“It simply came to our notice then. No matter how successful you are – and I have had many – it is gratitude. You have to be grateful, ”says British-Ghanaian fashion designer Ozwald Boateng.
In Dubai to launch its latest ready-to-wear capsule collection, called Black AI, with initials signifying authentic identity, at the That Concept Store in the Mall of the Emirates, Boateng could be forgiven for feeling complacent. He was the first black man at Savile Row and the first tailor to appear at Paris Fashion Week. He was also the creative director for menswear at Givenchy and got OBE.
But now in his mid-fifties, Boateng is more philosophical about the path his life has taken.
“Success and failure live in the same chair with you, because failure is learning. It’s always about experiences, I’ve learned. They are key, ”he says The National.
Although that journey brought him fame and success, it was not always smooth.
“I went to school in the 1970s and grew up culturally at a time when racism was real. So running down the street was a daily exercise, ”he says.
“I had a very strong belief in myself because of my father – he gave me a lot of self-confidence – and he raised me with a certain sense of self. I was never sure of myself, but I put it in the landscape of racism and it was hard. As a kid, I had a lot of fun, but they chased me because I was black. ”
Born from his parents from Ghana and extremely proud of his heritage, Boateng realized that he wanted to be able to change the way colored people are perceived.
“There were two directions at the time,” he says. “People could get very angry about racism, or they could go through it, and I choose to fight it.”
Boateng chose the path through fashion, after it became obvious that he had an unwavering instinct for tailoring and almost poetic mastery of colors. When he was 17, he was persuaded to transfer his talents to Savile Row, a bastion of British tailor-made suits.
“My friend, artist Duggie Fields, told me,‘ You have to go to Savile Row ’. My answer was, ‘What, you dusty old men? Why would I go down there? ”
What Fields seemingly realized, before Boateng, was that this confident, talented young black man could conquer the “old dusty” sphere of privileges of white men represented by Savile Row, would have the world at his feet.
At that point in the 1980s, tailoring as an art form was dying as designers tailored their suits relaxed and boxy. Despite being the heart of tailoring since the 1790s, Savile Row has lost its relevance, a relic of an outdated era.
In contrast, Boateng’s suits were beautifully tailored, tailored for a slim, elegant cut, and were lined with jewel-colored silk in purple, orange, or fuchsia. Although only in his twenties and almost completely self-taught, in 1994 he took his collection to Paris Fashion Week – the first tailor to do so. As the newspaper became lyrical about this vivid new talent and customers lined up in front of its doors, he opened his first store on Vigo Street, not far from Savile Row, in 1995, becoming, at the age of 28, the first black man to ever did so.
His dazzling cuts have attracted a new generation of customers, and with clients such as Forest Whitaker, Russell Crowe, Daniel Day Lewis and Spike Lee, Boateng is credited with reviving suit-making, saving Savile Row from extinction in the process.
In 2003, he was named creative director of menswear at Givenchy, a position he held until 2007. In 2005, he was invited to be part of the Fashion in Motion series at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, delivering a collection that mixed burnt oranges with lavender, royal blue with periwinkle and caramel with mustard.
His elegant tailoring has appeared in films such as Lock, butt and two smoking pipes, Tomorrow Never Dies i Matrix, and in 2000 he won the award for best menswear designer at the British Fashion Awards. Far from fashion, in 2008, Boateng was appointed to the Reach Committee, to help inspire and motivate young black boys, and is a co-founder of the Made In Africa Foundation, a non-profit organization that helps development across the continent. In 2006, he received OBE from Queen Elizabeth II for services to British fashion.
“I invested in the business,” he says. Yet while he has achieved all these personal highs in his career, he claims that he always had a greater purpose in mind, but that he had to hide it. “I was only able to have this conversation recently,” he explains.
“When they ask me where my design style comes from, it’s so out of fashion and it’s so ingrained in the culture. I couldn’t talk about racism when I started, because they would see me as an angry young man, and I didn’t want to be confused by what I created. “
As a man of skin color, Boateng has always felt his responsibility to stand out in his field and open the door to others. “I knew that my stay in Savile Row and performances in Paris had cultural implications. And to have the right impact, you can’t shout, you have to do it by being present. “
Although it was successful, this trick sometimes had negative results, which was shown during the rise of Virgil Abloh.
“I knew what I was doing, but it’s funny, people forget I was at Givenchy. When Virgil Abloh became the creative director for menswear at Louis Vuitton, they said he was the first black designer. ”
In fact, Boateng preceded Abloh as the head of a major fashion house by 15 years, something that is almost forgotten today. But while it’s smart, he understands why his achievement is often overlooked.
“I did not position myself that way. Instead, I positioned myself only as a creative who happened to be black. I took that position to say, what’s the problem? You judge the creatives, not what the person looks like. ”
In 2018, Boateng changed its cultural heritage by holding its first fashion show in a few years at Arise Fashion Week in Lagos, Nigeria. Unveiling its first ready-to-wear collection during a show called Africanism, it was something of a stylistic evolution – with its distinctive clean silhouettes and rich colors now adorned with patterns taken from traditional Ghanaian kente fabrics as well as Adinkra’s phonetic script.
In 2019, Boateng released its second iteration, called AI, at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York. The choice of location was important, he explains, because “in the sense of African-American history, it is a church of churches.” Everyone from Ray Charles to Gil Scott-Heron to James Brown performed on that stage. “
To coincide with the anniversary of the renaissance in Harlem, it was also his first expedition to women’s clothing, a move inspired mainly by his daughter. As an accompaniment to the performance, Boateng played live the African-American Harlem Orchestra.
“The energy in that space is beyond imagination,” he recalls. “We were the first fashion show held there, and I had to sign on the wall among all those greats. So, back to gratitude. It was a real privilege. “
Deeply affected by the assassination of George Floyd in May 2020, in the third chapter, called Black AI, Boateng doubled the idea of blackness and black excellence.
To bring this idea home, for the finals, Boateng appeared on stage with actor Idris Elb. The long-awaited fashion show was held in February as part of London Fashion Week and marked the return of designers to the British fashion calendar after 12 years of absence. It is this collection that is now on sale at the That Concept Store.
Consisting of lightweight silk bomber jackets, woven sleeveless shirts, blouse shirts and fluid kimonos to the floor, the collection is adorned with the same vivid Ghanaian patterns, some more literal and others a little more discreet, including an intricate motif that turned out to be an Adinkra alphabet , repeated over and over again. The colors are bold and invigorating, going from spicy lime to turquoise and from red to royal purple.
Although sold as ready-made clothing, the collection is more custom-designed – with three designs and 12 colors – and is available in limited editions, meaning it’s gone when it’s gone. While black artificial intelligence represents the third chapter in the story, it promises to be followed by two more.
Recalling a career that spanned some 30 years, Boateng explains that while much has changed in terms of accepting blacks, there is still much to be done.
“When I grew up, in terms of representing blacks, the first British black face I saw on television was [the comedian] Lenny Henry. There were no other reference points, “he said.
“When I got my first piece of media in the 1980s, I knew what that would mean. I was more than a designer, I was a tailor at Savile Row, and the message was, if I can, so can others. “
Now people are coming to tell him that he is their “first point of reference”.
Updated: June 23, 2022 at 3:31 p.m.