Well, if you press me, I suppose the words, "You look beautiful out of that suit," might be even better. But as long as fine feathers make fine birds, Ozwald Boateng will be in hot demand. In the British fashion world, he sticks out like a great African flamingo in a field of discreetly competent thrushes and crows. Should you happen to see a bloke cruising the street in a skinny purple suit like a mobile aubergine, or sitting on a train adjusting the acid-green double-cuffs beneath his double-breasted, fuchsia- lined, ash-grey whistle, you needn't wonder who is responsible. Ozwald Boateng has contrived, through much chutzpah and controversy, to bring a peacock strain to the British male in the Nineties. He dresses rock stars such as Mick Jagger, Peter Andre, Errol Brown, Robbie Williams and George Michael; television people such as Jonathan Ross and Mariella Frostrup and even MPs such as Peter Mandelson and Paul Boateng, about whose surname he is sick of answering questions, since they are not related.
His company logo is a tailor's dummy with white, outstretched angel wings - a couture version of Anthony Gormley's 60ft Angel of the North in Gateshead. Like Gormley, Mr Boateng is an obsessive sculptor of the human figure, wrenching it into all manner of angular constructions, using his own long, pipecleaner frame as a template. In the flesh, he is immensely striking, his eyes piercing behind rectangular Joe 90 spectacles, his matt-black cotton shirt glowing, his cuffs and fingers ablaze with silver jewellery. Today's suit is, from a distance, a simple black two-piece. Close-up, its soft jersey material is cross-hatched with a zigzag pattern and veined with a tiny silver lame thread. For one moment, you'd have sworn Mr Boateng was the coolest man on Earth.
He is both a designer and a tailor, and therein lies the trouble. The inhabitants of Savile Row do not, as a rule, like to soil their hands with fashion-designer nonsense or send their stuff down Parisian catwalks; the chaps at Huntsman and Alexandre and Gieves & Hawkes, whose forebears made bespoke suits for the Duke of Wellington, the cutters and seam-stitchers you can glimpse cross-legged, plying their needles, in the basement of Kilgour French and Stanley, believe themselves to be involved in a more timeless enterprise than the fly-by-night confections, the dandy velvets and Seventies safari jackets that grace the pages of Arena and GQ. Into their museum of tradition Boateng and his fuchsia mohair whatnots came as a shock. Did he fit in?
"There's a dinner every year for all the Savile Row tailors, the closed club of tailoring, and I get invited every year," he said with satisfaction. "I think they respect what I've done. 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.' There's a certain amount of true respect for my approach as a tailor."
To be absolutely pedantic, Mr Boateng isn't actually on the Row; his address is 9 Vigo Street, just on the corner, opposite Gieves & Hawkes - an appropriate symbol of how he's simultaneously part of the tailors' inner sanctum and at one remove from it. "To me the Row is the heartbeat of tradition, but it was dying. Shops were closing down, tailors were going out of business. It was starting to lose that cachet it once had. A lot of people who'd heard of it didn't even know where it was. It was painful. And now people are coming back because a few people like myself are pushing the concept."
And nearly going out of business themselves as a result. Boateng hit the news pages in the first week of April this year, when his company went into receivership, owing the bank pounds 50,000, after two big orders from Japan and Hong Kong collapsed. He survived by striking a deal with Debenhams, the department store group, to design a "diffusion range" of clothes with his signature features - slender lines, skinny lapels, in-yer-face colours - but at affordable prices. You can hear sniggers of Schadenfreude all over London; it's as if Marco Pierre White had signed up with Pizza Hut. Undismayed, he explains how linking up with the chainstore means he can buy expensive cloth in any quantities and at lower prices without worrying about minimum-order restrictions. "It helps my main line," he explains, bafflingly. He is concentrating his efforts on the new company, Ozwald Boateng Bespoke Couture, which has risen phoenix-like from the old operation. He wants it to be "a fusion of traditional tailoring and high fashion". But Ozwald, I say, "bespoke" means specially ordered to suit one person's measurements. You can't have a "bespoke range". It's a contradiction in terms. "I just want my ready-to-wear to be as close to bespoke as possible," he says with finality.
I boned up, pre-interview, on Hardy Amies's The Englishman's Suit, a small but doctrinaire little history of tailoring, in which the word "correct" thwacks down again and again like a headmaster's cane: three buttons is correct, with only the middle one done up; shirts must be in pale colours (not white); braces are imperative, belts are not. Amies lives for standards and rules. How correct is Ozwald Boateng?
"I'm completely correct," he says, like a duchess whose virtue has been questioned. "I'm one million per cent correct. Even the cloth I use is correct. It's just that I've translated it, I've made it a little more modern. If you can get past the colour and look at the style of the jacket, it's incredibly traditional. A designer will look at a suit and say, 'I'd like to create this look' or 'I'd like to make that lapel wider'. A tailor will look at a suit and say, 'The shoulder-line needs more balance,' or 'How's that roll on the shoulder working?' Or, 'Is it abiding by the rules of balance?' I use my tailoring skills to make those rules work, and then use my designer side."
Ask where all this correctness came from and Mr Boateng gets a little grudging about details. He was self-taught, he says, and leaves it a mystery how exactly he came to open a shop in Portobello Road, selling his own designs, at the tender age of 23, and how he traded up to Savile Row two years later. He was born in 1968 in Wood Green, north London, to Ghanaian immigrants Kwesi Boateng, a teacher, and his wife, Mary. "My father was incredibly academic," says Ozwald. "His future plan for me was very clear. It was, 'You gotta be a lawyer, then go into politics.' So when I veered off and wanted to be a designer, he said, 'You're crazy.' It took years to convince him it was a good decision." The young Ozwald fell into design by a romantic caprice of Fate. "I was at Southgate College, studying to become a computer programmer, when I fell in love with this girl, my first big love. She showed me what it was to be creative. She was incredibly artistic, she could paint, sculpt, design clothes, everything. 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."
One reason was that his mother had been a freelance seamstress for years, even trading between Ghana and London. "She made clothes for all the family, did piecework for factories, repaired garments. There were always sewing machines around the house although I never went near them." Conquering his macho distaste, Boateng was introduced to the mysteries of the Singer portable by the arty girlfriend and started making his own stuff. "I used to buy eccentric fabric in little shops - lots of Dutch printed cotton with interesting designs - and make these crazy trousers and jackets," he says. "What stunned me was, when I wore them, people actually wanted to buy them. I realised I had a talent, so I went to college to do a fashion diploma in making clothes. By the time I was 18, I was already designing and making to a high level."
For a chap growing up in the early Eighties, in a London full of New Romantics and Goths and Duran Duran clones, Boateng was not an obvious future fashion icon. His clothes came mostly, he says, from Mr Byrite. His earliest style statement had been at 12, when he attended his sister's wedding in "a tailored three-piece brown suit in Prince of Wales check. I had an Afro hairstyle as well, I think."
Imagine. At 18, he shaved his head and got serious. "My own look hasn't changed radically in the last 12 years," he says. "I've always been very sculpted and structural in my approach to tailoring," meaning (I think) that he's always regarded his body as a sculpted entity rather than a mass of organs and neuroses covered with skin, the way the rest of us regard ours. Boateng is a walking embodiment of what the Italians call la bella figura, even though his particular figura - if he were a sculpture, it would be a black Giacometti - isn't easy to copy. And, of course, he's always known it. Former friends of Boateng remember how he used to cruise around Crouch End in a low-slung Citroen with his best buddy, Amos, two impossibly striking black men, both fanatical about clothes, embarked on a career mission together, "the biggest posers you've ever seen". Boateng moved to Notting Hill, opened a shop in Portobello, married a French model called Pasquale and became a consultant to the designer Joe Casely-Hayford.
Today, embroiled in a divorce settlement with Pasquale, and having narrowly survived commercial disaster, Ozwald Boateng is a wiser and very relieved man. "I was going through emotional turmoil at the beginning of the year, but the whole experience has been enlightening for me," he says. "I've become a lot more spiritual as a result. I've started praying." To whom? "Oh ... praying on every level," he says vaguely. "My ex-wife is a Buddhist, and my mother and sister are born-again Christians. Personally, I'm undecided. You see, I always thought I'd move forward." Briefly abandoning his naturally egotistical, top-businessman schtick, he begins to meditate aloud. "You spend your life pushing for this dream. Then you come unstuck and you wonder: why isn't this working? You get tested. We all go through it. The test is to look inside for reasons why it happened. So I looked inside myself and said, Why are you doing what you're doing? The answer was, Because I love what I'm doing. And if you love something enough, you have to be able to let it go. And as a consequence I was allowed to move forward."
It's a leitmotif of his conversation, this constant "moving", just as his promotional films are full of Boateng walking, being carried or running away from racists, rivals, police and predatory women. His life is all about travelling and getting somewhere, whether it's his parents arriving from Ghana, his own journey from Wood Green to Notting Hill to Savile Row - or his clothes, as he sends them off on Parisian walkabout, along the catwalks of the Cirque d'Hiver. It's hard to imagine him slowing down, no matter what warning lights may flash from the T-junctions of the futureReuse content