cambridge University, and later when I entered the world of fashion.

What was it like being a young, brown British fashion designer in the Noughties?

Personally, I was going through a period of real rebellion, from going to university and clubbing to drugs and coming out. Professionally, at some level, it was exhilarating, but it was also profoundly challenging.

It was wonderful to be championed, for example, but the guidance I got — although generally well-intentioned — often felt conditional on adhering to established guidelines. “This is too ethnic Osman. Oh, people will never understand that. They just won’t buy it.”

Because I never had any money, I often felt like I just had to just smile and take it and be grateful. But it also grated. I wanted people from my background to see themselves and their upbringings reflected.

Is it the same for young designers now?

I still think it is quite a closed shop, but I think those sorts of conversations have been changing recently. There is more celebration of distinctive personalities and their ideas, amplified by social media; the fashion schools these days are better at teaching students to bring out their voices and lots of those voices are starting to break through. It is great to see.

Osman, spring 2008Photograph: Chris Jackson/Getty Images
Why did you make the short film “Her Dreams Are Bigger”?

Racism and inequality exist at every level of fashion and especially for millions of garment workers. I wanted to create a piece of work that underscored their humanity to those who buy and discard clothes. Watching these women in Bangladesh dream about the lives of those who wore what they made was such a moving experience. It also underscored how racism and sustainability — another big talking point for the industry — are intricately connected.

Consumers in the West need to get better at knowing where their clothes come from, and engage with the messiness and complexity of this business if we are going to improve the industry structure.

Is that possible in such a charged climate around topics like cultural appropriation?

Yes, when done with integrity. And a proper re-education in Britain and other countries about the legacies of colonialism and empires and slavery. I remember an era of Black solidarity politics in the 1980s where different marginalized communities fought together against the injustices of the system. In Britain in the 1990s, race activism came off the streets and into government jobs and well-funded bodies, making it almost part of the system the movement had previously fought against.

Can we still fight collectively as marginalized communities? I hope so. I think in part that’s what is being explored right now. We all have to be active citizens.

So what does this mean for your next collection?

Well the last six months have been something of a reset moment both for me and the industry, so it’s much smaller than past seasons. Only about 50 pieces. And for the video I am creating to run online, I have written a slightly mad poem about my life, about weaving in and out of different spheres. I don’t feel bitter about my time in fashion, but I think sharing stories and upbringings is key to moving things forward. Hopefully, despite all the uncertainty this season, we will see plenty of examples of that.

Osman, spring 2020Photograph: Stuart Wilson/Getty Images for BFC

Do you feel encouraged by the discussions being had about fashion in 2020?

People have to walk the talk. I have been completely rethinking my business since parting ways with investors at the end of last year. I want to refocus away from pursuing relentless growth and toward giving back. These days, that has more value to me.

This season, we are working with a block printing community in Pakistan, ensuring they are paid proper wages, showcasing a heritage craft and hopefully giving back a percentage of sales to them. They are being built into the design process. I’ve also been amazed by the Black Lives Matter movement, which has given focus and inspiration to oppressed communities around the world. When it comes to fashion, the only way we’re going to create more equality is with more assimilation. I hope we are not just having a moment. If we are, I’ll throw myself off a wall.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Click here to view this article on the New York Times website.

Fashion’s Darkest Truth

Op-Ed | Osman Yousefzada journeys to post-colonial Bangladesh to meet the workers who make our clothes

Published by Business of Fashion.
30 June 2020

Garment workers in Bangladesh
Photograph: Getty Images

Before my journey, a thousand visions of Dhaka had come to my mind: the collapse of Rana Plaza, when the world woke up for a while, saw the real human cost of our clothes, and then went back to sleep again; its dense population, with migration levels internally at 500,000 per annum; and its vulnerability to climate change (the country is one of the lowest-lying and most threatened in the world). By 2050, it will lose 11 percent of its landmass, displacing over 15 million people. On top of this, Dhaka is the world’s second worst city for air pollution.

But despite everything, Bangladesh has managed to become the second largest exporter of garments worldwide. It is ranked number eight as the happiest country in the world. And although it's a casualty of climate change, it sits in second place for the smallest ecological footprint per resident according to the Happy Planet Index.

The Fiorucci Art Trust had invited me, as part of a troupe of artists, to take part in the Dhaka Art Summit. I was travelling armed with a suitcase of pre-owned clothes scoured from London’s charity shops: all from high street brands, each with a “Made in Bangladesh” label sewn into them. These clothes had already had previous lives, owners and memories, but were now discarded.

I was taking them back full circle, hoping to reunite them with workers who had made similar garments. I didn't know what was going to happen, but I had a vague idea of what I was going to do with the clothes. The name of a fixer had been given to me, and he was going to get me access to factories. Later I would get to speak with workers, meeting them after hours in their union office.

We are all increasingly aware of the plight of the millions of lowly paid garment workers, yet to see them as such makes it easy for us to dismiss the problem. They are a mass, they are millions, what could I possibly do to change things? I simply wanted to approach the garment workers as professionals and to hear their individual thoughts and reflections on the jobs they do.

What was to come out of these interviews was so profound that each time I listen to the recording I shudder. I was keen to find out what the workers thought of us, their end customers, and in turn how they viewed themselves, and their place in the world. Following a workshop where we unpacked the suitcase of clothes I had brought with me — after discussing with them — I decided to ask a few questions.

I asked them to imagine and describe the people they made clothes for. What did they do? Where did they go? How did they behave? What was their lifestyle?

These were questions that a marketing agency might ask a business client to understand its customer base. Questions that no-one had thought to put to these workers, whose relationship with the end user was so remote, many transactions away down an international supply chain.

One of my interviewees imagined her customer: “She is not black like me, she is much fairer. Her eyes are blue and her hair is red or blonde. She is taller, she talks politely and her behaviour is very decent.”

With such penetrating words, she conveyed her pride in her work. Her customers were beautiful, polite and respectable people, and workers like her were carrying out a very important role in garbing them for their important lives. Yet they still saw themselves at the bottom of the pecking order. Of course, all of these imagined and important princesses were fair, with light hair and blue eyes.

Colourism is still so prevalent across the Indian sub-continent. It is left over from the British colonial period, when Western standards of beauty were imprinted on the local psyche. To add legitimacy to these ideas, science provided race theory, allowing a classification of people, where whites sat atop the hierarchy as the most superior and most beautiful. In British India, the width of the nose was measured to differentiate between Indo-Aryans and Dravidians. The lighter the skin, the higher your classification, and your chances of favour with the ruling colonial elites. These ideas were super-imposed by the colonialists onto a prevailing indigenous caste system, and these ideas still remain today, bolstered by years of media reinforcement upholding Western ideals, even in former colonies where originally there was no caste system.

What hit me was the thought that this toxic racist baggage was still weighing on them; this lingering, false, enforced idea of beauty.

The correlation between social and financial success and the shade of one’s skin tone, can be seen in the region’s obsession with skin lightening creams peddled regularly by Bollywood stars. Colourism applies across genders, but it's typically the women who have the biggest socio-economic disadvantage. If you're a dark, female, and from a family with limited resources, you are one of the undesired.

The privileged positions of their customers, described by the workers, is a re-enforcement of their own position as The Other. I asked one of the workers if he wanted to go abroad, he said he would like to visit, “but the path to making a new life out there is full of pain. Only after the pain will you get your results.” As a rural migrant worker, he knew pain, but I wondered, had he seen results? The workers are paid so little it is almost impossible to work their way out of poverty.

The workers went on to imagine their customers as only eating fruit and drinking juices in a similar way to how we imagine Hollywood celebrities lounging by the pool in their palatial residences. We project our own longings onto the people we idolise. Yet, in the case of the garment workers, the associations with race, class and colonial history mean that the imaginings they shared with us triggered a visceral awareness of our own Western privilege.

In the West, we are told to dream big, follow our dreams and be whatever we want to be. We are told there’s no restriction on social mobility. Yet the garment workers have tempered and suppressed their dreams. They “dream within their limits,” in the words of one worker.

The grandeur and wealth of their imagined customer was so great that one of the garment workers stated that the people she made clothes for would sometimes wear them for just a day, and no more than two weeks before they threw them away. They weren’t entirely wrong, yet their words didn’t just convey the plenty of our society; they also exposed our extreme wastefulness.

The international clothing supply chain operates an Uber-like system of contracts. Everything is outsourced, removing the brands from the people who actually make the clothes they sell to us. When we consume the end product, we have zero insight into how it was made or the individual workers who made it. In this way, workers are virtually sanitised from our minds, operating as shadows in a globalised supply chain. Yet they are the source of cheap labour, which the Global North relies on to keep its consumer economies whirring.

The reality of a top sold for five or maybe ten dollars, the same as a cup of coffee at Starbucks, highlights the prevalence of disposability in our culture. We treat clothes shopping not as the procurement of goods, but as a leisure activity, a pastime. And I question my own role in this as a designer. I’m not producing a large amount of clothing compared to some of the fashion giants whose products are manufactured by the million in Bangladesh. But I am part of a system which sells the dream and pushes newness season after season.

We owe it to the people who make our clothes to take a hard look at ourselves and our attitudes to creating, selling, buying and wearing fashion. How much could be solved by a closer human relationship with the makers of our clothes?

Click here to view this article on the BoF website.