He’s the designer famed for reviving Savile Row tailoring in the Cool Britannia era of the 90s with his sleek, jewel-coloured suits. Since then, office attire has become less formal and working from home has taken off, yet Ozwald Boateng believes rumours of the death of the suit are greatly exaggerated.
As he prepared to show at London fashion week on Monday after a 12-year absence, he told the Observer that he believes the suit will be seen as less an everyday work uniform and more as special occasion wear – but with many of those going into an office just two or three days a week making more of an effort and opting to dress more formally.
“During the pandemic, we had two years of re-evaluating everything, and our attitudes to the way we dress changed,” Boateng said. Hybrid working had informed the way we approached suiting up, he added – this time last year, searches for suits had fallen by 34% and there was a rise in smart-casual workwear informed by virtual office meetings. “Now it’s a choice, rather than a uniform. When we go back into the office, you’ll think more about [wearing a suit]. It will be more of an occasion. I think we’re going to make more of an effort,” he said.
Despite his absence from London fashion week – he’s been concentrating on other projects, including designing uniforms for British Airways staff – Boateng remains relevant. The conversation about the death of the suit is as current as ever, and diversity and structural racism remain hot topics among the fashion set. Monday’s show will be an immersive celebration of black excellence in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, with nods to his Ghanaian heritage.
“The George Floyd experience brought a sadness to my heart and made me think that there’s so much more to be done,” he said. “Even though there has been change, there also has to be an acceptance of change. Sometimes, it’s easier to push it away and say ‘can we move on?’. But it still needs to be talked about.”
When Boateng opened his shop on Savile Row in the 90s, he was part of the “New Bespoke Movement”: hip young gunslingers who were seen as modernising the area, cutting through the elitism. “In the late 1990s, Cool Britannia was reaching a global audience and Savile Row was ripe for being reinvented,” says Professor Andrew Groves, director of the Westminster Menswear Archive.
“Like Tommy Nutter in the 1970s, Ozwald Boateng, along with Richard James, Timothy Everest and Richard Anderson, made it cool to hang out on Savile Row.”
But he faced discrimination, too. In his biographical film, A Man’s StoryBoateng said: “You weren’t accepted because you are black,” encapsulating the uneasy tensions that existed. “I came to Savile Row to evolve tradition,” he says now. “I remember André Leon Talley saying, ‘you’re not a tailor, you’re a couturier’. What I was doing was taking traditional values and finding ways of modernising them. That created a uniqueness.”
Moving on to become creative director at Givenchy Homme in 2003, Boateng and his trademark look became a favourite of celebrities, including Will Smith, Keanu Reeves, Idris Elba, Jamie Foxx, Spike Lee, Jude Law, Prince Charles and Barack Obama. He was also in demand in Hollywood (Ebony magazine called him “Great Britain’s biggest import since the Beatles”) and has costumed films such as Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Black Panther and Stanford Blatch’s character in Sex and the City.
Boateng’s appeal was that his tailoring was always edgier than the average suit and, after showing sporadically at Harlem’s Apollo Theatre and in Accra, he’s now back. His show promises to be of epic proportions, featuring 100 creatives, and will focus on the African diaspora. Both thematically and aesthetically, his reappearance chimes with a zeitgeist that seems more open to diverse stories told through fashion. The inspiration behind his current show marks a change from his early days 30 years ago, when he admitted in an interview that “when I first started designing, I never used to reference Africa”.
His name is mentioned by young menswear designers, such as Bianca Saunders and Priya Ahluwalia, both of whom use their experience as second-generation immigrants to influence their collection. “It was incredibly inspiring for me as a young black woman to see someone that looks like me become such an industry powerhouse,” said Saunders. “When I started, Ozwald and his team were very supportive and provided me with fabrics for my graduate collection. His arrival on Savile Row and in the fashion industry had huge cultural significance, and he has inspired many others, too. At that point, Ozwald Boateng was one of the few people of colour in the UK fashion industry.”
Boateng doesn’t see Monday’s show as a return to showing regularly. “When I have something to say, I’m going to do a show,” he says. But he does see it as a restart of sorts. “In terms of me doing another show next season, I haven’t thought about it,” he says. “Let’s get through Monday and see what happens. I might do another one next week… No, I’m kidding!”