Interview with Ozwald Boateng OBE

Named as one of the 100 Greatest Black Britons, Ozwald started tailoring at the age of 16 and is entirely self-taught.  In his early twenties, he set up a design studio on London’s famous Portobello Road from where his reputation as a designer of unique, dynamic tailoring quickly spread.  In 1997 he realised that dream with the opening of his store on Vigo Street at the end of Savile Row.

In 1998 Ozwald went bankrupt.  His self-belief and determination put him back on the map, inspiring a comeback that made him even more successful than before.

To this day, he remains one of the most vocal, respected, and passionate supporters of Savile Row tailoring and this passion lies at the heart of all his work. With a large celebrity client list and having designed many bespoke costumes for film, Ozwald is also an avid philanthropist and founded the Made in Africa Foundation.

“The thing is there is luck involved but it’s a luck of belief. The luck is actually just belief.”

Can you tell me about your background?

I found my interest in fashion when I was about sixteen. I had this very creative friend who could paint and draw with both hands, and she took me to a fashion show. She wanted me to help with designing and making the collection and she asked if I could help. I didn’t know how because I was studying computers at this point, so it didn’t seem to make much sense, but I helped her and then realised I had a talent for it. After that of course I did a fashion course at Southgate, although I dropped out because I was already designing a collection and selling it – so it evolved very quickly for me.

How did you sell them?

It’s quite interesting. As soon as I helped to make the collection for this show I was making money, which for a sixteen year old was quite a big deal. Then a friend said that I should go to shops and show them my designs, so I went to a very well-known shop on South Molton Street called Browns. I went in with sketches and showed them to the head buyer. I said ‘You should buy the collection’, and he said two things to me, which were very interesting.

The first thing he said was, ‘What’s your concept?’ I thought to myself ‘What does he mean, what is my concept? You either like it or you don’t’. The next thing he said was that he admired the fact that I was bullish enough to go in there at such a young age, and recommended me to another shop on the King’s Road called Acrobats.

So I took the concept idea home and I realised what he was saying was ‘Why are you creating the way that you are creating? What is your reason?’ This is very important.

Then I realised that my reason for creating had to be bigger than the design itself, so that’s when I realised that the concept of an idea was actually more important than the idea itself. It’s your driving force; it’s that element and you can’t define it. It gives something its difference – it’s why I opened my shop on Savile Row, because I wanted to take something classic and make it bond – so that’s my concept.

You have lots of ways you can show it as a physical product, but a concept is much bigger. What we are saying is that the need for old to become new is so important. If you find interesting ways of evolving old, it kind of keeps the old around – keeps traditions around. If traditions evolve then you keep traces of it. What I love about traditions is that they have strong foundations, so that conversation I had with that store manager back then was the first foundation of me deciding what I wanted to do next. That’s how I started at eighteen when I got really serious about designing clothes, twenty years ago.

Image of the face magazine
1987 – THE FACE MAGAZINE profiles Ozwald Boateng

I understand that you didn’t have any formal training?

I was self-taught, yes. I fell into the whole business. I was creating; I would have an idea, create it and sell it. As I went along I decided I need to improve my skills and I went to college for a year. It was good to some extent, and in another way I didn’t find it very useful because I was designing men’s clothes and there were lessons about designing and making children’s clothing. I was eighteen and a friend said you must go to Savile Row. I said ‘Isn’t that full of dusty old men?’ and he said ‘No, no it will be inspirational for you and it will help you with what you want to evolve into’.

So I went and I met a famous tailor called Tommy Nutter, who another friend of mine had told me about, although I had never really gone looking for him. But I found him and I met him and he loved what I was wearing and saw what I was making and said: ‘I like what you’re creating and I love your clothes’. He asked if I wanted to come into his store and see how they make handmade suits. So I went in and saw it and I was blown away by how suits were made by hand, because at that point all my skills were on machine.

I had developed my skill and then realised that I wanted to evolve it even more. I was also inspired by the street. My father was a teacher and always wore suits and clearly Savile Row represented traditions and also represented so many things about what it is to be British. I immediately understood that and I also saw where it could go – because it clearly needed a change. Tommy was definitely the first person who instigated that change but he didn’t define the change.

Photo of Ozwald Boateng’s first store on Vigo Street London
Ozwald Boateng’s first store on Vigo Street

If you want to change anything you have to define it. It’s like saying Savile Row is the most famous street in the world for tailors. Savile Row represents that – just by saying that it starts to develop a sound, which is really true, but you have to say it. Like ‘what is a tailor? Is it someone who makes suits or is it really a couturier but for men?

My view is a couturier for men. When I arrived here I said that these tailors are actually couturiers for men, but they are not defining themselves as that.  Once you define yourself as a couturier you have all the potential of one, which means you can design collections, your own perfumes – it’s endless. It creates more opportunities – so by creating more opportunities it could be more appealing to a different type of audience, a younger audience, who still would love the traditions of the old but with something new added. And I identified that immediately at eighteen years old. After speaking to Tommy I realised what he was doing was what I saw myself doing on Savile Row – but I also realised there was something he missed.

He didn’t define what it was that he was doing. He would refer to himself as a tailor and this was restricting his potential and his vision of what he could do with his name and his creations. Clearly he was a designer; he would create beautiful suits with a very interesting cut which were unique to him. His fabric selections were distinctive; the way he would match his shirts and ties was also distinctive.

What was interesting was here was a guy combining fashion with tailoring but yet he hadn’t defined it. That was exactly what I wanted to do, to fuse fashion with tailoring. The problem is how do you define that – because when someone asks you what you are you’re stuck. Are you a tailor or a designer or fashion tailor?

What is it? So I fused the two together.  Years later I sent collections to stores and when I was twenty-one or twenty-two I did a big article with a magazine called The Face. It was a very important magazine at the time, and it was about what makes my suits more special than anyone else’s. I remember thinking that what made my three button different from anyone else’s was that it had a piece of me in it – which again goes back to that undefined thing.

Yes, I had to think very hard, yes I designed the fabrics, yes I’m obsessive with detail and I spend a lot of time developing a particular way of cutting and all those things, but what makes it special is something that all creators have to have – some message or meaning to their creativity, or it doesn’t work. That’s what I put in my work – a bit of my spirit.

Photo of Savile Row London with men wearing Ozwald Boateng’s suits

You were fortunate enough that you created that yourself?

Yes. Going back to Tommy Nutter – to give you some background on how I developed my skills – after I saw him and I saw how he made a product I became very fascinated with Savile Row. I started buying my fabrics from a lot of the merchants along there and I found out who did certain parts. Jackets are made in certain different parts, someone does the finishing, someone attaches the line in the shoulders and so on. I found out who was the best of each one and hounded then for information on how they did it. I just walked in and said ‘Hi, I want to know – show me’.

How were you received?

My dad taught me if you are charming with people and have a sense of humour more often than not they will give you a chance. Maybe not all the time but at least you’ve got to get one. That’s basically how I developed my skill. Then as I evolved my personal skill my business started to grow and I couldn’t make enough suits myself – so then I would divide my suits into parts. I would get the best guy to do the shoulders, the best guy to do the lining, and I started to build my own team.

Even then I had a lot of problems. I always found the skill base in tailoring was a little old fashioned and that a lot of the canvasses that they were using for fusing all the jackets were too hard. The old fabrics were like cardboard. If you look at old tailored suits you could probably stand them in the corner and they would stay standing there for the next fifty years.

So I looked at how to evolve the actual skill of tailoring and I found other ways of doing things, and a lot of those ways were not based on tailoring rules. I based them on design rules, because I would look at the garment and say ‘We need to move that’. For example, there is a series of measurements you make to establish where you put a waistline in a jacket and so the rule book would say you do it like this, but what I would do is look at it, listen to the rules and say ‘Aesthetically from a design perspective that doesn’t work’. So I cheated, and as a consequence of cheating it gave me the ability to create a silhouette which was so flattering. So when you put the garment on you would look slimmer, taller and all of those things and that’s all based on the aesthetic not the tailoring rules.

Tailor rules measure neck to waist, your hip measurements and your chest. If the size of your chest was quite small I would say ‘To balance your chest and your hip I’m going to open the chest up more so I can cut in deeper and create more of a balanced look’. I developed that skill to millimetres. A millimetre here and there can make a world of difference but you would never understand it. I had absolutely nothing to do with the rules of tailoring. I ended up developing a whole new layer to the whole concept of how you make a handmade suit. I’ve got my own style. It was a way that no one had ever done before.

How did you get your customers in the beginning?

I used to make clothes and wear them – I advertised myself. I would quite literally sell suits off my back.

Jamie Foxx at the Oscars wearing Ozwald Boateng suit
Ozwald Boateng dresses Jamie Foxx for the Oscars

Just by general socialising?

Quite literally going to places – going out there and being seen. It was interesting because I have always been quite used to that. People asked me ‘Where did you buy those shoes?’ or those trousers. It wasn’t that unusual to me. It doesn’t make sense but that’s how I did it. I went to Covent Garden and lots of places in the early days. I used to get a lot of media. I sold my first collection when I was about nineteen or twenty to a shop called Sprit in Covent Garden, then they sold it on to a few well-known people and that generated interest.

Paul Boateng was a member of parliament and he was an early customer. He came into the shop and saw my name and couldn’t believe it. So he got me to the House of Commons and I fitted him for a suit, which was great. He was very insistent on me succeeding and I said I was focused and confident.

Did you always have the self belief that you would get to this point?

My father taught me that you should stick with whatever comes to you easily in life. When I started designing it found me – I didn’t find it. I didn’t have to push too hard for it. In the beginning it’s easy; it gets harder later. Only then I realised that’s what life had for me. The lesson is you have got to see what comes to you naturally. That’s what my father taught me, which was great.

Ozwald Boateng wearing a pink suit

Your style uses wonderful vibrant colours, is that something that was within you?

When I first started I only did grey, black, white and navy, so there was no colour. It was all about the cutting for me, and that’s why I built my reputation on my cut. It was probably when I was about twenty-three or twenty-four when I opened my shop in Savile Row and I thought I needed to introduce colour – and it was just instinct. I got bored of using black, white, navy etc. It was also a period of time when black, navy and grey was very modern – it was the 80s.  I started doing bright-coloured shirts and I evolved it to bright-coloured linings.

I had always used bright-coloured linings before but not in the same way. The colours weren’t as punchy and as vivid. It evolved and I really enjoyed it so then I started doing ties and then fabric. In 1990 I got invited to a big fashion show in Ghana where I’m originally from – this was very significant because by this point I had started using colour. They have big markets and they trade everything – they are huge.

The first experience for me was that I had never seen a whole place with black people, so this was a massive experience. Then they have these traditional bright fabrics, which was my second realisation – the way they were put together was the way I had been putting colours together in my collection.  I had no reference point for that and I never drew a reference point to that. It was naturally how I would get my colour palette and put the colours together. To this day it was very interesting for me, like a realisation.

I have been doing this for twenty-two years now and I have had lots of beginnings. But one of the things I have always tried to avoid is too much of an obvious connection between my origins and the way that I work. I want people to focus on my work as someone who cuts beautiful suits, traditional suits in a modern way. That was absolutely paramount and the first thing I wanted anyone to think about.

The next thing was how I was able to evolve that into the use of colour and textures. I don’t want the obvious stamp of what is obviously a cultured background in terms of colours, because then that kind of restricted its potential – like ‘Well, I have to move to Africa to wear this’. But actually it was like ‘No, this is colour, colour has spectrums of different shades, and anyone can wear colour – you just have to go for the right shades. But you don’t have to worry about that because I’m really good at this. So I’ll select the shades that everyone can wear whatever your background’.

I wanted to make sure colour got accepted right across the board. That was the big message there. After combining those two elements the next part was could I have the effect on the street that I had hoped for – that then I could change attitudes as a whole. That’s how someone like myself changes traditions. Not by breaking away from traditions but by evolving them – it was a very important message.  Britain was changing. ‘Culture in Britain’s changing? But what’s it changing to?’ I thought if I could come and do this by embracing traditions that are British then culturally the message was a lot bigger.

So it’s not just tailoring. You have psychology behind it?

Loads. Enormous amounts. It’s not an accident that I opened a shop on Savile Row. I could have opened a shop in a lot of areas and made more money. The significance of being on Savile Row was the most important thing – coming here and effecting a change for the good and opening the possibilities.  The whole business of men’s clothing was starting to go out of business.

Even looking at me – from the cultural background that I had it would have been an impossible thing to have thought when I started, to even contemplate opening a shop on Savile Row. But I didn’t come with that in mind. I came with ‘OK I know what that means but let’s get the shop open and do something great here’. Knowing that by doing the work well the knock-on effects of that would be much greater.

Would you say young people shouldn’t necessarily go to college but go straight to work?

It’s a difficult one, because we are all so different. Would I love to have much more knowledge about certain things that you are taught in school? Definitely. You always want more knowledge. But I think you have to identify where your spirit and your energy is – I think that’s the key. Fortunately for me I have a father who taught me how to trust that. At the end of the day we all have our instincts and you need to trust in them. You can get a sense that I’m quite a spiritual individual. If certain things are fate for you, you will get a series of opportunities presented to you.

You won’t know why. The question is being able to see what they are. Everyone gets them, no one is excluded from that. The question is whether you identify it or not. It takes a lot to go on something that feels right when you have a job. To get big rewards you have to take big risks and you have to trust what you feel – your instincts are usually right. That is particularly right about what drives you in your life. Quite often you go in the strangest door. The direction could be completely not what you had in mind and suddenly a different door opens up.

If you told me when I turned sixteen that I would be designing clothes in fashion, I would have said you are crazy because I was studying computers. My whole life at that point was computers because I had an instinct that computers were going to be the future and that was it. So that was my track. But when the opportunity of something else presented itself I trusted. I know that’s a very difficult thing to ask of anybody, especially young people who are feeling things all the time, but I can only tell you how it worked for me.

Photo of the launch of the Made in Africa Foundation with Ozwald Boateng and team
Ozwald Boateng’s Made in Africa Foundation

What was your driving force when you were just starting?

To succeed – I had that from the word go. Also my father always told me from a very early age that I would do great things. Can you imagine at five hearing that? Maybe that’s a cultural thing but he always told me this. He instilled an enormous amount of confidence in me. For him it was a foregone conclusion. He was seriously disappointed that I didn’t go out and get my degree because my dad’s an academic. He said ‘Oh no it’s all gone wrong, he’s designing clothes – he’s completely blown it’, but after a while he started to realise that maybe I was on to something. I was able to take what he said and know what was right for me. I was very lucky and I know that.

The thing is – there is luck involved but it’s a luck of belief. The luck is actually just belief.

Ozwald Boateng stars in Johnnie Walker’s ‘Walk with Giants’, an online campaign
Ozwald Boateng stars in Johnnie Walker’s ‘Walk with Giants’, an online campaign

Do you see young designers making any particular mistakes?

I think if you want to be a designer it’s a very tough business to be in and it’s changed so much. Before there was a love of design so you could get away with a lot of things, but now we are spoilt because even on the high street you get such a high quality. It wasn’t like that before – the high street wasn’t aware of fashion – but it is now. So what happens is, if you produce one quality it’s covered by the High Street trying to lift it to the next quality. It costs too much and that production doesn’t exist in this country. It exists abroad so it means a lot more investment.

If I were starting now I think my approach would be different. I remember I probably just got the back end of that kind of designer being born but it’s very different now – I think now you might be selected. You would go to college, do very well and it’s almost like some big house would pick you. To build your own now you would probably get substantial help from somewhere. Someone asked me what advice I would give their daughter who’s got a collection, and I said the best advice I can give her is to open a shop. If she opens a shop and starts to design a few pieces for a store and buys from people that’s like developing that way. If you want to do it with your own creations – once you have got a bit of a business then you can go and get the production from these key factories.

Photo of the 2003 movie the Matrix Reloaded
Ozwald Boateng is commissioned to dress the male cast of the Matrix Reloaded

What would you say is one of the most important things you have learned?

Self-belief. If you don’t have that… Five or six years ago I lost everything and I had to start again. When you are at a certain point and you lose everything and you have to start again from nothing it’s the hardest thing. It’s really hard.  I remember my family was fantastic, I’m not a religious man but I prayed a lot.

I had the receivers in my building taking everything away and I was left with nothing. In the end how I got out of the whole scenario and how I was able to continue my business was I convinced the receivers to give me the money to continue. So basically the people who were taking it all away were the people who in the end gave me the money to continue my business. I can tell you now, I have probably never said this before, but the only reason I was able to do that was the support I got from my family, and me praying about the situation and trying to get an answer to how I should manage it.

The answer I got was to talk to them – talk to them about it and find a way. I talked to the receivers and found a way and then that self-belief came through. For the rest of my life I’ll never forget that day when I sat down and talked to them. They were so charmed and so surprised by my response to them that they introduced me to one of the key directors of the company and basically they gave me time to pay. That was a way of giving me the money to continue. It allowed me to carry on and that’s how I did it.

Are you an innovator in whatever you do?

I think I am very honest about where I am at any point. I said to them ‘OK I haven’t got the money’, and they said ‘If you haven’t got the money you are doomed’, but I said to them, ‘Look. you want the money, so give me a chance to make the money back’. I owed some suppliers money in Savile Row and I had to go to them, and I said ‘It’s terrible what has happened but I want to continue’.

They gave me a horrendous time and it was really rough for many years. Most people would have stopped but I just kept on until eventually the changes started happening and the business started to get back on its feet again. I started trusting them again but it took a very long time. Even to this day there are a couple of suppliers that are still giving me a hard time at this point. I had one conversation with a supplier today actually, and I said: ‘For someone who is so passionate about what they do, and about the street, and so passionate about seeing everyone do so well, and who’s the number one PR of the street by a long shot – why is it that you are not showing enough belief in me, even now?’ He said ‘You know I need to speak to my president of the company’, and I said ‘Well, that doesn’t really matter – but it’s a bit sad’.

What is your one life principle?

It’s loving your family. It’s got to be. Definitely.

Is there anything I haven’t asked you or you haven’t talked about that young people need to know?

There are a million things that I haven’t said but at the end of the day it’s down to the individual. My sister has four kids and they are all beautiful with potential to do so many great things, and I have two children of two and five years old. I think, for me as a parent, I try to see the gifts they have and help them evolve those gifts. I think that is the responsibility as a parent. As a child looking out and deciding what they want to do in life, I think it is the same thing. You need to see in yourself where your talents lie, and it could be that they lie in something that you really think you are going to like.

For instance, you type really fast on the computer and it’s always been easy for you. You don’t know why but it just always has been. Then you say ‘But I don’t like doing it because I don’t want to be in front of a computer – I want to be out there with my mates doing whatever’.

You’ve got to see where your talents lie. Then you have to look from there to find the next step. It will generally show itself if the direction you have taken is correct. Really significant to any young person is a book I read called The Alchemist’ that a friend of mine insisted I read.

I have a very good friend called Lawrence Fishbourne – an actor, we all know who he is  – and he told me I had to read it. He said ‘You have to read this book because it’s the way you live your life’. So I read it and it’s how I live my life. I think basically we all have our callings in life and it’s all about seeing the signs. Sometimes you see these big signs saying ‘Don’t go that way’ and you still go. Effectively that’s what it is. That’s a very good book to read. It will really open your mind. It’s the most basic of basic things. You can start anywhere; you can start in a position where you have a lot and you can start in a position where you have nothing.

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