On Racism and British Fashion

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.

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