IN CONVERSATION WITH…
Designer and Co-Founder of Made In Africa Foundation
“Make The Story Bigger Than You. …because of the history there needs to be a real reconnect between us and the continent of Africa. She needs to be rebalanced.”
There are some who will say that Great Britain never had its own racial revolution to forge a national black identity, but they would be incorrect. While unfair to compare with the 60’s and 70’s movements of black civil rights, equality, and empowerment in the United States, the UK, starting in 1981, was a hotbed of racial unrest from Brixton to Liverpool. Race being a topline that was further impacted by cultural nuances and nations of origin that saw persons of Jamaican, Barbadian, Ghanaian, Nigerian, Congolese, Ugandan and others of African descent seeking to find their place in a country they were now subjects too but not fully accepted in. The process of acclimating for some became assimilation and abdication of identity in as much as one can, whilst others sought to reinvent the constructs they were to be defined by. This week’s guest OZWALD BOATENG is the later. Here are the excerpts from our conversation. Tamara N. Houston
Father to Emilia and Oscar
O.B.E awarded by Queen Elizabeth
Son of Africa
It is interesting for me to speak of this, because usually when I have this type of conversation, I go straight to the creative and never give the backdrop to why I entered the business of fashion. Thankfully, we are in a different world now, so I can actually say.
I started designing in 1983 at the age of sixteen. The 80s in London was a real particular period. On one hand, it was racially charged. We had riots in the streets of which I was exposed to. On the other, there was this whole cultural thing happening between music and fashion among the youth. The backdrop was very particular, especially for being a person of color you were expected to be a sportsman or a musician and even then for the UK in those days the numbers were quite low. I wanted to show that we could be different, not always showing up as the expected, so I decided to be a designer. Specifically, bespoke tailoring is what I saw as a way to bridge the narrative of that period.
When I started, Japan and wholesale were everywhere, and the fashion business was very different as well. Scaling meant different things. At that time you had to have Italian manufacturer backing, and I was not allowed in that club, so it was a difficult equation for me to stay luxury and compete in that way. It was a challenging exercise. Going to a lower price point would allow me to scale and have access, but it was a decision. I did get a bit of success early on, partly by chance. A friend was a researcher for a TV show when I was 17, I had a chance to go on it and meet a lot of famous people, like Mick Jagger and started making clothes for them. That got me in the door. By the time I was 18 or 19 someone had told me about Savile Row and that it could be a good place to base my concept of ideas. I decided to go have a look and met a really famous tailor by the name of TOMMY NUTTER who used to make clothes for The Beatles and Jack Nicholson. He saw the suit I was wearing and commented on how I put it together. The cut, the fabrication, the colors that came naturally to me, were not let’s say the norm for traditional suiting. Cool, I thought. Something click in my head where I realized that if I could take this very traditional skill that had this rich connection with British history, and the Royal Family, set up shop there, and give it a different direction and look, then I could affect attitudes across the country. I made this decision at 18, but it took me seven or eight years to actually get my first shop there, on Vigo Street. Yes, when I went to Savile Row and experienced a lot of challenges. I was in my late-20s when I set up. It was tough, but I was so determined to make it happen.
CREATING THE NARRATIVE
To break the perception mold, I had to create a story around traditional tailoring which would be on me. It was one of the things I learned in dealing with all of the barriers is to make the story bigger than you.I made it known that I wanted to reinvent this traditional skill that was dying. No one pass a certain generation was wearing suiting as day wear at that time. The understanding of the need for change was the catalyst of the PR around my narrative. The traditional suit is going out of fashion, and I am the one who can save it.There was significant push back and resistance to that, but I had a very modern way of doing it that attracted a younger audience, that was undeniable. I did a big catwalk show in Paris. In those days there were only two men’s designers who showed; Paul Smith and myself, so I kind of went beyond not just the color point but the defined boundaries of bespoke and tailors.
Those days in the UK you didn't have the financial infrastructure for fashion as you do today, so everything I did was on my own back. I financed the show myself and even shot the campaigns. I knew that if I could do a show in Paris, as a British designer, in the way that I chose to do it, then I could influence menswear globally and my color would not necessarily become a point; that it would be more about the work. In truth that worked in France. Yes, there were the crazy taglines likening me to a black panther, but the majority was about the work and the craftsmanship. When I did press, I spoke squarely about the work, and that became the key component.
The UK was a different matter. In most articles, before they referred to the work, they would address how I presented myself, which was always a huge, huge challenge for me because I did not know how to deal with that. I am supposed to be confident in my work and in my vision, right. I have never compromised who I am or my color. I have been quite distinct about that. The challenge with that, particularly in the UK, is that if you are confident in what you do, then it is viewed as arrogance or that you are larger-than-life, which becomes a problem far greater. In my experience that is one perception of me, that because of my race, has been positioned negatively. Yes, I got support on the work, but it was a difficult media dance.
Listen, I had been dealing with the issue of color from such an early age -getting to school was a problem, so you learned to adapt- that it was not a big jump to identify what was happening. The way I saw it, I had two choices; either I could take it on as an issue and the very particular route about that, or I could focus on plowing ahead and being quite blinkered about what I wanted to achieve and not give weight to the rest. My father played a significant role in that decision. I took the latter route.
AFRICAN ROOTS INSPIRED SUITING
Both my parents are Ghanaian. I, on the other hand, am British born and raised. My first trip to Ghana being when I was nineteen years old, so some assertions and conclusions drawn early on about my work were not established. Initially, in Paris, I was asked a lot if my African roots influenced my use of color? In truth, I didn’t think about it in that context, at that time, when I was doing it. I looked at the use of color as a way of modernizing a sort of traditional approach to suiting -which was quite boring with the grays and navy. I felt that menswear should be just as exciting as womenswear in color usage and techniques towards fabrication, so I took a lot of inspiration from there and applied it. Also, I was very conscious of form and silhouette. Men can look just as beautiful as women if the suit is cut well. That became the basis of the communication of my work. I think that really is what gave the line the driving edged. Anyone can wear any color, depending on the right shade of color.The way I combined my colors, I can say now, is when my African roots revealed itself as a natural expression of who I am, not a strategy.
THE POSTMAN DOES KNOCK TWICE
Everything is about timing. It was after ’97, I had already gone to Paris, funded a fashion show, won the Award for Best Menswear Designer at the Trophées de la Mode, and in a way had been credited with creating a trend around menswear so when DIORcame to me, I didn't jump up and down. I was so focused on what I was doing next for my line that I couldn't really see taking it on in truth. There was an aspect about it that was flattering, but in the same breath, I was challenged to see how I could manage my own label and someone else’s. How do I manage it emotionally beyond what I was already giving? It was only when HEIDI SLIMANE took the gig, and I saw how much they invested in him that I said, ‘hmmm, maybe I made a mistake there' (laughter), so in 2003, when the second opportunity came in the form of GIVENCHY, my perspective was different, and I said, ‘yeah, I am going to do this.’
Having started my company from scratch, part of the attraction of the job with Givenchy was to see how they operate. A major thought was, they definitely knew how to spend money, and that was very interesting for me because when you are operating on your own money, you are definitely more cautious. The best part of the job was being allowed to be creative and not having to worry about the business aspect. They encouraged this as a rule point within the business. Create whatever you want to, and we will make it work commercially. Because this was not my roots or process I could never just design with one lens, without giving thought to the whole picture and how one part would impact the other, but I appreciated the opportunity of freedom it presented. My challenge was to reinvent the French gentleman, and I succeeded in doing so.
Commercially, I was able to restructure their collection and make it viable for a current consumer which added a lot to the brand’s bottom line, during my tenure, just by adjusting how the collections were designed and produced, we managed to save 20% – 25%. For my namesake collection at Givenchy, and the campaigns that followed, I directed the shorts; the first a Japanese manga-style. Pulling on the knowledge and skill gained from having to finance my own dream required me to wear many hats, so when the time came to get behind the lens, I was ready. I achieved this while maintaining my brand’s business, and that came at a cost for sure. One that ultimately required me to put the attention back on my business and my family. There are advantages to being nimble and owning 100% of your business.
If you flow with history and don’t fight with it, eventually it becomes a dance.
I started coming to the states regularly in the early nineties. Back in 1989, when I was in a tiny studio on Portobello road, SPIKE LEE found me. I don't know how but he did. He was in pre-production on Mo Better Blues, and my suiting worked well for the film. That was my first opportunity to work with WESLEY SNIPES, DENZEL WASHINGTON, and SAMUEL L. JACKSON. It opened another important door for me beyond the obvious. I did not have any way of knowing it then, but this started the initial step of an ongoing conversation that I now see as my mission; bridging the gap to Africa. At that time there was a real disconnect between African-Americans and Africans throughout the Diaspora. Many of those that I encountered did not even know about the black culture in the UK. I felt there needed to be more of a communication of sorts, because if African Americans had more of an awareness, then they would know the power of their influence; not just what they currently have but the profoundness of who they come from.
Being African and going to the slave castles, it is a powerful thing. I mean the energy of the space, quite literally forces you to your knees. And then if you think about the journey that took place from village to the slave castle (twenty-five percent would die), from the slave castle to the boat another twenty-five percent, then you know that it is not about physical strength but it is a mental and spiritual strength beyond imagination that wills you to survive. You are not supposed to survive that. You were supposed to die, and yet you are here. If that's your root, your core, then it is pretty profound, so there is already a pride of survival in there. So for an African American to come to Africa and experience that, or just to truly know you can do anything in this world, and never feel insecure despite what you have been told or shown. That's profound, but like all things it takes time.
2006: THE SHIFT
I was able to assemble the first delegation inclusive of HERBIE HANCOCK, AMBASSADOR ANDREW YOUNG, and REVEREND JESSIE JACKSON to have an audience with 53 African Presidents in one. Come and tell them what you want, was my position.It didn’t matter what was said, it was about creating the line of communication. I believe then that if you can get people in a room to share ideas that is the beginning. I was reasonably successful with the additional support of JAMIE FOXX, CHRIS TUCKER, ISAIAH WASHINGTON, and YASIIN BEY, but still, wish there were more African Americans in the room.
I quite often ask myself, if the current 1.1 Billion population of Africa is by 2050 estimated to be 2.5 billion, then what must the population have been like at the time of slavery? Then I think about how the absence of those taken (in slavery) decimated the continent. It is major, so I feel like there is this need for rebalance and that we are now at a time when that is possible.
MADE IN AFRICA FOUNDATION
I am good friends with BOB GELDOF and BONO who each set up these huge charities for Africa. In knowing them I understood the origin of goodwill they each have for establishing their organizations, and I admire what they have achieved, but I was also a bit annoyed. We would have these heated discussions about one, how they would deploy capital gained, and two, the narrative that was being pushed out. To me, their platform narratives perpetuated the false perception that the whole of Africa was poor, that all the kids were starving, and everyone was ravaged by AIDS. This is not true and does not hold up to the reality.If you know Africa and the AIDS problem, as it is propagated to be, then there is an extreme disconnect between what you are told and shown, versus what is the reality. This is not to say that the situation is not important and in need of attention, but if it is as grave and dire as the narratives being pushed, then the entire content, by now, should be wiped out –not thriving and looking to double its population.
As I looked around, there were a lot of those narratives that I struggled with. I decided that I needed to do something, make the story bigger than you, so I set about creating a marketing campaign MADE IN AFRICA that would reframe the dialogue and perception of Africa that would later give way the foundation established with KOLA ALUKO and ATLANTIC ENERGY. The understanding was that in its awareness that there would be business to follow. We marketed the concept of infrastructure across Africa because the issue was then (and remains) that a lot of big funding would not invest in infrastructure. Mainly, they would make issues about risk, of which I was quite tired of hearing, the same excuses for taking resources from the countries without giving back.We signed an agreement with the African Development Bank whose infrastructure goals paralleled ours.
Personally, I was always frustrated by Africa’s lack of development despite its riches. I would get off the plane from Ghana and be properly frustrated, but now I realize that that is, in fact, Africa's greatest advantage in that there is everything to be done.There is opportunity in every area to improve, and that is great because we are now in a place to decide what it is going to be. There are a lot of mistakes that we as a civilization have made in the name of development that the world has suffered through, Climate Change being one of the greatest concerns, but now having learned those lessons we can now go to Africa to make Wakanda real.We can determine what the infrastructure should actually look like, and not be bothered by way of traditional institutions who have historically have been gatekeepers to keep Africa poor. It is the equivalent of going in with a Hyperloop instead of a TGV train but actually go in with a Hyperloop. The economic approach to the exercise can be completely different.
In 2013, I did an event in Marrakech for all of the Finance Ministers and the Central Governors allowing them to see what the investment would do and what it would unlock throughout the continent. Collectively, our efforts raised $2.5 Billion. It was successful in decision but has room for significant improvement. The bureaucratic channels are too slow for Africa's needs, so I am now looking at technology, blockchain, and virtual currencies as the real catalysts for development. The infrastructure graph of across Africa is $4 Trillion, so we need more momentum if we are to support a population of 2.5 Billion of which seventy percent will be under the age of 21 years old in twenty-five years. We, collectively, need to get on with it.
There are interesting things happening throughout, especially what I am seeing in the youth in the DR Congo. For the short film, I shot, Our Future: Made In Africa,for Marrakech I did interviews in classrooms with different age groups. I filmed one class, I think they were about 7 to 8 years old and asked the question; is Africa rich or poor?There were about thirty kids in the room, and effectively twenty-nine got up and said Africa was poor, but there was one kid, he was the only one to stand up and say that he thought Africa was rich.
Then I spoke to 11 and 12-year olds. Those kids knew exactly how wealthy Africa was, and they identified the problem as the leadership not knowing how to manage the money. The 17 to 18-year olds had a strategy. They knew exactly how much money the Congo had. One of the kids spoke to the $40 Trillion the country had and talked to the strategy behind how it could be utilized to transform the country and the people. I was quite lifted after this trip, particularly seeing firstly the future speaking with knowledge and conviction in the DRC.
When I am asked, how we can be of support, the key thing is to go. Just go to Africa. You will find there is everything to do. In my thirty plus years of coming to the states, I can see that the perception and desired engagement with Africa has changed a lot. It has evolved from being a bit of a laugh, a giggle ‘not for me,' to actually now ‘I am definitely going.' For the New Year, I was in Ghana, and there was a whole crew of African-Americans, organized by my friend BOZOMA SAINT JEAN, who came over for an event. It felt like it, the shift, has started. I think that as more African-Americans go and have the experience that they will come back, talk about it, and inspire others. It will organically grow.
I was in Lagos, April of last year at an Afro Beats concert with my kids; my son knows all the lyrics (I don’t know any of the lyrics) and these are artists who have never left the country yet now, because of technology they have a global voice. More than that they have a confidence and a pride. In conversation, I asked some of them if they would like t go to America or come to London and they were said, ‘No, we’re good. We’re good right here.’ The youth of Africa are looking at the world very differently. It will be very interesting to see what the next ten or twenty years will be. Black Culture has a voice, and suddenly the information is becoming more and more available, so people are now are speaking out more openly.
If I had been engaged in this conversation three years ago, I would have had this conversation very differently. I probably would have talked more about my creative instead of Africa; its challenges less its opportunities. Challenges, like a wall, are things that block you from moving forward. Now we talk about them because we can, they are not restricting you. It is a different time. We are in a different time; one of confidence. I can say that for myself as I look to the future of Africa, and as I look at the youth of Africa who have the burgeoning confidence. There is a real cultural and creative language that is being created, and I am very much looking forward to being part of that.