Decca Aitkenhead 

Ozwald Boateng: does my head look big in this?

He changed the face of Savile Row and rescued his business from bankruptcy. But no one is more convinced of his brilliance than Ozwald Boateng himself. Interview: Decca Aitkenhead
  
  

The rules of fashion are a mystery to me. Endlessly changing, apparently arbitrary and frequently contradictory, they seem to defy all logic – but if one common purpose can unite them, it must be the creation of image. The fashion industry doesn't fabricate clothing so much as artifice – and so you would expect a documentary about Ozwald Boateng to resemble a Mario Testino fashion shoot, less reportage than breathless homage to the designer's imperiously elegant reputation. 

A Man's Story therefore came as such a surprise, I had to watch it twice. It opens with the sort of marital shouting match most of us wouldn't want witnessed by our closest friends, let alone anyone else, and invites us into a private world of calamity – a bankrupt business, an ugly divorce, a catastrophic fashion show in Paris. That was back in 1998, and we then follow Boateng's revival, dressing A-listers for the Oscars and schmoozing African leaders. But we also watch his second marriage fall apart as he discovers text messages betraying his wife's infidelity. It's a nakedly raw film by anyone's standards – and by those of the fashion industry, tantamount to blasphemy – so I ask if he found it dauntingly exposing.

"You've seen it once, right?" Twice, I say. "Good. That's very important. When you watch it the first time, you're like, oomph!" and he mimes a body blow. "Right? But you watch it the second time, and actually realise you missed half of the film. Right? So the thing is, the film's alive. When have you ever seen a film and after seeing it once, you see it again, and realise you missed 50%? It's not possible, is it? So it's unique."

I'm about to say that in my experience of films, that's actually quite common, when he demands: "If I'm to ask you what stood out for you the most, what would that be?" 

I get the feeling the wrong answer would not go down well, but am not sure what the right one would be, so tell him I watched it as a journalist.

"Yeah, well, you see that's a problem," he says, throwing his hands up. "I wouldn't have let you watch it like that. I should have told the PR company not to let you. If you come into it like that, you're not letting yourself actually see the film."

That's why I watched it twice, I quickly remind him, thinking that should redeem me. He imitates me taking notes with a quizzical expression, and I confess I took notes both times.

"Oh this is a disaster." He turns to his PA. "She kept the pad in both times. Doesn't work. Doesn't work." He turns back to me, half teasing but not joking. "Because, just to let you know, how it works is this. When you watch it, it communicates to you on a very personal level. So what I'd like you to do is put your pad down, and watch it with someone close to you, and they will take you on their journey."

Have I broken a fashion rule already, without even knowing? OK, I agree obediently. I'll watch it with my brother – who wore nothing but black jeans and T-shirts until the age of 30, when he bought a Boateng suit, underwent a sartorial epiphany and has been quite the fashion Nazi ever since. "Ah, well, there you go, there you go then!" beams Boateng, visibly relaxing, and all of a sudden he looks happy. "Ozwald's done it again!" 

Boateng made his name as a menswear designer back in 1994, when at 27 he became both the youngest and first black tailor to open a store on Savile Row. Born in 1968 to Ghanaian immigrants, he had grown up in working-class north London, learned to sew at 14 from a girlfriend, commandeered his mother's sewing machine and became obsessed with design, devising a signature fusion of traditional tailoring with exotically colourful fabrics, unmistakable even to an eye as undiscerning as mine. The stylist of choice for new Labour's elite, he was quickly back in business following the bankruptcy, served as creative director of Paris couture house Givenchy from 2004 to 2007, and was awarded an OBE in 2006. His cheapest suit will cost you more than £1,000, while his most expensive bespoke creations have exceeded £20,000.

Extraordinarily striking, tall and powerfully built, he moves with the confidence and grace of an athlete, as if accustomed to commanding attention with physical charisma alone. If the option of feigning oblivion to his own beauty has ever crossed his mind – which I'd guess was unlikely – it was evidently ruled out, for Boateng's office has the feel of a lair and the look of a shrine, dominated by a gigantic, gilt-framed oil portrait, and lined with photographs of the only menswear designer who could plausibly be mistaken for one of his own catwalk models. His voice is smoothly modulated, the accent less urban today than when the film opens, and more distinguished, though he can still switch from boardroom to street idiom with ease. His Savile Row store, which is directly above his basement office, is a high-concept statement of forbidding, matt-black glass where assistants glide weightlessly with that hushed blend of reverence and hauteur unique to high fashion. It makes the rest of Savile Row look like a 19th-century dressing-up box for members of the House of Lords up to town from Gloucestershire.

"When I started," Boateng says, "department stores were either very fashion, or very tailored, so the two never mixed. I mixed it, and they said you're too tailored for fashion and too fashion for tailoring. So I had to move the market. So that's what I did. So I was very unique. And then everyone looked, and said, do you know what, that makes sense, it really makes sense. Now, if you look at men's fashion, it's completely different. That's what everyone does now."

When A Man's Story opens 14 years ago, however, Boateng's business had gone bust, so I ask why he agreed to be filmed. "It's really simple. This guy was supposed to film me round one fashion show. And it was supposed to last a month." But having allowed the director to film the disastrous Paris show, "We became mates. And he said, 'You know what, I'll just film you.' And I'd got used to it." 

Boateng comes across on film as someone who considers the permanent presence of a camera a fitting signifier of his status, so I ask if he enjoyed it. "Look, the nub of it is this: you do not plan to film for 12 years. So it's by some strange default that it happens. It began at a particular moment in my life, and maybe it was a little bit of therapy for myself, because, you know, things are really rough, this is bad. So maybe just being able to talk it out was a good way of being able to deal with some issues.

"At that point I hadn't actually experienced anything going wrong. Everything I'd put my hand to worked. So when it went wrong, I thought, well, I'll start again really quickly. And then I had the shock of the experience of it not being that easy. And actually, if I'd known it was going to be that difficult, I'd probably have done something else. Cos it was hard. Really hard. I couldn't get money from the bank, even getting a bank account was really, really hard. I'd assumed I'd get support from the industry, and when I didn't get it, it was a real wake-up."

I wonder if the industry felt he'd gone too far too fast, or even that a young black man with no formal training in tailoring had no business being on Savile Row. "You know what, I've got to be honest with you. When you're in that situation, you don't want to take on that thinking, because then you're really stuffed. So I didn't allow myself to go deep into it." 

In fact, Boateng points out, most designers can expect to go bust at least once or twice in their career. Even Vivienne Westwood or Paul Smith, he says, didn't truly understand the commercial side of their profession until they were in their 50s, a flair for design seldom coming with a shrewd head for business. So Boateng clawed his way back, learned the business, and even designed an affordable line for the high street – o-z for Debenhams – that offended every fibre of his being. "It just didn't sit right with me. It's a tricky decision not to do it again, because I could make my life a hell of a lot easier by doing it again." And with Versace designing for H&M, there can surely be no shame in it? "But it's a decision I'm happy with, because I've now got my business to a place where I really understand the heartbeat, because I really know the business. There's not many CEOs of big luxury goods companies having that amount of knowledge. It's a particular skill of understanding production."

Boateng strikes me as someone who would hate to work for anyone else, and the film seems to imply that the demands of designing for Givenchy cost him his second marriage, to a Russian model with whom he has a daughter and son, Emilia, 12, and Oscar, six.

"Well, it took up a lot of my time," he concedes. "If I'm going to do something, I'm going to do it well. That's just my character, that's just the way it is with me."

His second wife is an important presence in the film, and their marriage ends as the film draws to a close, so I wonder if she had any say over this painfully intimate record of their relationship. He tenses, and I sense him getting cross again. 

"Yes and no – she saw the film, and she loved it. This is why I keep saying to you, you see in the film what you want to see. So you can fixate on certain points in the film, and I don't like to say it, but the overriding message of the film is not that. It's not the dynamics of a relationship, if I was a good husband or not a good husband. The film is not actually about that. I don't like to say what the film is actually about, because I don't want to influence anyone watching into what I believe it is about."

Yes, I agree, but viewers will naturally be curious about whether she had an affair – which she denies on camera, and he refers to as fact.

"Well, it doesn't really matter." He fixes me with a withering glare. "I'm very conscious that I need you to go and see the film again, because you're asking me questions that are very specific, but the way you've asked the question…" He loosens into a dismissive shrug. "It's like you need to see the film again."

What is it with fashion people? Boateng designs sensational menswear, is friends with everyone from Robert Redford to Sacha Baron Cohen, and has achieved all this from the least auspicious origins, but I wish he'd lighten up. Very occasionally he lowers his guard, and becomes instantly more likeable. When I ask if he cares what the fashion press say, he lets rip with an infectious laugh – "Of course! Every designer cares," and pretends to sob: "What do you mean, it's not that good? I put my life into that collection, don't you understand?" And yet before we met his PR plagued me with the sort of assiduous neurosis I've only ever encountered in publicists employed by fashion designers, and although Boateng strikes me as an intelligent and thoughtful man, I fear he's accustomed to bossing about fawning idiots.

For example, at one point he solemnly informs me, "What Thatcher did was, manufacturing started to die around her actually", as if this were exclusive news. I had asked him about his politics, because he became closely associated with new Labour, in part due to his links with the former minister Paul Boateng, who is invariably reported to be his cousin. "No, we're not cousins. We're just good friends, but we're not related." He sighs and chuckles. "It's like trying to get people to say my name correctly – you just give up in the end." (It's Boa-tang, not Boa-teng.) "I was brought up in the time of Thatcherism, when it was all about going out and making a success of yourself." He was a Thatcherite? He looks at me as if I must be stupid. "Everyone was." 

There speaks a man, I point out, who didn't grow up in the north. To his credit, Boateng concedes this at once, and I get the impression he enjoys the unfamiliar challenge of a debate. But while he's an engaging interviewee, he's a poor listener, either assuming he knows what you're going to ask or telling you what he thinks you should have asked. For example, when I enquire whether he thinks it's true that Britain leads the world in street fashion – a studiedly scruffy aesthetic he has always rejected – he replies, "I think what you're trying to say is, do British designers have a particular creative talent that is unique?" 

And yet, his foundation, Made In Africa, is nothing like the fashion industry's usual approach to charitable work, which typically belongs at the fluffier end of the spectrum. Founded by Boateng in 2006, Made In Africa is committed to the commendably unglamorous business of investment in infrastructure – roads, pipes, railway lines – by financing feasibility studies for major projects. "Basically, the feasibility study is the business plan. It's an A to Z on how to do a particular project, and this is all the money you need to do it. So suddenly you're the finance minister of an African country and I'm basically giving you projects worth billions of dollars, saying this is the plan, this is all the money you need to do it. It's a financeable feasibility study, so all the banks are already attached to the proposition. It's all done. We did an analysis and figured that $400m invested in feasibility studies creates $100bn of projects that in turn create a trillion dollars of value. Because the big issue for Africa is infrastructure. If you have the infrastructure, you can then realise the value. Africa controls probably 50% of everything, so the concept of poverty doesn't really relate to the continent. If you just looked at the country's balance sheet and said OK, what is it worth, it's an unimaginable amount of value with no leverage. If you just leverage it by 5% or 10% of the value, what impact would that have? When you say that, people go, wow, yeah, you're right." 

That strikes me as a rather simplistic reaction to a robustly ambitious proposition that sounds both impressive and complex, but Boateng seems to get impatient with anything less than an enthusiastic response, because when I mention investor concerns about corruption, he scoffs, "Absolute nonsense. Absolute nonsense. Corruption's nonsense. It's a nonsense." He's equally dismissive about western governments' concern to make investment and aid contingent on human rights reforms. "That's rubbish. I don't agree with that and we need to change it. To the person starving because there's food down the road and he can't get to it in time, that's mad. Build a road. Just feed them. Make them strong. And then maybe they might fight and overthrow their governments because they're fed. You know?"

I think what Boateng is trying to do in Africa sounds extremely impressive, and quite possibly brilliant. If he were a straightforward businessman, I expect we'd be able to get to the bottom of some of the more tricky details and issues more easily. But being a creative entrepreneur, he talks in a register so mysteriously elusive that what he offers is not so much an argument as a poem to the power of self-belief.

"So the thing is, it's this – I think what's getting missed is thinking. It's creative thinking. Because what happens is you design, it's a creative process. The reason I've arrived at this place in Africa is because I look at it creatively. Creative people can create pictures in their mind of what things can look like. So when I'm in Africa, I can imagine what it would look like if it had all that investment. Now that's the creative vision. Now, if I wasn't a creative person, I wouldn't be able to see that. But that's what I do as a creative. I can say, listen, this is what I can see. So that's the gift of being creative. So it's just about being creative."

A Man's Story is out on limited release.