Ozwald Boateng: Street fighting man

The home of English tailoring is under threat from chain stores. Can the dashing designer Ozwald Boateng save it? Stuart Husband hears how his controversial battle plan is ripping Savile Row apart
Click to follow
The Independent Online

"My attachment to this place?" he asks, in a sonorous voice that, when turning declarative - which is not infrequent - becomes a riot of glottal stops. "It's sentimental, I guess. It has such an amazing history and it's unique in, and known throughout, the world. It's the home of tailoring and this amazing repository of craftsmanship and knowledge. But let's cut to the chase." He frowns. "If we don't value it enough, we're going to lose all that it represents. I've invested the most effort and money in talking up this street. I've PR-ed it like crazy. Why? Because I think it's worth saving."

Boateng is the most dapper of would-be saviours. Today, he's wearing a soft brown cashmere polo-neck jumper under a slim-fitting brown plaid topcoat with contrast piping on the pockets. His indigo jeans hang impeccably ("Jeans are fine occasionally, as long as they never have turn-ups, but a suit should be the cornerstone of every man's wardrobe," he counsels), and his pointy caramel brogues further emphasise his lean, 6ft-plus frame. His shaved head gleams in the sun. His clothes are all his own "bespoke couture" designs, of course, and even in this somewhat watered-down form (his suits, shirts and ties may be Mod-cut but they're psychedelia-coloured; they start at hot pink or lemon yellow and get progressively more euphoric) he resembles an emissary from a different planet where the beings are ineffably stylish and the average adjacent humanoid has all the élan of a sack of potatoes. Passers-by gape and scaffolders wolf-whistle. Boateng takes it all in his rangy stride; he could give the starrier end of his clientèle - Jude Law, Pierce Brosnan, Laurence Fishburne and Samuel L Jackson - lessons in presence. "I've been 12 years on the Row," he says, as if speaking to a huge, invisible audience. "I've made my mark. I've got my OBE. I've got nothing to prove. When push comes to shove, it's amazing what you can achieve." He pauses. "But this isn't about me. This is about safeguarding what we have in this street."

Of all the young British tailors who spearheaded the "New Savile Row" revolution a decade and a half ago, introducing the Cool Britannia generation to the joys of the hand-sewn - Timothy Everest, Mark Powell, Richard James - it is (omega) Boateng who's kept faith with, and remained firmly rooted in, the Ground Zero of British tailoring. In all his other activities - concessions in Selfridges and Harvey Nichols, catwalk shows in Paris, exhibitions of his work at the V&A, his appointment as menswear director of Givenchy in 2003 - he has tirelessly talked up Savile Row. He seems most at ease in his lushly appointed shop (actually in adjoining Vigo Street), where the ready-to-wear suits go for £800 upwards, or his bespoke atelier, slap-bang in the middle of the Row, where bespoke clients are fitted for their £3,000 constructions. The latter is in an extravagantly draped salon redolent of musk ("that's my scent," he says, and you suspect he's talking bottled-brand rather than pheromones), and is dominated by a redoubtable oil of Boateng by society portraitist Jonathan Yeo.

"Ozwald has revolutionised Savile Row," believes Suzanne Lussier, who curated Boateng's show at the V&A. "He's fused traditional skills in tailoring and expert cutting with a very modern use of colour. His whole life is a success story. There aren't many black designers around, and he's an icon."

"What Ozwald has achieved is incredible," says Mark Powell, who's kept his own base in nearby Soho, as befits his edgier style. "But then, he's always been pretty cool, and he's always believed in himself; he's his own best advert for his own stuff. And he's always had this romantic notion of Savile Row." A theatrical pause. "Sometimes he can get quite Messianic about it."

Boateng certainly seems to be on a mission to preserve his beloved street; what he's saving it from is a matter for debate. Certainly, Savile Row is in flux. Due to a historical quirk, all the Row's leases were recently up for renewal simultaneously; its owner, the Pollen Estate, allowed two of its biggest properties to be developed for "high-end retail". With US "jock" clothier Abercrombie & Fitch opening a store at the south end of the Row and rumours of fashion chain Reiss moving in, and rents skyrocketing accordingly, there are fears that the Row could slowly morph into some kind of homogenised high street. This provoked the recent singular sight of impeccably-dressed, tape-measure bedecked tailors emerging from their dingy basements to protest the developments.

"The original plans had no provision for workshops or cutting rooms," says Angus Cundy, the managing director of Henry Poole & Co, one of the "old-school" tailoring firms along with Huntsman and Anderson & Sheppard (ie, those that can trace their lineage on the Row back two centuries or so). "To us, it's really important that a Savile Row suit should actually be made here - it's a champagne or cheddar kind of issue. We got Westminster Council involved, and they were very supportive; now, we have an understanding with the Estate that any business that moves in should have some kind of a tailoring element."

Many of the old-school firms have formed Savile Row Bespoke, a sort of local preservation society. "We have invited Ozwald to participate," says Cundy, "but as yet, he hasn't taken us up on it."

On the face of it, this seems strange; after all, surely Boateng is fighting for the same thing? But it quickly becomes apparent that the fissures between the old-schoolers and what Timothy Everest dubs the "cheeky upstarts" run rather deep. "There is a hierarchy here," says Boateng carefully. "Certain people are accepted and not others. It can be a little tricky."

It seems that you're not only judged by your length of tenure, but also by whether your business is primarily bespoke (the old-schoolers) or skewed toward off-the-peg retail (Spencer Hart, Kilgour, Richard James and Boateng himself). "Some companies here have absolutely nothing made in Savile Row," says Cundy. "They're calling us fuddy-duddies for not encouraging passers-by or not opening on Saturdays, but they're just piggy-backing on the reputation we've established here. I don't include Ozwald in this," he adds hurriedly. "He has his own cutters and he respects the traditions. One of the tragedies, I think, is that the name of Savile Row seems to be better-known abroad than it is here. So maybe it's good that Ozwald is doing his bit to try and stir things up and give the place a higher profile."

Boateng hasn't always stirred things up in a way that would endear him to his neighbours. "I remember the first time I came down this street," he says, as we move aside to let a dapper old Prince of Wales-checked gent breeze past. "It was on its last legs, practically dead. But I knew that if I opened here I could change it, and my impact has been enormous. I actually changed the approach for a lot of these people and how they went about their business. Take Gieves & Hawkes. They've totally revamped, introduced more fashion lines, let the sunshine in a bit. They saw what I was doing, that's hard fact. I showed these companies how to stay in business and I kept the street relevant. Worldwide menswear trends now are focusing on English tailoring, and I'm happy to take a lot of the credit for that."

Boateng has also closed the street to stage a catwalk show along its length, mortifying some old-schoolers, whose watchwords remain "tact" and "discretion" rather than "lime-green lining" or "celebrity clients".

"He didn't warn any of us about the show," says one testily. "It was a Friday afternoon and we had three customers who couldn't actually get through the door. When they eventually made it in, they were saying they didn't think this was such a good thing for the street, to say the least."

But Boateng insists that, despite the subterranean muttering, he has the esteem of his peers. "There's no debate about my cutting ability, and that's the bottom line," he says flatly. "One tailor here - I forget his name but he's about 80 years old, been making suits forever - he saw what I did with my aesthetic, the line, balance, shoulders, the way a jacket hung. I even cut a double-breasted jacket that wasn't just to cover some fat-cat's beer gut, that looked pin-sharp. It was precision (omega) thinking, and it blew this guy away. He understood. That meant a lot. You can make pink or triple-breasted suits, whatever you want - as long as the understanding and craft are there, you'll get the respect."

It's unsurprising, given his above-average level of aplomb, that Boateng has what he calls a "personal ambition" for Savile Row, something that would be of "enormous value" to the street, that would "secure its trade" and everything it represents. What's less typical is that he's keeping quiet about it. "I can't talk about it right now, I'm trying to negotiate it." He breaks into one of his brief, cat-like grins. "But it'll be big."

Given Boateng's turbo-charged history, nothing less would be expected. He was born in 1968 in Wood Green, North London, the youngest son of Ghanaian immigrants. His father was a teacher and a bit of a traditionalist; looking smart was part of family life. Boateng remembers loving his school uniform, and got his first suit - purple mohair, in an eerie pre-echo of his signature stylings - when he was five.

As a teenager, Boateng would cruise round Crouch End in a Citroën DS with his best friend, Amos; the two would egg each other on to ever-more-absurdist style heights, from sock garters to fob watches. Amos committed suicide 10 years ago, just after Boateng staged his first catwalk show and signed the deal on his shop. "He and I had the same dreams," Boateng says. "But his weren't fulfilled. It was very sad indeed."

It was Amos who had suggested to Boateng that he "take a look" at Savile Row. "Ozwald was already diamond-sharp," says Mark Powell, who met Boateng around this time. "He dressed like the coolest Mod you'd ever seen. You knew he was going places."

The 18-year-old Boateng also met his "inspiration": Tommy Nutter, the legendary Savile Row tailor and designer for the Beatles and Elton John, among others. "Tommy was self-taught, like me," Boateng says. "He was the first 'brand' to come out of Savile Row; he just didn't realise it, or exploit it. He wasn't aware of the potential to market Savile Row as true English couture, but I recognised that almost immediately."

But Boateng insists he fell into tailoring by accident. The details are hazy, but it seems he was set to become a computer programmer when he fell in love with a girl who was in the throes of creating a fashion degree show. She asked him to help, and before you could say "cutaway collar" he was churning out clothes. By the age of 23, he was staging his first catwalk shows.

Not that it's all been plain sailing. Boateng's parents divorced when he was eight. In 1998, with the downturn in the Asian economy, his company went bust (though it was up and running again six months later). That same year, he separated from his first wife, a French model called Pasquale.

He believes in what he calls "the power of the spirit", which, he says, has sustained him through some dark nights of the soul. "My parents don't talk to each other, which is difficult for me. But I learned an important lesson. I tried to bring them back together, and I think I got close to doing that. But some things aren't meant to be. Then I had to start all over again with the business. My strength and conviction saw me through. The belief has always been there."

Boateng is now married again, to a Russian model named Gyunel, whom he met, with typical flourish, at one of P Diddy's parties. They have two children, Oscar and Emilia, and what he says is "quite a traditional relationship. I mean, she supports me totally. The only time she gets mad is when I work late."

That remark may hide a multitude of sins; Boateng is a self-confessed workaholic whose Givenchy commitments keep him in France for one week a month, and whose zealotry for keeping men out of shapeless hoodies is as messianic as his attachment to the street that, for him, forms the last bulwark of elegant defiance against them. "Over the last 20 years I've been perfecting the cut of my suits and I'll continue to do so," he says vehemently. "I want men to look and feel the best they ever have. I've had quite a few accolades but I want more. I've had success but I want more."

To that end, Boateng plans to launch a women's line in the not-too-distant future; he'll also be the subject of an eight-part television series for Robert Redford's Sundance channel. He's entered the charmed circle of people who refer to themselves in the third person (as in "the series will lift the profile of Boateng"). But he maintains that, whatever his achievements, he'll continue to boost the Savile Row "brand" alongside them. "This place is like a haven for guys to shop," he says. "We can't lose it through complacency. Often," he says, stopping outside a leading old-school establishment, "it takes an outsider to come in and help the old guard value what they've been taking for granted."

Some will demur, but it's hard not to get caught up in Boateng's slipstream as he moves off down the Row ("I hate posing," he assures the photographer, before striking a series of attitudes Sarah Bernhardt would envy). We call in at Kilgour, a previously old-school establishment that's been "modernised" under the aegis of Boateng contemporary Carlo Brandelli.

"Worried about who's moving in next door?" asks Boateng of Kilgour sales director Clive Darby, nodding his head toward the adjacent building site.

"I just hope that it will be someone who brings the right energy to the place," replies Darby. "We're all doing different things here and there should be room for everyone. It's a street of individuals, which is rare. But," he smiles at Boateng, "I'm sure it will be fine as long as there are cheerleaders like you around."

"Thanks, man," says Boateng, turning to go. "Got to get on, you know, busy busy busy. Hey, you're looking good man," he adds, indicating Darby's navy blazer and knitted tie.

"No one could look as good as you, Ozwald," replies Darby, grinning.

Boateng pulls the door back, and takes in "his" Row with a sweep of the head. He gives Darby a cheery wave as he exits, making no effort to contradict him.