The fashion business needs to get closer to its customers if it wants to become environmentally sustainable, says celebrated designer Ozwald Boateng.
Boateng says the industry is structured to be wasteful – and that cultural change is needed.
If I want to attract you as a client, I will have 10 different sizes. How many colors to get that one or two purchases from you? If I knew what you wanted from the beginning, I wouldn’t have created so much. It could be more focused. “The way we do business has to change. I think we need to get into a culture of learning to wait,” Jane Witherspoon told Euronews.
Boateng’s latest Black AI collection represents a new shift for the man who made his name in top menswear: it’s unisex.
He was in Dubai to present it, and there he was overtaken by Jane Witherspoon of Euronews.
Jane Witherspoon: I’m glad you’re here. Why unisex and why now?
Ozwald Boateng: Well, that’s a pretty interesting question, actually. I did this show a few years back in 2019, I did this big show in Harlem Apollo. And I’ve been designing menswear, as you know, for quite some time.
JW: 25 years.
OB: 25 plus, more than 25 years. In any case, my daughter always complained that I didn’t earn much for her, always for her younger brother. And so I decided to do some things for women.
The world of almost rootless clothes
What was interesting was when I was doing the show, I created this collection with a few pieces of women’s clothing and that’s when I realized that my men’s clothing works well for women as well. And so I ended up in this world of almost sexless clothes.
JW: You hit back at London with a bang after a 12-year hiatus, didn’t you? You performed at London Fashion Week in February. Why have you been away for so long? What did you do?
OB: Well, first of all, I think, London menswear doesn’t have much of a platform for that. And I think that’s always part of the reason … the problem. I mean, I’ve always been forced to have a performance in Paris or New York or Milan. That is the first point.
But I also mean COVID, right? It’s been two years at home, I’m wiggling my thumbs. So I think, what am I going to do now that the world is back on track? And so I decided to do a big fashion show to celebrate it, and I also supported what happened during the isolation with George Floyd. There was a catalyst for communication around black culture, and I wanted to show that within the collection. So, the show itself was a real celebration of culture.
The emergence of black talent
JW: You said it was a celebration of black excellence. And the narrative has really changed, I think. You yourself have experienced racism, how do you feel and how important is it that things have changed or started to change?
OB: It can’t be compared to when I started working the longest when I went to these fashion events, I would probably be the only black man in the room. So that’s for decades. And that has now changed significantly in the last, I would say three, four, five years.
I was at the fashion awards last year, there were a lot of black talents there, from stylists to photographers. It’s really good.
JW: That is why I want to talk a little more about black artificial intelligence, and it is shockingly named after the idea of blacks, colors, culture. And it explores, I guess, the artistic integrity that comes with it, as well as your Ghanaian roots, where do you get your inspiration from?
OB: Inspiration is global, right? But my African roots are definitely in my work and the use of colors and the use of textiles and more importantly, now more than ever, I express it and I think there is room to express it.
And also, in this kind of experimentation and the discovery of expressing it in my textiles, it fits really well into women’s clothing. I mean, if you see some of these symbols that I have, those symbols are Adinkra symbols that are ancient symbols that have been around for a while. And I played with the size of these symbols to make this kind of collage and pattern. And then I turned that into a series of colors.
Learning to work with Gene Z
JW: As you mentioned earlier, your daughter was on your case and asked you to make more women’s clothes. Is she involved in the business now?
OB: Yes, in fact, I think, involved in social networks. All right. She is what you call Gen Z, Gen Z controls everything and dictates so much. But she helps me understand that and in my last show she invited a lot of new talents, music, fashion, art.
So I had a really interesting experience in my collection where I talked to so many different generations. And it was actually a great experience, being able to create a collection that talked to so many different people.
Africa needs a chance to develop
JW: You applauded for global socio-economic development, especially in Africa. Why was it important to run in tandem with your career?
OB: I think this is important because I am very interested in infrastructure development, in Africa. I just want to see a point of development in Africa.
And there are many reasons for the delay in its development. It could be said that some of it is political, but at the end of the day, he needs a chance to develop. Soon it will be a billion and a half to two billion. 60% of the world’s undeveloped agricultural land is in Africa, so Africa’s development is very important to the world.
So the Made in Africa Foundation was actually a foundation we founded to promote the African Fund 50, which is a major infrastructure fund for the African Development Bank. And it was just focusing on… they raised something in the $ 3 or 4 billion region focusing on infrastructure and the African continent.
JW: You’re downplaying this a little. I mean, you advised presidents and world leaders. What else needs to be done to upgrade and raise it to a higher level?
OB: There must be a real understanding of the importance of the continent, Africa, in terms of the world. Again, food safety is a big issue. And if we can develop agricultural land in the right way, in a sustainable way, then it is somehow self-evident. And I think that’s the problem. There must be more support. It is necessary to give the right knowledge and establish partnerships.
Towards a sustainable fashion industry
JW: You are also a big proponent of sustainability in the fashion industry. Tell me why this is more relevant than ever and how it relates to the new collection.
OB: Well yes. I mean, for the new collection, we do everything practically to order. But when it comes to business, we all know how business contributes to a huge amount of waste. And only because of the way the business is structured. If I want to attract you as a client, I will have 10 different sizes. How many colors to get one or two purchases from you? If I knew what you wanted from the beginning, then I wouldn’t have to create so much. It could be more focused. And that’s why the way we do business has to change. I think we need to get into a culture of learning to wait.
JW: So your thoughts on Ready to Wear are that your business model is the way forward?
OB: I would say it is a way forward. But the reality is that it will happen in stages. I think there has to be a much closer relationship between design and production and the client. I think these three things have to be … if that window could be closed and tightened, I think we could save a huge amount of waste.
JW: From your days as creative director at Givenchy homme to being at the helm of leading Savile Row tailoring. What’s next for you?
OB: Well, I think this region is very interesting to me now, so I want to expand and explore it. I haven’t been in Dubai long enough, about 10 years. What I’ve heard and the development is pretty amazing, actually. It is a global place where everyone wants to come. I have a bunch of my friends and even Hollywood around the world who tell me “I’ll be in Dubai” in a way I’ve never heard before. And it’s so good. And also, I have to say this, the flight to the airport was so easy. It was pretty easy, I have to say, when I think of Heathrow, it’s, yeah, a little more challenging.
JW: Ozwald Boateng, I’m glad you’re back in Dubai. Don’t leave for too long next time. I want to thank you for joining us today. Thank you.