Ozwald Boateng: A singular man

British fashion designer Ozwald Boateng's creations epitomise glamorous style, but a new documentary paints a picture of personal trauma behind the glitter. Kaleem Aftab reports

When fashion designer Ozwald Boateng decided, back in 1998, to allow a director to film him for six months, he had little idea of what he was setting in motion. In the end, the director followed him around for 12 years. In that time, Boateng became the youngest man to open his own store in the Savile Row area of tailors and was also made creative director of menswear at Givenchy. Indeed, filming only finished at the end of September when Boateng presented his latest London show, A Man's Story, at Fashion Week in Leicester Square.

All these moments are captured by director Varon Bonicos in his documentary, also called A Man's Story. But the film is not just a chronicle of Boateng's career. Over the course of those dozen years, the two men's friendship developed, and Boateng allowed more intimate, personal moments to be shot. In the finished film, which I have seen, the truly personal nature of the picture becomes dramatically apparent. The documentary reveals, for example, some of the reasons for Boateng's split with his second wife, Gyunel. Boateng is shown reading out amorous text messages, which he has found. Gyunel features in the film as well, in an interview giving her side of the story in which she accuses Boateng of not being able to organise his time and putting work in front of family.

It seems strange that Boateng, a man known for his snazzy suits, his debonair style and his seemingly glamorous lifestyle, should have sanctioned such a raw and personal film. And, indeed, when I met Boateng shortly before the first official screening in Abu Dhabi, the designer looked nervous, wearing an open blue shirt and green trousers. He says of the documentary: "It's like being on a skyscraper and jumping off the top of it."

It is unsurprising that Boateng feels this way. He could easily have ordered a film to be made that simply celebrated his own successful clothing empire and told us little about his private life. Instead, this documentary looks as rough as his clothes look smooth. The shaky handheld camera and shoddy sounds are what stand out in an opening that seemingly sets up a typical rags-to-riches tale.

When the cameras began rolling, Boateng was at a low ebb. He was in financial difficulty and his divorce from his first wife, Pasquale, had just been finalised. In the film, we see Boateng rebuild his clothing empire and, eventually, become a designer with a global reputation.

But the film's central theme is not Boateng's success. Rather, it is the fact that, despite the glamour and the riches, Ozwald Boateng is, at the end of the day, just another guy with everyday problems.

"It's a story about belief, what is really important in life, and also I think it summarises all men's journeys in a way," he explains. "As a man, there is a certain expectation on you, and I think a lot of men will be able to look at this film and recognise certain elements within it that resonate for them on a very deep level."

A Man's Story is almost too personal for Boateng. He says he cannot even watch the first hour of the film. "It's very difficult for me, very hard. I can probably watch the last 15 minutes of the film, the first hour or so is very tough because there is a series of moments portrayed in the film and it's moments that you can forget or try to forget. For example, the moments I meet my wife and then you see the love, that moment, especially when it goes wrong, you can say it was never really that. This [selective memory] is a way to move yourself forward, so to be reminded of that is a very powerful thing, because it's not just having a record but also on film. The way he [director Varon Bonicos] films, he's got an unbelievable ability to capture the real moment in time, so as a viewer you are experiencing that moment. So it's a very powerful piece of work."

When I tell the fashion designer that I'm surprised that he has allowed his personal life to become such an important focus of the documentary, he responds: "I think to answer the question, I have a lot of trust in Varon as a film-maker. He's been with me for 12 years. There is no way I would allow it to happen if I didn't trust him. When he started filming me 12 years ago, after my first divorce, of course, I didn't intend for the film to turn out how it has."

The original intention was for Bonicos to film for six months, but over that period the director and subject became friends, and before they both knew it, time was flying by. The 42-year-old recalls: "After five years, I said, 'This has got to stop' and I tried to take him to LA to meet a couple of big producer friends of mine, Joel Silver and Jerry Bruckheimer, whom I knew because I make clothes for them, and I thought that they would discourage him from filming. But it went completely in the opposite direction, and they said you should film more!"

What Boateng calls "real" moments include hearing Gyunel screaming at him on his mobile phone, saying that she doesn't love him, and an astonishing sequence in which the clothes-maker reads out text messages.

"We've all had that call," believes Boateng somewhat curiously. "I think it's very personal, but if you can step back from the phone call, step back enough to see the portrait, you can see that this is life, and because I have a perceived lifestyle it doesn't mean that I don't also have those experiences. That's why I think this film is important. It's almost like dispelling the myth, and the fact that I might have a bigger house and you have a smaller house has nothing to do with it. We all fall in love the same way, we have families in the same way."

Surprisingly, Boateng argues that the roughness of the storytelling is complementary to his finely finished fashion designs. "I'm someone who ultimately can't just create for creation's sake, there's always been a meaning to my creativity, so the film was very much a mirror to that."

His clothes are known for their use of colour and having a certain flamboyance, but as soon as I say the F word, Boateng steps in. "But flamboyance is not the key I would use for it. I'd say I design textiles, and when I first started I actually used very classic grey whites but as I went on this journey and there came an understanding that Savile Row and traditional British tailoring had a significance on my creativity I looked at different tools that I could use to mordernise it and so for me colour was a tool really and for me it was a very interesting tool to use because by introducing it in a particular way I found a way of mordernising some of these very traditional forms and I like tradition because it has a strong foundation that you can work from and you don't have to break it."

Boateng made getting suits made on Savile Row fashionable to young celebrities and not just for bankers and lawyers. Boateng recalls: "It was a very private club, there wasn't much opportunity for anyone with new thinking to be even allowed to walk the street let alone go into one of the stores, so I think what I did was that I realised and identified the uniqueness of that and I knew that the only way that was going to be kept alive, the concept of British tailoring, was by having to change the concept and I knew I could effect that change, so that's why I decided to do that and I knew that by effecting that change and keeping it alive I could effect other changes from other perspectives on the bigger issue of that period of time where there was a lot of finding identity and how I fit into this new evolving place called Britain. The clothes were also helping me find my place and also introducing a new perspective on what now is British."

The film only touches upon this struggle with brief use of archive footage of the Brixton riots. Growing up in a changing Britain had a huge impact on the man who broke the race barrier of British tailoring. Little did the 16-year-old boy who started out working as a tailor before opening a store on Portobello Road aged just 23 know that he would go on to become such a part of the fabric of British society.

This new film will certainly add a human dimension to a celebrated career.

'A Man's Story' will be released next year

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