Boateng, Ozwald 1968–
Ozwald Boateng 1968–
British menswear designer Ozwald Boateng has been called “the peacock of Savile Row” for the exuberant fabric colors he uses in his ready-to-wear collections and line of custom suits. Tagged as one of London’s freshest creative fashion forces, this Anglo-African began his career as a tailor but began showing his wares in runway collections in the mid-1990s. “Boateng is one of the British fashion industry’s larger than life characters,” stated an Independent article, noting that with his six-foot, four inches of height and a trim figure “lean as a greyhound, he is a walking advertisement for his clothes. Nobody looks better in an impeccably tailored single breasted slim-line, fuchsia pink-lined suit than Boateng himself.”
Boateng was born in 1968, in London, England. His parents were originally from Ghana, and came to London in 1950s. The family, which included Boateng’s two older siblings, lived in the Muswell Hill area of north London, but his parents divorced when Boateng was eight. In Ghana his mother had worked in the fabric business, and took in custom work as a seamstress in England. Boateng recalled that as a five-year-old, his mother made him a purple mohair suit that quickly became his favorite outfit. His father, once headmaster of a school in Ghana, was a strict but not authoritarian parent. “On occasion, he would let us bend the rules. His good guidance meant that we never felt the need to break them,” Boateng remarked in an interview with Celia Walden for the Mail on Sunday, a London paper. He added, “There is a unique formality bound up with Ghanaian tradition which I often think led me to what I do now.”
At the age of 16, Boateng began dating a girl he met at a London technical college, where he was studying computer science at the time. “She was incredibly artistic, she could paint, sculpt, design clothes, everything,” he told John Walsh in another interview published in the Independent. “She was doing this college fashion show, and asked me to help. I said, ‘I can’t make clothes,’ but she showed me and for some reason it was easy.” Boateng soon began making clothes for himself. “There were always sewing machines around the house although I never went near them,” he told Walsh, recalling his childhood. He was surprised by the reaction his self-made gear elicited. “What stunned me was, when I wore them, people actually wanted to buy them.”
Soon Boateng had switched his major to fashion design at Southgate College, and he began working out of a studio in London’s East End and selling his wares. He found the program at Southgate difficult at times. “There was a conflict because it was very difficult being told what a product should be, as in my mind I was already doing it. I was asked to do things that I wasn’t inspired by. Why create if you’re not inspired to?” he recalled in an interview with Sam Phillips for the Independent. By the time he was 18, Boateng’s clothes were selling at stores in the King’s Road section of Chelsea, and in 1993 he opened a store on another trendy street, Portobello Road. He found his true calling, however, when he began haunting the austere but pricey tailor shops of London’s Savile Row, where
At a Glance…
Born in 1968, in London, England; son of Kweshi (a teacher) and Mary Boateng; divorced from Pasquale Boateng (a model); children: one daughter. Education: Earned fashion diploma from Southgate College.
Career: Tailor and menswear designer; opened store in London, England, 1993; moved to Savile Row area of London, 1995.
Addresses: Home —London, England. Office —c/o Oz-wald Boateng, 9 Vigo St., London W1X 1AL, England.
British kings and prime ministers, international heads of state, and wealthy men with impeccable taste in clothes had been having suits custom-made for generations.
Switching the focus of his business to making custom, or bespoke suits for men, Boateng attracted notice when he became one of the first-ever British tailors to stage a fashion show. “Everybody said I was crazy,” he told Phillips, referring to the 1994 London show, but the publicity helped him find a backer for a ready-to-wear line and to open a more formal retail venture, a store just off the famed Savile Row, on Vigo Street, in 1995. Soon his ready-to-wear line was selling at Saks Fifth Avenue and Barneys New York in the United States.
The bright hues of Boateng’s well-cut suits, shirts, and other formal items earned him a devoted following, and his suits were worn by members of the Smashing Pumpkins, Mick Jagger, Seal, Herbie Hancock, and Robbie Williams. They were also worn by actors in the films Tomorrow Never Dies and Lock, Stock, & Two Smoking Barrels. Between 1996 and 1997, Boateng’s sales soared 150 percent worldwide, and he was even invited to dine at No. 10 Downing Street, the residence of Britain’s Prime Minister, Tony Blair.
In early 1998, however, a looming financial crisis in Asia caused two large orders from Hong Kong and Japan to be cancelled, and Boateng lost his backer. His ready-to-wear business went into receivership in the spring of 1998, but he saved it by entering into a deal with a British department store chain, Debenham’s, to design a moderately priced line of men’s clothing. “It was mind-blowing for me that my bad news would generate so much media,” Boateng told Phillips in the Independent. “The media were very sad but also very positive about me creating. It was good to see how many people I’d touched with my work. That was a really tough scenario, but the media gave me the ability to overcome the situation.”
In 1999 Boateng suffered another setback when his entire collection was stolen, and in 2001 found himself in an unusual battle with Sean “P. Diddy” Combs over scheduling concerns at the New York spring menswear collection shows. Boateng’s Bryant Park event was scheduled for 7 p.m., while Combs’s “Sean Jean” line was going to be shown at 8 p.m. Combs’s representatives, however, overwhelmed by the media attention surrounding the rap mogul, asked that all invitees be seated by 7 p.m.—which meant that many important buyers and tastemakers would miss Boateng’s collection. Representatives from both sides met, and peace was made. Boateng’s show, as Evening Standard journalist Simon Mills reported, featured “turbo-charged grey flannels with livid, lilac, Rupert Bear checks, acid-trip geography teacher getups with elbow patches in Boateng’s signature purple Melton and rubberised cotton macs in ethnic tones.”
Despite such flamboyant wares, Boateng remained an accepted presence among the more staid Savile Row tailors. When his store opened, many brought him welcome gifts. “I think they respect what I’ve done,” he told Walsh. “I’ve brought an enormous amount of public awareness to the street, and they respect my style. On the Row, they don’t say, ‘Oh, there’s that wacky guy from down the road.’ They say, ‘I see, that’s nice, he’s done that.’”
Birmingham Post, February 24, 1999, p. 6.
Daily News Record, December 17, 1997, p. 12; March 25, 1998, p. 2; April 8, 2002, p. 3.
Evening Standard (London), February 14, 2001, p. 38.
Independent (London), April 6, 1998 p. 3; May 23, 1998, p. 20; December 20, 2001, p. 9; January 18, 2002, p. 7.
Independent Sunday (London), June 27, 1999, p. 57.
Mail on Sunday (London), February 17, 2002, p. 18.
BusinessWeek Online, http://www.businessweek.com
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