Ozwald Boateng, 34, is a suit designer. In 1994, he became the youngest tailor – and the first black one – to open a shop in Savile Row. His clients include Peter Mandelson, Robbie Williams and Mick Jagger.
There's no start to how I discovered what I wanted to do with my life. I think the first time I owned a handmade suit was when I was five years old. I've found an old picture of myself, and the suit I was wearing was a double-breasted purple mohair suit, with a purple shirt and a purple tie. I just said to myself, "You've got to be kidding – that's what I'm doing right now and I'm perfectly happy with it."
When I look at how I started and what I have been able to achieve, I consider myself self-taught. When you're self-taught, your learning process is very instinctive and unorthodox. I went to Southgate College to do a fashion diploma; it was good and it wasn't good. At that time I had already sold products to some of the leading stores. 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? There was always a friction. There was this system that they wanted me to work in, but in my mind, I was achieving what I needed to achieve and I was doing it in the way I thought best.
The big idea
I met Tommy Nutter from Savile Row when I was about 19. He totally inspired me to try to take tailoring into a new and modern direction. Savile Row was a dying street and a dying concept at that time. When I looked at what Tommy was doing I realised that the decline shouldn't have been happening. I discovered that what I was doing was actually Savile Row and was where Savile Row needed to be.
I'm a big believer in tradition, the tradition of being British and all the things that come with that, and Savile Row symbolised that for me. It was important for me to help it to survive and evolve into what it is today. That meant still respecting its roots but moving forward. My story, the effect I wanted to have on tradition while keeping Savile Row alive, was a much bigger story than just wanting to design a collection. I wanted to change perceptions. I'm not about breaking rules; I'm all about evolving rules, because rules have to evolve to survive.
The big break
A defining moment was when I did my first catwalk show, in Paris in 1994. Men's fashion week in Paris is a very important date, but when I was telling everyone I was going to show in Paris, everybody said I was crazy. "Why do you want to show in Paris, Ozwald? You're a tailor."
No one understood what I wanted, and I didn't get any support from the UK. But I knew that by doing a catwalk show in Paris I could show the beauty of a traditional suit in a modern way and create a trend that gave recognition back to Savile Row. Fortunately, the French took to me and really loved my approach to design. I was able to get a lot of good media at the show. In fact, it was probably one of the most attended shows for a first-timer in Paris ever. The response I had was the realisation that menswear could be sexy and traditional. It raised questions over why tailoring hadn't been more respected.
Questions that were asked on the back of my show were asked in lots of magazines, so much so that they influenced designs around the world. For instance, Purple Label from Ralph Lauren came very soon after that. And there was a buzz about Savile Row and the new push of tailors on the way. The show was able to capture the fantasy that you experience in women's couture.
More important, it said something actually quite commercial. The most you'd spend on a handmade suit is £10,000, but for a woman's couture dress it's £50,000. In a commercial sense, there are many more men who can afford £10,000 than women who can afford £50,000.
I opened my shop in Savile Row on the back of the Paris show that year, which was also very sad, as Tommy Nutter died before I had the chance to open. There's no question that some of the older guys on the Row felt, "Who is this man Boateng and the way he talks about the Row? What's his message?" But, at the end of the day, they realised that I was actually good for business. People's businesses improved as a consequence of my promoting the beauty of handmade suits. I'm the number one endorser of the Row, a fact that sometimes gets missed.
Some of the most established tailors on the Row came to me and gave me chocolates and flowers and said, "We haven't had this much excitement on this street since when Tommy Nutter opened."
I went bust; I went down. In February 1998 I had problems with my business because of the recession that was happening in the Far East, and it took me down. In the UK, when you go through a difficult time, they don't respond to receiverships very well: it's like, "You're bust – we don't want to know." I did, without question, experience a lot of problems from the trade. What helped me to overcome that was the man on the street that loved what I do. It was mind-blowing for me that my bad news would generate so much media. 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. People wanted to see me do well.
And then, almost a year to the day after I went under, my collection was stolen. You look up to the heavens and think it can't be happening. It was all over the media again. The best media I ever had in this country were when I got bust and when my collection was stolen.
I'm sure plenty of people wouldn't understand exactly how I approach design. I have a very clear vision, so my vision and my picture is what you get at the end. That clarity of vision has given me a distinctive approach. If I designed a table, you'd know it was me.
If there is any advice I give to anyone out there who is a creator, it is to find the concept, the reason why you create, and that will give you the clarity that you need to achieve. Clarity is key: being clear about what you want and being honest about what you want. We can always say we'd like to do x, y and z, but you have to be honest and ask whether that's really what you want.
I think the way you find that out is to listen to yourself. Not everyone is supposed to be a well-known designer. It's a lot of hard work, a lot of stress and a lot of ups and downs. You've got to really love it to stick with it, because it doesn't happen overnight. I don't know, to date, a creator who's had a great success in this business overnight.
Interview by Sam PhillipsReuse content