A Conversation with Ozwald Boateng OBE – Iconic Fashion Designer, Creative & Entrepreneur.

A Conversation with Ozwald Boateng OBE – Iconic Fashion Designer, Creative & Entrepreneur.

Ozwald Boateng has been at the forefront of fashion for over 25 years. He conceived a new silhouette and palette for international menswear, creating a concept of style and luxury for men not previously envisaged but desired by men everywhere. Always the revolutionary, Ozwald Boateng’s collections now see an evolution into womenswear and lifestyle.

Previously holding the position of Creative Director at Givenchy Homme. He began making bespoke suits in the 1980’s and is widely credited with introducing Savile Row tailoring to a new generation. In 1994, he was the first tailor to stage a catwalk show in Paris during Paris Fashion week. Boateng’s many clients include Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Daniel Day Lewis, Russell Crowe, Jude Law, Forest Whitaker, Spike Lee, and Mick Jagger. He was awarded an honorary degree for ‘An Outstanding Contribution to the clothing and Fashion industries’, Named as one of the Most Influential Londoners by the Evening Standard and awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2006 Queen’s New Year’s Honours.

As a philanthropist, Ozwald Boateng co-founded Made In Africa Foundation, in 2011 alongside Kola Aluko and Atlantic Energy. The Made In Africa Foundation started the first “Africa Rising ” campaign in 2007 with coordination of the closing event at the 50th AU Conference in Ghana on the invitation of President John Kufour in front of 53, Presidents. Made In Africa advised U.K. ministers Gordon Brown, George Osborne, David Milliband and Baroness Shriti Vadera on Africa. Made In Africa advised several African governments on rapid development of the continent and launched Africa’s first infrastructure fund with President Donald Kaberuka of African Development Bank with the $2bn Africa50 fund launched at Nasdaq.

In this interview I speak to Ozwald Boateng OBE, one of the world’s most iconic fashion designers & creatives. We discuss the role of fashion in society, how he has redefined entire categories & movements in fashion, and how digital culture is impacting fashion & creative industries. 

Q: What is fashion?

[Ozwald Boateng]: Fashion is a term we often attribute to clothing, yet I believe that style holds a more profound significance. It seems to me that style is more closely intertwined with culture. Reflecting on my formative years, I vividly recall how ska, a musical genre, deeply influenced attire. Countless cultural movements have indeed sprouted from music or societal trends at certain times. Consider the skinheads, for instance, who possessed a markedly unique aesthetic. Therefore, I posit that our conversation revolves more around style than fashion.

Fashion predominantly concerns itself with trends – trousers transforming from wide to short, flares coming in and out of vogue, shoulder lines expanding and contracting. These shifts are transient, epitomising the fleeting nature of fashion. It’s an ever-changing phenomenon that, in my opinion, doesn’t necessarily endure over time. On the other hand, style demonstrates longevity – it truly stands the test of time.

Q: What is the power of Saville Row?

[Ozwald Boateng]: The reason I chose the suit, specifically the iconic Savile Row suit, as the foundation of my work is because it stands for something far beyond just clothing. It symbolises culture in its purest form. It’s crucial to comprehend that Britain’s military outfits were tailored in Savile Row when our admirals were voyaging around the globe, essentially establishing their dominance. The suit, in its military context, played an integral role in these endeavours, carrying with it an abundance of tradition.

My choice to work with Savile Row and to focus on the suit was driven by a belief that I could reinvigorate this concept, challenging and reshaping the understanding of tradition. In a broader context, it prompted a national dialogue. Consider the fame of Savile Row, one of our country’s most renowned streets, intertwined with the monarchy’s history. When I arrived at Savile Row in the early ’90s, the classic suit was on the verge of dying, overshadowed by the burgeoning trend of high fashion. Bespoke tailoring was losing its appeal.

However, I saw a unique opportunity to revitalise this fading tradition and steer it onto a new, more contemporary path. For me, Savile Row was a platform for a larger cultural discussion: what does it mean to be British? That’s the primary reason behind my move to Savile Row when I was only 18 or 19.

Growing up in the seventies, issues of racism and a sense of belonging were always at the forefront of my daily experiences. The thought was, here I am, making contributions, so how can I amplify this contribution at a national and then an international level? It quickly became apparent that Savile Row was an excellent stage for my voice to be heard.

Q: Can you tell us about your creative process?

[Ozwald Boateng]: Creatively speaking, one doesn’t have to broadcast their intentions outright. The context in which I began this journey, in the late 80s and early 90s, is essential to remember. The focus wasn’t about declaring my mission; instead, it was about illuminating the fact that the concept of traditional tailoring was dying, and it was in dire need of revitalisation.

The sustainability of traditions relies on their ability to evolve. This was the crux of my message: how can we help this tradition evolve? Because at that time, it was certainly losing its vitality.

My significant impact came in bridging the gap between Savile Row and contemporary couture. I would frequent Paris for the couture shows, which exuded unmatched glamour and showcased design at its zenith. In contrast, Savile Row hadn’t positioned itself in a similar light. The scope for a couturier far outstrips that of a tailor, with opportunities akin to those of iconic brands like Chanel and Dior, including perfume deals and glitzy shows, because they represent the apex of design.

It made perfect sense to me that to infuse new life into Savile Row, they needed to perceive themselves more as couturiers than mere tailors. That’s the perspective I brought to Savile Row. As a tailor, I conducted fashion shows with a couture touch. This approach attracted significant press coverage in Europe and globally, as I was redefining the boundaries of traditional tailoring.

Additionally, this approach was commercially viable. At that time, men were spending maybe 5,000 on a suit, whereas women would shell out 25,000 for a couture dress. Statistically, more men could afford a 5,000 suit than women who could spend 25,000 on a dress. It shifted people’s perceptions of tailoring, a shift that still resonates today.

For a long time, the suit was perceived as a uniform. However, I aimed to redefine the suit as a choice. If you apply top-tier creativity to your suit, the possibilities are boundless. Sure, certain conventions govern a suit and should be respected. Deviating to the point of having three or four sleeves might work as an artistic statement, but the suit’s rules still apply. Standing out and being unique under these constraints is a challenge, requiring an elevated skill set. I managed to spotlight the opportunities in traditional tailoring in a way that had seldom been done before.

Q: And how has that allowed you to cross that interesting boundary, which is a lot of tailoring is so male focused, let’s say. But what you are able to do in women’s fashion, but still respecting those really beautiful rules of tailoring, is giving a whole new voice to, let’s say, an expression of power and an expression in women’s fashion. 

[Ozwald Boateng]: Absolutely correct. And the thing is, I have huge respect for women’s fashion, and I also appreciated the opportunity that women’s fashion had, where you could create anything because women were so open to it. But men, it was very much they were not exposed to the same level of creativity. And the conversation about masculinity was very clear. And so, there was two clear lines – either you’re very camp or you’re very male. And I was saying, well, you can be both and it won’t take away from the masculinity. So, there was a blend that I created together that both sides were attracted to. And so that’s where the uniqueness was created.

Q: How do you balance creative truth, with commercial reality?

[Ozwald Boateng]: Being self-taught, every misstep I’ve made has come with a high price. My education has been through trial and error, with each mistake offering valuable lessons. From my journey, I’ve come to understand that there are essentially two kinds of designers: those driven by their creations, the product-focused, and those moved by their message and purpose, the concept-driven. I’ve always belonged to the latter category. I’ve always been engrossed in the “why”.

The “why” has been my guiding star. Whenever I stray from understanding the “why”, that’s when I encounter pitfalls. So, when asked how I’ve managed to do what I do, my response is always by asking, “why am I doing it?” It’s not about the rewards or exposure that come from an opportunity. Rather, it’s about whether the “why” resonates with my inner purpose.

Choosing Savile Row was no accident. I’ve always desired to challenge and evolve traditional thoughts and values. I found a unique way to communicate this desire, and this has inspired many to think differently about design.

Q: What is the ethic of design?

[Ozwald Boateng]: In my vision, tailors are akin to couturiers, an opportunity that I believe Savile Row has somewhat overlooked. Whenever you introduce something fresh, especially in an area steeped in tradition, the aim is to kindle inspiration with novel perspectives, and I firmly believe I’ve achieved that.

My impact has likely been felt most keenly outside Savile Row, particularly among American designers. Ralph Lauren, for instance, created the Purple Label, and Tom Ford asserted a strong emphasis on tailoring as he developed his brand. I am convinced that I have, in a way, imparted inspiration to all. Consider how certain designers, like those in the early days, evolved towards the slim silhouette and strong components.

When you think of figures like McQueen and Vivienne Westwood, it’s clear they have profound ties to tailoring, and that’s because crafting something unique within tailoring requires real skill. I’ve always recognized its power and employed it as a tool to express a range of ideas.

Still, I can’t help but feel that Savile Row has missed an opportunity here. At this stage, they should be seen more as couturiers than tailors. Anyone familiar with the breadth of my work knows that while I may communicate through tailoring, I operate like a couturier. That’s why I stage fashion shows. For example, my latest show, in February 2022 at the Savoy Theatre in London was undeniably a cultural event. I call it such because of my deep respect for culture, which consistently forms the nucleus of my work.

Q: How has social media influenced your creative process?

[Ozwald Boateng]: Social media poses an interesting paradox within my creative landscape. On one hand, it’s undeniably beneficial due to its vast accessibility, the removal of gatekeepers, and the direct communication it enables. However, its inherent limitations in providing genuine personal connection can’t be overlooked.

There’s an appealing aspect of engaging directly with individuals who appreciate my work. Posting an image on social media and knowing it connects with these individuals is a rewarding experience. Yet, an important element seems to be missing, leading me to focus more on that personal touch.

Having crafted clothes for individuals over the years, I’ve come to understand the necessity of creating pieces that resonate with the wearer, making them feel good about themselves. That, to me, is of paramount importance. I see the transaction not just as taking a piece of fabric and transforming it into a design but ensuring that the end product enhances the wearer’s happiness and self-perception.

When we discuss technology, whether it’s social media or AI, we must recognize its tendency to distance us from our authentic selves. For instance, in 2019, I held a major fashion show in New York, named ‘AI’. The reason behind this name stemmed from my struggle with my older children’s overreliance on social media, and their need to retain their unique identities, rather than allowing social media to shape them.

I deliberately played on the term ‘AI’, redefining it to mean ‘Authentic Identity’, to contrast with its usual connotation of ‘Artificial Intelligence’. My intention was to stress the importance of

self-discovery and self-expression, instead of losing oneself in the illusionary world of social media. Unfortunately, many of today’s youth are ensnared in this trap, mimicking the lives they see online instead of living their own.

To me, this is a critical issue, and I believe that the future will increasingly emphasise authenticity, as artificiality becomes even more pervasive.

Q: Do you feel a weight of responsibility as a designer, for communicating through your wearer?

[Ozwald Boateng]: With several decades of experience under my belt, I realize I have always been focused on the wearer, albeit not consciously defined when I first began. As we progress, we uncover more layers of our creativity. For me, it’s always about the spirit of the wearer. If the wearer’s spirit is uplifted, then I’ve accomplished my goals.

Interestingly, technological advancements, especially in social media, seem to be pulling us away from this core connection. The question then becomes, how do we maintain this intrinsic link? For me, this represents the new value of the future. If asked about the definition of future luxury, I’d say it encapsulates this sentiment.

The recent explosion of success in luxury brands has been largely due to increased global wealth. However, I believe that the future will unquestionably revolve around this principle. It’s not just about taglines or eco-friendly brand claims, but also about confronting the reality of the industry, especially the waste it generates.

Waste is often a byproduct of not willing to wait for a product. In the clothing industry, for instance, opting for made-to-measure garments eliminates waste, since these pieces are tailored to specific measurements, unlike ready-to-wear collections. If the customer’s measurements and preferences are unknown, we are forced to produce multiple pieces – maybe 10, maybe 20 – to sell just one. This is where waste originates.

Having worked in this space for a long time, I’ve seen the vast amounts of waste generated by large-scale ready-to-wear collections. If we are serious about shifting the narrative around waste, we need to reevaluate our processes and ask some hard questions. If customers are willing to wait, it could usher in significant, radical change.

It’s intriguing how, after years of working in this field, you reach a point where it all makes sense. The choice of tailoring, the design process, everything falls into place. You realize that your initial instinct was correct, even if you didn’t quite understand why at the time. I am designing with a purpose.

The notion of purpose-driven designs is widely discussed, but for me, the purpose was born out of necessity. There was a real struggle to make my voice heard at the outset. I had to find an alternate route to public demonstrations and chose clothing as my medium. Step by step, I’ve managed to communicate my message.

[Vikas: I agree, fashion should be something beautiful, something meaningful, a considered purchase]

[Ozwald Boateng]: Indeed, the result of such an approach is a deeper, more respectful relationship with the clothing. It’s not to say that there’s no place for high-street or disposable clothing. However, a shift in the relationship between these two realms is necessary.

As we project into the future, it’s clear that AI will have massive implications. I’m exploring how to incorporate it into my creative universe, recognising its inevitable presence. But my aim is to leverage it in a manner that doesn’t cause us to lose sight of our genuine selves and the tangible world amidst the surge of this artificial reality.

Q: What do you hope your legacy will be?

[Ozwald Boateng]: I’m still in the process of shaping my legacy, but I believe I’ve been recognised for revolutionising the concept of the suit from when I embarked on this journey in the 80s and early 90s. Without a doubt, I’ve breathed new life into Savile Row and reimagined the British suit. That impact is almost universally acknowledged.

From a cultural perspective, I believe I’ve been a guiding light for many from my ethnic background and beyond, demonstrating that with determination, focus, and creativity, one can achieve their goals and gain respect in their chosen field. I hope that accomplishment is acknowledged and valued.

I understand that perspectives evolve with time. What was considered fashionable in the 90s or the early 2000s might differ from our notions of style in 2023. However, the impacts I’ve mentioned are, I believe, the enduring highlights of my career.

One striking instance of this legacy was when my seven-year-old son visited the Victoria and Albert Museum. To my delight, he noticed that one of my pieces had been on display since 1996. At the time I donated the suit, I was reluctant to part with my samples and didn’t dwell much on the significance of the moment. But my son’s awe at the longevity of my piece in the museum gave me a profound understanding of the value of my work over time.

In this way, I view my legacy: as a source of inspiration for a young visitor who might look at my work, research my story, and feel motivated to pursue their own dreams. Because ultimately, the essence of creativity is to inspire, to stir something within the spirit of those who encounter our work. That’s what it’s all about, unquestionably.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.