“Reformed fashion designer” Osman Yousefzada writes about growing up in a Pakistani-Afghan family in Birmingham, England, in The Go-Between. “It’s not the typical immigrant story of having a business degree and becoming a taxi driver,” he explained at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali. “My story is completely different.”
Yousefzada’s parents weren’t literate in any language and lived according to ancestral ultra conservative Muslim traditions. His sisters were taken out of school at age 10, and his mother hardly ever left the house, where she ran a small dressmaking business, grounding Yousefzada’s career in fashion. As he approached puberty, he was increasingly shut off from women in their community beyond his immediate family, “removing the color from my life.” His family’s community didn’t like his book: “They didn’t want to show themselves.”
Margaret Thatcher’s bare knuckle capitalism attacked Birmingham’s unionized industrial base and, with it, Yousefzada’s father’s livelihood. “What Thatcherism took away, the petrodollar and religiosity replaced,” Yousefzada says. “When my father came to the UK in the 1970s, he looked suave, a sort of Cary Grant. Then he changed his appearance.”
With manufacturing virtually extinct in the UK, fashion production now resides in places like Bangladesh. Yousefzada traveled there and recorded garment workers’ views of customers buying the clothing they produce. “They believed their customers ate only fruit, and wore clothes two or three times then threw them away. Rather than the immigrant mythology that anybody can become president, a worker told Yousefzada, “I can only dream as much as I can afford.”
Now more focused on visual and performance art, Yousefzada approached fashion as an exercise in anthropology “about costume and space.” Making space for one’s self is a recurring theme with Yousefzada. “There’s a tug of war with myself: what do I want to call myself. I’ve settled as artist and writer.” Based on his Ubud talk and The Go-Between, that seems to be a good fit.
Former US diplomat and broadcast news producer Muhammad Cohen is Asia editor at large at ICE365, a contributor to Forbes, columnist for Asia Times and author of Hong Kong On Air, a novel set in his adopted hometown during the 1997 handover about TV news, love, betrayal, high finance, and cheap lingerie. See his bio, online archive and more at www.muhammadcohen.com; follow him on Facebook, Twitter @MuhammadCohen and LinkedIn.