Ozwald Boateng: Where did it go Wrong?

Ozwald Boateng

Bold, cocksure and usually colourfully-dressed, Ozwald Boateng has been a significant fashion player and innovator in both the UK and internationally for almost 30 years. Even people who know little about fashion and menswear are likely to have heard of him.  However, some have suggested his PR driven notoriety has largely been at the expense of actually building a major international brand — something Boateng has always claimed as his penultimate goal.

As we go to press, Ozwald Boateng still has only one shop on Savile Row.  So what happened and where did it go wrong?

Fashion insiders often talk about the extreme protectiveness Boateng is said to show over his brand’s presentation and has been described as a “control freak.”  He once said, “The most important thing you have is your image,” which is entirely true but a heretical statement on Savile Row when Boateng first opened his shop; back then it was a place where anonymity was prized and the focus was on time-honoured crafts. Nobody would have been surprised by the old boys of Savile Row shunning any concept as vulgar as ‘brand management’.

But self-confidence was never a weak link in Boateng’s armament and his Savile Row shop opening in 1995 caused a sensation. Boateng set out with an ambition to not only dominate menswear but to remake it in his own vision. And if any of the Savile Row stalwarts ever wondered how a Londoner born of Ghanaian heritage had found his way to “the row,” nobody else gave a toss.

In fact, Ozwald Boateng was now the coolest kid on the block and invited to all the best London parties and clubs – seven days a week.

Ozwald Boateng: Big Claims & High Hopes

Yet Boateng’s supernatural abilities to create hype, buzz and press have not, it seems, been matched by an aptitude to develop and grow an international brand. A roller-coaster career of big claims and high hopes – mostly propagated by Boateng himself – has seen the man who would have been king of a global menswear empire reduced, at day’s end, to a jobbing tailor.

This is perfectly respectable, and respected work. But it is hardly the culture-defining position the one time creative head of Givenchy menswear (who also had a chain of shops in Japan and looked to open the same in the US), might have expected by now.

Indeed, eight years ago, after a long-running dispute between his Bespoke Couture company and Marchpole – the then licensee of the Ozwald Boateng name – Boateng re-trenched, closing his wholesale business, extracting himself from licences and choosing, he said, to focus on retail expansion. But that never came.

A global financial crash was unfortunate timing, for sure. Yet maybe it was more a result of trumpeting rather hopeful, attention-grabbing expectations in the first place, that his stated intention to have opened between 50 and 100 franchise stores around the world by now has not come to pass.

Indeed, for the time being at least, he still has precisely one store, the gorgeous David Adjaye-designed flagship opened on Savile Row in 2007 (his first was on Vigo Street at the corner of Savile Row). What about the other, more casual product lines once promised? The international fragrances and accessories businesses, either developed in-house or licensed?

No sign of those either. Far from being Britain’s answer to Tom Ford – “I have a fashion empire to build”, as he once put it – Boateng remains a somewhat more humble maker of tailoring and dress shirts. It’s packaged with plenty of swagger – and, as often happens in the world of fashion, that’s pissed off many more demure players in the industry along the way. Two years ago, for example, ‘GQ’ voted Boateng the worst dressed man of 2014. That, to emphasise, is the very worst dressed – more so than George Galloway, Brian Cox or Nigel Farage, who also featured on the magazine’s list that year. Clearly, the knives were out.

One might say that Ozwald Boateng is simply ambitious. And what’s wrong with ambition? Yet critics have pointed out that Boateng has a history of suggesting that world dominance is just around the corner, each failure delivering yet another blow to that precious image.

It is possible his well-made product focussing on colour and slim fitting suits and shirts is not geared towards a wider audience.  The sizable overheads required to maintain his beautiful Savile Row flagship store may take too much effort to allow for the dreams of global expansion. But what would have prevented an empire built on licensing the brand’s name when it was especially hot?

Ozwald Boateng – ‘His Own Worst Enemy’

One insider who has known Boateng for many years simply said, “Ozwald is his own worst enemy.”

For all of Boateng’s slightly shiny, champagne party aesthetic, the look actually works best of all on himself – thanks to his model height and good looks – but it is arguably not as accessible to many others, at least not those working outside the entertainment industry. Dylan Jones, editor of GQ, once called it a “cartoony look” (this before the worst dressed dissing).

Timelessness and understatement – values held dear to Savile Row, admittedly to the point of tedium – are not Boateng values, nor those of his fans. Among these, not altogether in its favour, are Jonathan Ross and many premiership footballers. Just how much of this look does Boateng actually sell? Figures are not revealed. But world conquest would surely require a risk-ready backer with seriously deep pockets. Finding such a backer, and all the more so in the UK, is the stuff of dreams.

In some respects, Boateng is right back where he started – with his own shop on Savile Row, something the 49-year-old had at the still young age of 28. Yes, the business was in receivership within six years. Bankruptcy and two marriage failures followed, each met with the bounce back of a rubber ball. He had an entire collection stolen one season. He was back the next season. He was very big. And then he wasn’t so big again. Yet, all the same, Boateng’s achievement is undeniable. Indeed, while the promise – or, more so, his promise – has not been realised to date, Boateng undoubtedly has much to be proud of.

Boateng, in fact, is a quintessentially British success story; self-taught in tailoring – something many on Savile Row would say defined him more as stylist than craftsman – he was the first tailor to have a catwalk show at Paris fashion week, something that he said, again ambitiously, would “revolutionise tailoring”. He was one of the youngest tailors to ever set up shop on Savile Row – offering a genuine alternative to the old boys’ offer of charcoal and pin-stripes. And certainly he helped change the Row’s overwhelmingly white middle-aged profile. A year after setting up shop he was picking up a ‘best menswear designer’ award in Paris and, three years after that, one in London.

He has also outfitted movies and dressed movie stars for the Oscars and pop stars — Boateng’s suits being very red carpet. In 2005 he had a Victoria & Albert Museum show dedicated to his work and the year after was awarded an OBE. At least ‘Vanity Fair’ – if not ‘GQ’ – inducted him into its ‘best dressed’ hall of fame. And, arguably more important that anything he has done in fashion, is the utterly commendable Made in Africa Foundation, the organisation Boateng co-founded to provide feasibility studies for African infrastructure business projects.

Yes, Boateng has had his ups and downs, but by any account he’s done good.

So why the lingering sense that Boateng has somehow missed the mark? One might ascribe this to Boateng himself, a man who’s very un-British self-confidence – “sometimes misconstrued as arrogance,” he has suggested – and wheeler-dealer chancing has led his head to be more above the parapet than below. Here, after all, is a man who is comfortable speaking of himself in the third person, who has referred to himself as a “pioneer” and explained how “every major designer in menswear” has bought his clothing in order to learn its secrets.

Perhaps nothing has underscored Boateng’s need for self-myth making (and maybe at the expense of building an international business) than his 2012 self-produced documentary ‘A Man’s Story’ – an attempt to chart Boateng’s professional life from the late 90s and the impact it’s had on his personal life. The Guardian gave it one star and said, the film was, “…Zoolander without the laughs; A Man’s Story is a corporate video about Ozwald Boateng, the proud peacock of British haute-couture, in the guise of a documentary.”

As one interviewer once put it “no one is more convinced of his brilliance than Ozwald Boateng himself” – a designer of “transformational impact”, who would “change the course of men’s fashion”, who has proven “an outstanding catalyst for global socio-economic development”, as the designer’s website has it. One must admire the sheer chutzpah, the self-belief of the man. To some, it surely grates. To others, none more than himself perhaps, that is what image is all about. ML

Josh Sims’ writing appears in the Financial Times and many other publications. 

Full disclosure: MAN LONDON editors have met Ozwald Boateng casually over the years in social settings and have attended his shows. We had discussions with him about a feature in our first issue which never materialised.