THE DEBORAH ROSS INTERVIEW
Ozwald Boateng: Cutting edge
Ozwald Boateng is the man who shook up stuffy old Savile Row. He's got an OBE, a glamorous Russian wife and a client list that includes many of the world's biggest stars. But is he more than just mouth and trousers? Portrait by Jonathan Worth
Saturday 16 August 2008
Ozwald Boateng is the tailor who has dressed ... crikey, where to start? OK, he has dressed David Bowie and Mick Jagger and Daniel Day Lewis and Robbie Williams and Will Smith and Forest Whitaker and Laurence Fishburne and Anthony Hopkins and Spike Lee and Lenny Kravitz and Jamie Foxx but not Jeremy Clarkson, obviously. Anyway, we meet at his shop, which I shouldn't really call a "shop" – it's the "flagship store" – on London's Savile Row; delicious Savile Row which, ladies, all men should be steered towards with, if necessary, a cattle prod and gun to the temple. On Savile Row no man is able to buy: 1) a checked baseball cap to be worn the wrong way round; 2) a hoodie; 3) large, flapping, stinky trainers; 4) those jeans that come halfway down the bum and put the crotch at the knees.
Actually, when I later ask Ozwald about the worst clothes he could ever be made to wear – on pain of death, and putting clown's outfits and such-like aside – he says it is all of the above. "I'm not into street clothes. Don't understand it. I don't understand those over-exaggerated jean sizes so they hang off your back... I just don't understand it." Oh no, he is going to cry! It's OK, Ozwald. We're only imagining. Plus, I think you'd look rather good. "No, no, no, no, no," he says, which I think we can take as a No.
The "flagship store" is gorgeous, darkly glamorous with the clothes hung and arranged as if in an art gallery, although I shouldn't really call them just "clothes". Ozwald does "bespoke couture". He may even be a "bespoke couturier" rather than a tailor. Whatever, the suits are beautiful and dazzlingly coloured, the shirts are beautiful and dazzlingly coloured and as for the ties? Beautiful. And dazzlingly coloured. To sum up, we are talking beautiful and dazzlingly coloured here. A parrot could fly in and you know what? It would look shabby; it would look like a thrush. Ozwald says he can f make anyone look good. Come on, I say. Rolf Harris? Jeremy Clarkson? He says, "My starting position is different than from a standard designer. You come to me and it's my job to make you look the best you can look. From an image point of view, would I prefer to dress Jude Law instead of Rolf Harris? Of course. But it's my job to make them both look great." I note we are no longer discussing Jeremy Clarkson. Poor Jezza. But what can you do?
I'm chaperoned along a mirrored corridor where a man is trying on his wedding suit – deep mauve, matched with a lime shirt. Ozwald was the first to boldly go, colour-wise, where no tailor or bespoke couturier had gone before. He may, he says, have saved Savile Row: "Until I opened a store here in 1994 (initially at the end, on Vigo Street) it was dying. Savile Row was for old people; it wasn't for young people. But I went to Paris to do catwalk shows, as a Savile Row tailor. No one had previously done that. I made tailoring for young people." I don't think lack of self-belief is ever an issue for our Oz. So it's down the corridor and then I'm led to his bespoke room which, I guess, is where he does all his bespoke-ing, and it's also gorgeous. It is all wood-panelled and chandeliered and not at all like, say, the changing room at Cecil Gee, or so I imagine. Then again, with Cecil Gee, you're not talking up to £1,295 for an off-the-peg suit, and bespoke ones starting from £4,500, or so I imagine. I ask if there is any difference between bespoke and made-to-measure, and then, because he looks as me as if I'm a bit dumb (I'm not! Ask anyone!), I quickly add: it would be helpful for those people who don't know, the idiots! He says: "With bespoke you have a pattern made for you whereas with made-to-measure it's based on an engineered pattern. That is the basic difference." I say that the people who don't know the difference – the idiots – will thank him for that.
Mr Boateng is certainly darkly glamorous himself – a dish, in fact – with the longest legs ever and the most wonderful cheekbones. You have wonderful cheekbones, I tell him. "I'm loving your comments here!" he says. "They're working for me." As it happens, although he now lives (with his Russian wife Gyunel, a former model, and their two young children) in the Regent's Park mansion flat that used to belong to Eric Clapton – fancy! – he grew up in the Wood Green, Crouch End area of north London, which is where I live. He is keen to talk buses. "What's that bus that goes to Finsbury Park?" he asks. W7? I suggest.
"W7!" he exclaims. "That really brings back lots of memories for me."
Or the W3, I add, if you're coming via Ferme Park Road.
"W3!" he exclaims.
I up the ante. On the other hand, if you want to go to Turnpike Lane, there is always the 41.
"41!" he whoops.
There is nothing that draws people together more than the buses of their youth. I suspect it is only a matter of time before we get married. I do not mention the 2B to Golders Green as I think it went out of service in the Seventies, and it doesn't do to age oneself, particularly if you have sniffed nuptials in the air.
Born in 1968, he is the son of Ghanaian immigrant parents, Mary and Kwesi. Mary had a Singer, ran up clothes, and always had some kind of business bubbling away on the side. She was very Ghanaian in that way. "In Ghana, we have these markets that are completely controlled by women. In fact, the economy of Ghana is controlled by women. My mother is an instinctive trader." What did she trade in? "She did many things, like trading VHS cassettes between here and Africa. She's very entrepreneurial." Is it true that she had a purple mohair suit made for you for your fifth birthday? "Absolutely." Did it itch? I had a mohair jumper once and it itched something terrible. "No, it didn't itch, and I absolutely loved it."
His father had no interest in business whatsoever. His father was an English teacher and headmaster who was academically ambitious for all his three children. Intellect was everything to him, and Ozwald went to a private school in Muswell Hill from three years old until he was eight. "My own kids go to a private school because I wanted them to get the best I could afford, and I think my parents had the same view," he says. The school had a uniform, which he adored. "You used to wear these great caps, green and brown, a blazer, a knit, shirt, tie and shorts in the summer. It's where I got my whole taste for the suit." He thinks that school has had a lasting effect on him. "At that school we were served a three- course lunch every day and were taught how to use a knife and fork. There was an enormous amount of sophistication in that school." And any other black children at all? "That is an interesting question, actually. I can't remember. I probably was the only black kid but in that period of my life, colour wasn't something I noticed."
Afterwards, it was the state primary and the state secondary school where I'm not sure he did that well academically. It's hard to tell, even though I ask him straight: did you do well at school? "When you are from an African background that is standard," he replies. "You have to do well academically." So you did? You never had to eat a report on your way home, as I did? He says: "I did OK. School reports were not the side of me my father liked to see, but he did have an instinctive belief in me." He can, sometimes, be frustratingly indirect and waffly. I move on and ask if his father has been to the "flagship store". He has, says Ozwald. And? "He's proud." Does he ask for a discount. "Absolutely. But my father is not impressed by material things. He doesn't come in and say: 'I love this, it's great.' He is more interested in where I am going. I could tell him I'd met loads of famous people but he wouldn't get excited. There are probably only two people in the world that would excite him if I'd met them: Muhammad Ali and Nelson Mandela. For him, these two people are significant figures that really changed the world."
As the story has it, when Ozwald was 14 he spent a summer working in a factory sewing linings into suits, while at 16 he was already knocking things up on his mother's Singer at home. But what things, for whom? "My first pieces were slightly crude, but people wanted to buy them," is his reply. But how did you know how to do it? "It was instinctive. I taught myself. I just worked it out. And every time I did it, it just worked. And the confidence of a 16-year-old who gets it right is outrageous, right?" By 18, he was selling to trendy boutiques, but still hadn't given up the day job, so to speak, which was studying computers at college. "Actually, I was serious about it. My father had ingrained in me that when you make a decision about something you stick to it." But you eventually dropped out all the same? "Yes." And your father's reaction? "When I told him I wanted to design clothes he thought I had brain damage!"
He can see, now, that he was doing just the right thing at the right time. "At that time, menswear was very different. Things were very deconstructed. It was the time of Armani and Comme des Garçons and Yamamoto. Nothing had any formal structure." At 23, he opened his first shop on Portobello Road, and dressed his first celebrity, Jimmy Page, not that he knew it.
"I didn't know who he was. All I knew was that he had this great house in Holland Park. I was making him trousers and I asked, 'What is your music like?' and he said, 'You know, I've done some good stuff,' and I said, 'Like what?' and he said, 'Oh, you know, "Stairway to Heaven"...'" And what, I ask, has been the most memorable moment of seeing a celebrity in one of your suits. He says it has to be the suit he made for Jamie Foxx – "a classic Boateng purple with a short collar" – when he won his Oscar. Boateng watched the ceremony on TV and when Foxx walked to the stage it must have been, he says, "as euphoric for him as it was for me". Well, yes. He also says: "You have to understand the synergy of time, and what to deliver at a particular moment in time that will capture everyone's imagination and that look for him did all of that" – but I don't think we have to go there.
He is passionate about what he does and all he does, which is a lot. He's been appointed to the Prime Minister's Reach committee to help raise the aspirations of black boys. Also, "I'm doing a lot of things in Africa. I've formed a company with two friends of mine called Made In Africa and we are doing a lot of important things across the continent." Also, "I have my fashion empire to build." Build away, build away, Ozwald, but promise me one thing. Promise me no hoodies, no baseball caps, no stinky flapping trainers and no jeans that show bum, OK? Just keep at the lovely suits. He promises. Ladies, don't say I never do anything for you, because I so do.
Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes
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