Ozwald Boateng was the youngest and first black tailor to have a shop on London's prestigious Savile Row, a street renowned for its fine tailoring, where the world's royalty come for their attire.
Boateng also dresses athletic and Hollywood royalty. Actor Laurence Fishburne once said, "When you wear an Ozwald Boateng suit, you become a statesman of cool." Boateng is also a statesman for something else: the future development of Africa.
He joined Tell Me More host Michel Martin to talk about style and diplomacy.
On discovering his talent
"I fell in love in college with this really amazing girl who could paint and draw with both hands. And she is the reason why I design clothes. She basically pointed me in the direction to discovering my talent."
On dressing men
"I think men dress for women, definitely. But also they dress for themselves — if they understand that what they are wearing makes them feel better about themselves. I mean, the big thing for men is confidence. And so I like to believe that what I create enables men to be more confident about who they are."
On investment in Africa
"It's funny. So someone always asks me a question: 'So how did you get into this passionate place on infrastructure?' And it's, you know, quite simple: I just want to open shops back home."
On President Obama's upcoming trip to Africa
"I think Africa has always been very excited about Obama. You know, he just demonstrated the possibility and he allowed many Africans to dream. So bearing that in mind, and bearing in mind that he goes to Africa carrying that lantern of promise, he needs to use that. ... He needs to engage in Africa in really unlocking its potential. I think he should invest in Africa infrastructure the same way the Chinese are doing. And he needs to be more involved. And I actually think that if he can get Africa to a place where it's a proper partner for the world, I think the world will be in a much better place. So if we get it right in Africa, we get it right for everybody."
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later in the program, I have my latest essay. I've been thinking about how we know what we know about people and why that matters. But first, the NBA Finals are in full swing and while the on-court matchup between San Antonio and Miami is heating up, you might have noticed that the off-the-court sartorial competition between the players is as hot as ever. And while a league rule requiring better off-the-court attire is one reason for the change, another could be the influence of a man we're about to meet.
Ozwald Boateng was the youngest and the first black tailor to have a shop on the prestigious Savile Row, a street in London that's famous for its fine tailoring. He's known for dressing Hollywood, as well as athletic royalty. Actor Laurence Fishburne has said that when you wear an Ozwald Boateng suit, you become a statesman of cool. But he's also a statesman for something else, the future development of Africa. And Ozwald Boateng is with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.
OZWALD BOATENG: Thank you very much. Thank you.
MARTIN: I think when people hear of men in fashion - men have been in fashion forever - but they're always interested to figure out how they got interested in not just wearing clothes or designing clothes, but making them.
BOATENG: Yeah, yeah, I mean, my story is quite simple. It's - usually men blame women for everything in their lives, be it good or sometimes not so good. In my particular case, I fell in love in college with this really amazing girl who could paint and draw with both hands, and she's the reason why I design clothes. She basically pointed me in the direction to discovering my talent. So I was 16 years old and that's it. So basically, love is the reason why I design clothes.
MARTIN: Were you always kind of secretly interested and didn't have an outlet for it? I mean, were you always a boy who liked to dress, for example?
BOATENG: No, I was. But I think that's also my mother's fault. You know, I had my first suit made when I was about five years old, bespoke suit. So I had come accustomed to the importance of style. And my mother used to take me to church and, you know, we had to dress our best for that. As well as my father was a teacher and he always wore suits and always looked smart. And so it was almost a way of life in my household to look good.
MARTIN: Now you were born in England, but your parents were born in Ghana, correct?
BOATENG: That's right. Absolutely.
MARTIN: And so I think many people who grew up in Africa are used to having clothes custom-made, right?
BOATENG: Yes, yes.
MARTIN: And so was that part of the tradition in your household as well, that that was just an ordinary thing. Because I think a lot of Americans think of custom-made clothing as really being quite extraordinary. I mean, it's something that is familiar to a very, very small slice of society now in this country.
BOATENG: You know, the suit represents many things, you know. And I think for my father, in particular, you know, in Ghana it meant respectability. It meant authority. And so to look smart in the suit was just - it was almost cultural. Plus, you know, the suit has such a relationship with English traditions, and Ghana, where I originate from, was colonized by the Brits. So through colonialism, you had almost the Ghanaians being more traditional than the British themselves and the suit was a very important part of that.
MARTIN: Savile Row, speaking of which, is the ultimate expression of the kind of British establishment, British style. When you started making clothes, did you always have your eye on Savile Row?
BOATENG: The reason why I chose to set up shop on Savile Row was mainly because I was about 18 years old and I identified it, that there was a kind of something missing from the traditional suit on Savile Row that was made. So I realized that there was an opportunity to combine fashion design with traditional tailoring.
I knew how to make a suit - I didn't know how to make bespoke suits, but I had a real flair for design. And so I realized that if I could marry those two roles together, I could really have quite a dramatic effect on menswear globally. And so that's what I set out to do. What was interesting, though, is when I kind of discovered Savile Row, the concept of the traditional suit had become so old-fashioned and was so out-of-sync with what men wanted, it was clear that there was a real opportunity. So I just, basically, I took it.
MARTIN: How would you describe an Ozwald Boateng suit for someone who has not yet experienced it? And this will either be a very pleasing question to you or just a terrible one. Because it's almost like describing, like, why you're handsome. I mean, that's, you know...
BOATENG: No, no. Well, I think the way to define it - and it's evolved over time, you know. When I first started designing suits, it was always about enhancing the wearer's form and making him be very attractive to women. So in the same way a man responds to a woman in a dress that's very flattering to her form, or wearing high heel shoes, I took that same principle and I put it on to men.
MARTIN: Do you think that men mainly dress for women?
BOATENG: I think actually, you know, I think it's both. I think men dress for women, definitely. But they also, they dress for themselves, if they understand that what they're wearing makes them feel better about themselves. I mean, the big thing for men is confidence, and so I like to believe that what I create enables men to be more confident about who they are.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with British designer and bespoke tailor Ozwald Boateng. Before we move on to some of the other work that you're doing, I did want to ask whether you've ever designed for President Obama, who's known to look pretty good in a suit.
BOATENG: Yeah. Well, I have. He came over to Ghana and the president of Ghana - we presented a suit and a morning suit on the behalf of the Ghanaian people to him. It was his first visit to Africa when he became president, which is phenomenal for Ghana. I haven't actually...
MARTIN: Have you seen him in it? Have you seen him in it?
BOATENG: I haven't seen him in it. I wish he wore mine. I wish, but you would have known if he was wearing mine, I can tell you.
MARTIN: Really, I was going to say, how would we have known it was yours?
BOATENG: You know, it's from the shoulder line. It would have been a very flattering form around his body. So that you would have visibly looked at him and seen a much sharper line. For sure, you would have noticed.
MARTIN: Talk a little bit more, if you would, about the other side of your life. You've been talking a lot more about the importance of development in African business and business ties...
BOATENG: Yes, yes.
MARTIN: ...And doing your part there. Could you talk a little bit more about what you're trying to do there?
BOATENG: Well, for me, it's quite simple. The big issue in Africa is its lack of infrastructure and its lack of connectivity. So if you're originating from Ghana, if you're in Nigeria, there's not even a decent road or rail connection between the two countries. And the impact of having that connectivity, or rail or infrastructure, is enormous in terms of what it does to trade. And so my feeling is really that, you know, connecting Africa with its infrastructure is a key way of changing the poverty position on the continent. I set up this foundation...
MARTIN: You can certainly see in a field like yours, where getting goods to market is the critical piece.
BOATENG: Oh, of course.
MARTIN: I mean, the workmanship can be whatever it is, but if people can't get their goods to market, then you're...
BOATENG: Well, it's - exactly.
MARTIN: ...You're done.
BOATENG: Exactly. Exactly. And more importantly, but you've got to remember, if you don't have the infrastructure or the refinery to refine your own natural resources, then you're never getting true value for the value of your asset. And so this is one of the things that Africa suffers from. And, you know, it controls, probably, 60 percent of all the known minerals on the planet, but yet you still see Africa as being poor and it doesn't make any sense. So the foundation I set up is called Made in Africa Foundation and basically, it's about unlocking that potential. How we've done it, on a very practical level, is we identified that one of the issues of unlocking those potential is no one's ready to put the first dollar into the feasibility plan or the master planning of any project, be it an urban development, road, or rail. And so the Foundation has made it their objective to finance that first dollar.
So we believe that raising $400 million to be spent on master planning and feasibility studies for infrastructure will create a hundred billion dollars of projects across the continent. And that would effectively create about a trillion dollars of value. And that will add another 2 percent of GDP on to the continent and lift about 200 million people out of poverty. So the formula is not a complex formula, but it always seems complex when you put Africa against it. You know, infrastructural plans or investing in infrastructure in any developed country is a norm. I mean, they're investing $250 billion in Russia on high-speed rail and similar amounts in China. You know, we need the same in Africa.
MARTIN: Sounds as though your interests have moved a little beyond fashion. Just wondering whether you consider getting into public service yourself?
BOATENG: No, it's - listen - you know, it's funny. Someone always asks me the question, so how did you get into this passionate place on infrastructure. And it's, you know, it's quite simple. I just want to open shops back home. I get, you know, I get asked the question all the time, but there's - the surroundings that I require to have my own store, in say, Accra, requires me to build the environment for many stores to have the one store. So once you're at that place, then you start to say - you look at the fundamentals and you ask yourself, what's stopping that from happening.
And then you realize that to do that, you need to do the right master planning and right feasibility planning for it to come off the ground. And then you realize, once you get to that point, you realize the overall problem. So I, kind of, was taken on a journey to this. I just - I love creating clothes and designing. But one thing as a designer and what we get taught - and you learn that very early on - is this, your ability to look at cloth and imagining what it can be. It's like every single designer is taught that and it's a part of their being. So once they can visualize what it can become, then suddenly, then their guns are blazing. And so that's effectively what's happened with me in regards to Africa. It started off with just looking at a plot of land and saying, what can I make it, and then it grew from there.
MARTIN: Sounds like public service.
BOATENG: No, no no, I'm a designer. I'm a designer. I will always be a designer.
MARTIN: Okay, we'll check back with you.
BOATENG: I love my catwalk shows.
MARTIN: We'll come back, check back with you.
MARTIN: Remember we had this conversation. Well, speaking of which, you know, President Obama is set to visit Africa later this month. He'll be - he's set to go to Senegal, South Africa, and Tanzania. Recognizing that, you know, staying in your lane for now, I just wondered if you had some advice or hope for the president when he - he's obviously no stranger to the continent...
BOATENG: No, no, and I...
MARTIN: ...But is there something in particular you wish he would focus on?
BOATENG: I actually, I have got some advice for him, actually. I think I've got a really good piece of advice. I think Africa has always been very excited about Obama. I mean, you know, he just demonstrated the possibility and he allowed many Africans to dream. So bearing that in mind and bearing in mind that he goes to Africa carrying that lantern of promise, he needs to use that. And I think what he needs to do is, I think he needs to engage in Africa really unlocking its potential. I think he should invest in African infrastructure, the same way the Chinese are doing. And he needs to be more involved. And I actually think that if he can get Africa to a place where it's a proper partner for the world, I think the world will be in a much better place. So if we get it right in Africa, we get it right for everybody.
MARTIN: And he should wear your suit.
BOATENG: Of course.
BOATENG: I want him to wear my suit. Could you put that in for me? Good tip.
MARTIN: Wear the man's suit.
BOATENG: Say, that suit that I gave you a few years back, could you wear that suit when you come to Africa? Could we do that?
MARTIN: Could we do that, please? We want to see...
BOATENG: Please, yeah, I mean...
MARTIN: ...The suit, yeah.
BOATENG: ...That would be...
BOATENG: ...That would be the ultimate treat.
MARTIN: Exactly. Ozwald Boateng is a designer. He's the founder of the Made in Africa Foundation. And he was kind enough to join us from the BBC Studios in London. Ozwald Boateng, thank you so much for speaking with us.
BOATENG: Thank you very much.
MARTIN: I hope we'll speak again.
BOATENG: Absolutely. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.