The designer’s rise to the top of the fashion world is a true rags to riches tale, writes Helen Cahill
If you measure a man by the cut of his suit, then Ozwald Boateng is the most successful man in London. Boateng started making suits at the age of 16. He was the first black tailor to set up shop on Savile Row (his parents are from Ghana) and the first tailor to have a catwalk show at Paris fashion week.
Now he has an OBE and an extensive list of celebrity clients. He has dressed Daniel Day Lewis, Will Smith and Jamie Foxx for the Oscars. His ambitions go further: “I want to dress all men.”
Boateng opened his first design studio on Portobello Road in 1986. The men’s clothing market in the UK is now worth £13.5bn and is growing faster than womenswear – up by 22 per cent over the past five years, according to market researcher Mintel. In the 90s, Boateng’s determination to modernise the suit spurred on innovation in the sector.
Boateng may work in fashion, but he sees himself as an entrepreneur – a man who took his creative talent and used it to build a business. He says a documentary about his career from 1998-2010, called A Man’s Story, is not a film about fashion.
“It’s about a man, who happens to be in fashion,” he says. “When I was 18 I was thinking: what’s the dream?
“When I started designing, I did my research and I said: you want to build a name, you need to do something unique and different, and so when someone thinks of your name, they should think of a product. I decided that the suit would be that for me.”
So he decided he wanted to modernise the suit, and he never stopped to think about how he could achieve it.
“When you’re young, you’re naive as hell, you have no idea, the idea of doubt is like: ‘what?’” he says. “You just do. That’s what happens. Then someone goes: ‘you’re crazy’. And you’re 18 and you go: ‘well, why am I crazy?’”
“A decade passes and then you think: ‘maybe I was crazy’. But by then it’s too late, you’ve got a business, you’re employing people. You’re already in. And so that’s kind of what happened to me.”
Boateng was too busy, and, as he puts it, “results-driven”, to worry too much about whether he was successful.
When the V&A asked for one of his suits – regarded as the hallmark of success in the British fashion industry – he didn’t celebrate, he complained. He says:
“It was a piece from one of my early collections, and they wanted one of the best pieces – and I remember having a real issue with it. Eventually someone convinced me like: ‘You know, it’s going in the V&A, Ozwald’. It was like giving away one of my babies.
“It’s one of those things when you don’t really recognise what is happening, you know, in the moment. Fourteen years later, my son is on a school trip to the V&A and he comes home and says: ‘Dad, your suit is in a museum!’”
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At the same time, he was “racing to some point in the future”, designing costumes for box office hits, including Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and Bad Boys 2. In 2003, he became creative director of menswear at Givenchy: his global breakthrough. There have been difficulties too: he has steered his business through two recessions, and has had two marriages end in divorce. A Man’s Story documents the downfall of his marriages, and it makes for uncomfortable watching, especially for Boateng.
“But it’s an amazing thing to have your life documented in that level of detail, for that amount of time,” he says. “Now I can look back and go: ‘My god, what were you thinking? Blindly going off with these ambitious dreams!’”
He knew even when he started his business in 1986 that he would have to be resilient to survive.
“One of the things I learned was: there was a lot of successful design, but success was about sustaining. One of the key points is being consistent,” he says.
“I survived the recession. I think a lot of it is state of mind, and belief in what you’re doing.”
Now Boateng is more business-orientated, and more strategic, but he’s still moving forward. In his view, as long as the City is doing business, the City needs good suits.
“Whether you’re doing well that day, or it’s a tough day – there’s nothing that beats putting on a suit that makes you feel better about yourself,” Boateng says. “And if it’s cut well, it will do that for you.”
Ozwald Boateng: A Man’s Story will air on Thursday 22 September at 10am on London Live