‘I don’t have to lie about where I come from any more’: Born to migrant parents from the Taliban heartland, OSMAN YOUSEFZADA is a designer, artist and writer. But behind his success lies a strict West Midlands upbringing he and his sisters finally escaped
- Osman Yousefzada opens up about feeling like he doesn’t have to hide anymore
- The designer, 45, in past felt he had to lie about his more humble upbringing
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When Beyoncé wore one of his jumpsuits to the 2013 Grammys, Osman Yousefzada became the go-to fashion designer for the likes of Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift and Emma Watson. Yet Yousefzada’s seamstress mum could never grasp what all the fuss was about. ‘She just couldn’t understand why anyone would pay £500 for a dress,’ he says with a smile. ‘Who would pay that sort of money?’
Now 45, Yousefzada has come a very long way from his childhood, growing up with one brother and three sisters in a terraced house, which for his first seven years had no indoor bathroom, in a strict Muslim community he calls ‘the most covered and the least integrated’ in south Birmingham.
His parents were immigrants from the Pakistan/Afghanistan border region. Both were illiterate and barely spoke English. His mother was just 14 when she entered an arranged marriage with his father, and 15 when she had her first child. His father was occasionally violent. ‘For a man of his times, a push, a slap and a shove was another kind of language,’ Yousefzada says. ‘As a kid I was scared of him.’
For years, as Yousefzada’s fashion star rose, he was secretive about his background. ‘I always felt I had to pretend to be something I wasn’t,’ says this gentle, smiley man. ‘It’s the Instagram world – most people want to show the glamorous part of themselves, not the struggle. I was hanging around with people who had a lot of money. I couldn’t tell them my mum didn’t even have a washing machine to clean her clothes with.
Now 45, Yousefzada has come a very long way from his childhood, growing up with one brother and three sisters in a terraced house, which for his first seven years had no indoor bathroom
‘If I had to talk about my family I’d make out my father was a successful carpet-seller who imported rugs, that my sisters were studying, and my eldest sister was married to a very successful engineer, living in a house by a lake.’
In fact, Yousefzada’s father was a carpenter who, like many in their community, lost his job as the northern factories they’d come to England to work in closed in the 1980s. Economic insecurity, fear and racism made them more insular. As was very common, Yousefzada’s three sisters were taken out of school at the end of primary and, from then on, effectively confined to the house, rising at 5am to start cleaning and cooking, burqa-clad on the rare occasions they went out. When social services checked up on them, the family invented elaborate excuses for their whereabouts.
One sister, Banafsha, married at 17 and was later left by her husband to bring up three children. ‘She still can’t write, spell or read fully,’ Yousefzada says. Another, Ruksar, ran away from home aged 20, after which the third, Marjan, entered an arranged marriage (‘to save the family honour’).
It was to celebrate his sisters – and other women like them – that led Yousefzada to write his autobiography, The Go-Between, a book described by Stephen Fry as ‘one of the greatest childhood memoirs of our time’. It’s a fascinating insight into his background, a world most of us know little about. What it most definitely isn’t is a ‘celebrity’ memoir detailing the stars he’s hung out with. ‘I didn’t want it to be about me,’ he explains with a shrug. ‘It’s about the stories of those women.’
As a child, Yousefzada was allowed to mingle with women from outside the family and he listened with fascination to them chattering
Yousefzada’s mother was a skilled seamstress and their house was a hub for local women who wanted her to make outfits for them to wear at home, since they were only allowed outside in black burqas – even fully swathed, visiting his family home was for them a rare outing; usually, says Yousefzada, ‘they were afraid to open the door even to bring the milk in. Their husbands shopped for them exclusively in stores run by men, because contact with outsiders brought ‘shame and dishonour’.’
As a child, Yousefzada was allowed to mingle with women from outside the family and he listened with fascination to them chattering. He heard of some happy marriages, but other houses were marked by ‘terror, screams, daily fear’, with women beaten or sent back to their homeland for failing to produce children, even when the husband was infertile. Yet no matter how they suffered, says Yousefzada, ‘again and again, it was said you had to listen to your husband, no matter if he was wrong’. Inspired by the gorgeous fabrics his mother used, he started making outfits – among them pink burqas – for his sister’s Barbie.
The family visited the mosque daily and weren’t allowed to listen to music. Their father would feel the TV to check if it was warm (only he and his eldest son could officially watch it), ‘which would confirm to him that we had been secretly watching it and might have been tempted by the devil’.
On turning 12, Yousefzada was forbidden to mix with women. Encouraged by an inspirational primary-school teacher, he found his escape in books: Enid Blyton, C S Lewis, Roald Dahl, old Beano and Jackie annuals. He collected as many as he could at jumble sales, while others he filched under his jumper from the public library. ‘Reading was my obsession,’ he recalls.
Models on the runway at the OSMAN show during London Fashion Week Spring/Summer 2016/17
But after he got caught stealing from the school library, a teacher came round and confiscated his entire collection. ‘He took even the books I hadn’t stolen from them and after that I wasn’t allowed in the library. I could only see the books through the glass door. That was like torture for me.’
Yousefzada’s primary-school friends won places at the local grammar school but he went to the local comprehensive, where, despite being bullied, he excelled, winning a university place to study anthropology. (He told his parents he was studying business, ‘as they couldn’t read the forms they never knew’.)
Moving to London for his course, Yousefzada was thrown into a completely contrasting student world. ‘It definitely blew my mind,’ he remembers with a laugh. ‘I went completely crazy.’ He began making clothes for himself and his friends to go clubbing in – embroidered hats and beaded chokers ‘I could have easily worn to the mosque on special occasions.’
Yet he returned to Birmingham every other weekend to visit his parents, never telling them of his student life, while his new friends were ignorant about his background. ‘I didn’t know where I fitted in between the extremes of that old life and the new life I was creating.’
He went on to study fashion at Central Saint Martins, the prestigious art school, then to do an MPhil at Cambridge. When his father realised that he wouldn’t return to Birmingham, the two men didn’t speak for several years – and Yousefzada would travel to Birmingham secretly to visit his mother – but eventually they made a truce.
Over the years, he saw his younger sisters integrated with wider society. Marjan, who had married young to save her family’s honour, left her unhappy marriage and worked her way up from being a dinner lady, to a classroom assistant, to university lecturer.
Ruksar, who ran away, put herself through university, going on to work for a government minister. When Yousefzada told his father he’d seen her (‘hoping she’d also be able to come back from the wilderness’), he said, ‘You should have killed her when you saw her.’
Yet they were also finally reconciled when he was dying of cancer in 2019. Yousefzada loves him and bears no anger towards him. ‘I came to understand him. He had quite a tragic story. He was orphaned at the age of ten, he couldn’t read or write, but he got himself to the other side of the world and provided for all of us. My journey would be very different if it wasn’t for him.’ After that, Yousefzada devoted more time to caring for his mother, who died last year. ‘I could never put my mother in a home,’ he says. ‘That just isn’t our culture.’
Much about his community has changed in the past 40 years. Girls often go to university and many men have professional jobs. ‘They’re straddling a British as well as a Muslim identity.’ Yousefzada was able to symbolise the union of those two cultures in 2021, wrapping the Selfridges store in Birmingham with five tons of printed canvas. ‘You could see it from our poor area, looming over you – it was quite mad,’ he exclaims. ‘Finally, I was bridging my two backgrounds.’
Yousefzada’s upbringing has inspired and energised his creativity. London-based, he describes himself as ‘a multidisciplinary artist and writer’, staging exhibitions at places such as the Victoria and Albert Museum. He’s also an activist, trying to make life better for people like his mother by supporting the charity Developments in Literacy Trust UK, which helps to educate women in rural Pakistan.
When his book was first published in hardback last year, ‘it didn’t go down brilliantly with all the family’, he tells me. ‘The community doesn’t want to be put in the spotlight. But I wasn’t nasty about anybody, I changed many names, and writing the book has given me a clean slate. I don’t have to lie any more about where I come from.’
The Go-Between by Osman Yousefzada is published by Canongate, £10.99*
*To order a copy for £9.34 until 13 February go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.
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