Frankly, unless you’re wearing Ozwald Boateng then you’re not dressed properly.” It’s a bold statement, made by the actor Paul Bettany in new documentary A Man’s Story, which follows the Anglo-Ghanaian designer through 12 turbulent years at the top of the menswear industry.
There is some truth behind the hyperbole. The rude health men’s suiting now finds itself in – from Savile Row’s booming business to the natty threads seen on TV celebrities – can, at least partially, be traced back to the revolution Boateng wrought on Savile Row in the mid-Nineties.
“The concept of traditional Savile Row tailoring was dying when I started,” says Boateng, now 45, who opened his first shop (on Vigo St just off the Row) in 1995. That was a time when boxy, unstructured suits were all the rage and bespoke tailoring was something your granddad knew about.
“I thought that by opening a shop on the Row I could breathe new life into it, I could bring the structured silhouette back to the world of fashion and make that the benchmark for menswear.”
He did all of that, but not simply by having a shop in the sartorial heartland. In a traditional industry where reserve and solemnity had been the norm, he became the peacock showman, announcing his presence with a smash-hit catwalk show of English tailoring at Paris Fashion Week in 1994 – an event that had a shockwave effect.
Boateng’s bridging of the gap between fashion and traditional tailoring has been his hallmark ever since. Paul Smith is the only British designer who comes close to Boateng’s influence.
“That was the turning point of everything,” he says of the 1994 Paris show. “I took structured suits based in Savile Row traditions onto the world fashion stage – I basically made tailoring fashionable.”
By 1998, when the film begins, Boateng was a celebrity. His loud, retro-cut garments adorned movie stars both on film – in Cool Britannia favourites like Lock Stock & Two Smoking Barrels and Gangster No 1 – and on the red carpet. He continued to exhibit his designs on the runways of Paris and Milan, and even trend-hunting New Labour politicians were donning his apparel. And then, amid all the hubris and hype, he went bust.
A Man’s Story came about when filmmaker Varon Bonicos, originally supposed to follow Boateng for less than a month, just at the time when his business was capsizing, simply kept on filming. Life continued to get ever more interesting and he ended up sticking around for 12 years. The movie follows Boateng as he rebuilds his empire with the help of new investors. He takes on the job of director of menswear for fashion house Givenchy, moves his own business into the finest premises on Savile Row, No 30, and undertakes challenging charity projects in Africa – all the while trying to cling on to the remnants of a marriage collapsing under the weight of his professional ambition. It’s on the latter subjects that the film is particularly poignant.
“The film deals with the ambition of men, the importance of ambition, the importance of making a difference and the importance of family and relationships – the navigation of what it is to be a man,” Boateng says, rather grandly. You can forgive his aggrandisment though – it is this drive to realise implausible dreams that makes him so effective.
Boateng’s most recent projects make the epic fashion shows and business ventures depicted in the film seem like relatively small beer. Professionally, he is set on turning his business into a global luxury brand, with plans to open up to 100 stores around the world. Paris, New York, London, Geneva, Riyadh and Angola are first on the list. The latter points to his other obsession, promoting enterprise in Africa through his Made in Africa charitable foundation. It’s here that the ambition is truly dizzying.
“Africa has phenomenal potential – when you control half the world’s natural resources you’re not poor – but it lacks infrastructure. The Foundation is going to raise $400m (£250m) for infrastructure feasibility studies. That will generate $100bn worth of projects and eventually a trillion dollars of value for Africa,” he says, as though mapping out a simple quarterly business plan. “Though if I’m being optimistic, I’d say it’ll be ten times that.”
This is Boateng to a tee: no idea is too big, no initiative insurmountable. At the heart of it all, however, is the lad from Muswell Hill with an astonishing eye for the cut of a structured suit, who taught himself his craft on his mother’s sewing machine.
“A suit is a great tool that can enhance a man’s shape – when a man’s in a well-cut suit, women tend to react exceptionally well,” he chuckles. “Over the years a lot of designers have been inspired by how I approached my cut, and that know-how has become common knowledge now – you see that just by looking at the high street.
What’s great now is that the rulebook is wide open – people appreciate traditional tailoring, but they love the interesting designs you can apply to that. It’s exciting.”
A Man’s Story is showing in select cinemas, and is available to rent or buy on Amazon and on iTunes.