PROUD: Boateng took to the catwalk with his father at London Fashion Week in 2010
HE’S ONE of Britain’s leading menswear designers and made history when he became the first black man to have his own store on London’s world famous tailoring street, Savile Row.
But before fame and a seriously impressive celebrity client list beckoned for London-born tailor Ozwald Boateng, there were the “tricky” times; situations, which, no doubt, were faced by many black people, living in racially hostile Britain in the 1970s.
Boateng addresses this in A Man’s Story; an insightful documentary from director Varon Bonicos, in which the designer’s journey is charted over a staggering 12 years.
Born in north London to Ghanaian parents, the father-of-two discusses in the film the antagonistic atmosphere black people in the UK faced decades ago, insisting that young black Brits at that time could choose one of two paths: violent rebellion or getting on with it despite all the odds.
Proud to have chosen the latter path, the 45-year-old – who kindly agreed to do a batch of interviews, despite it being his birthday (February 22) – laughed when asked why he didn’t opt for rebellion.
HERE COME THE BOYS: Boateng’s show at London Fashion Week in 2010
“Well...my dad was strict,” he said, chuckling. “The idea of getting caught up in any aggro and having to face him, was a major deterrent! My father instilled in me that whatever you believe in 100 per cent, you can make happen. He really instilled that in me."
“So when things got tricky, I stuck to that principle. And what happens is, when you refuse to take on that energy, after a while it just ignores you because you’re not fuelling it."
He continues: “I’m not gonna say it was easy. Even now, I still experience difficulty. But it’s my attitude towards it that makes the difference. People face tricky situations all the time."
“For example, being a female journalist must be tricky sometimes; facing situations where a guy wants to speak to you just because you’re a woman. What do you do? Do you get into a big argument about it, or do you just go and do a good interview? I just get on with it.”
His resilience and determination certainly paid off, enabling him to earn a reputation for his unique twist on classic British tailoring. His skill and work ethic not only led him to be recruited by French fashion giant Givenchy to be the company’s new creative director in 2004, but also enabled him to build up a client list including Hollywood stars such as Will Smith, Jamie Foxx and Laurence Fishburne.
Despite his success, Boateng remains a rarity in the predominantly white fashion world. And with the tailor choosing not to rage and rebel against some of the “difficulty” he admits he still faces today as a black designer, he acknowledges that some black people may think he has…
“Sold out,” he says, finishing my sentence. “Yeah, I’ve heard that argument [laughs]. I understand that sometimes it’s important to make a statement. But for me, nothing’s better than just getting on with it. When you discover what drives you and you pursue it, that’s the ultimate fulfilment. Picking up a brick and throwing it through a window, can be interesting for a moment. But it’s no life."
“Sometimes, taking that stance can come across like you’re not supportive enough of the [black] community. But I think that by just being present and doing what you do well, that’s also supporting the community."
“When I started, there weren’t that many known, successful black people in Britain,” says Boateng, who opened his first design studio on London’s Portobello Road at the age of 23. “Now, there’s a wealth of successful black British people. So there are a lot of examples of why you don’t need to throw a brick through a window. And if I didn’t do it back then, you really don’t need to do it now.”
Boateng’s collections have graced many a catwalk throughout the world, including London Fashion Week, which he famously closed in 2010. Staging a monumental event that featured over 100 models, Boateng ended the show by walking onto the stage with his proud father.
Considering the importance of his Ghanaian heritage, Boateng, who was awarded an OBE (Order of the British Empire) in 2006 said: “It’s a part of who I am so it affects my approach.
“It hasn’t been a conscious thing; it just flows in me. I don’t make obvious references, but then saying that, in recent years, I have. I feel that in recent years, I’ve been more open about the African influence in my work...I don’t know if open is the right word. I think I’m greater influenced by Africa now.”
Indeed, his style has been described as classically British with bold use of African colour. And in 2007, he took his style to the motherland, staging a fashion show during the Africa Summit in Ghana.
The event was attended by a host of African leaders including Zimbawe’s Robert Mugabe and the late Libyan leader Col Muammar Gaddafi, and saw Boateng team up with US stars including Herbie Hancock and Chris Tucker to highlight the links between Africa and America.
“Putting on that show gave me the opportunity to address so many presidents and pitch to them the idea of what Africa could be,” he says. “If we just managed our resources properly, we could achieve so much more. But because of the lack of infrastructure, the resources haven’t been able to be extracted. There’s an unbelievable wealth of resources that hasn’t been touched.
“It [the fashion show] didn’t fulfil everything I had in mind, but it fulfilled the requirement of putting out a message about what Africa could be; the potential the continent has.”
A Man’s Story is in cinemas from March 9, followed by the DVD release on March 19. For more information on Boateng visit: www.ozwaldboateng.co.uk