How Tech is Changing Fashion Forever | Emma Barnett Meets Ozwald Boateng
I think it's just been a very interesting time, right? I think so much has happened in this two years. Technology, Zooms, George Floyd, I mean it's a lot, right? For me as a creative, all those things have influenced and touched me, and I think it's just great that we can start to see people again I could do this with you. In this conversation, you're going to hear about dressing Oscar winners, the return of the catwalk, and whether working from home killed the suit. If you've been dressing for work from just the waist up, you've definitely missed this.
The crowds, a touch of glamor, dressing up and heading out. He has dressed heads of state, royalty, and Hollywood stars on and off screen. He describes a suit as a coat of armor, and believes wearing one boosts confidence. He is a tailor, after all.
Now he's back for London Fashion Week. Hello, and welcome. My guest today is the fashion designer and Savile Row powerhouse, Ozwald Boateng. Ozwald, great to have you with us. Thank you,
thank you very much. I have to say, the best dressed man I think I've had in the studio. Thank you, I'm gonna take that. But definitely gonna absorb that, yeah, absolutely, thank you. You should, you have not let us down.
It's beautiful. What is this? This is-- So this is actually a flannel, very English fabric, but the design is based on a fabric called the kente cloth, which is a fabric that is born out of Ghana, and specifically by the tribe, the Ashanti who you had specifically young men who weave it, hand-weave it. Men weave it? Yeah, men, exactly. There's a whole superstition about women weaving, and so there's-- Ah okay, there's always a superstition with women. There's, exactly, so,
and the fabric is always made for effectively chiefs, which are effectively kings. So in a way, it's like a, the kente cloth's like a coat of, your tribe, exactly. Your tribe? So I decided to take that and mix that with English tradition, flannel. Take, and usually it's multicolored, so I took all the colors out and made it one solid color. I use fashion and color as a way to modernize the traditional suit, and over time, I never recognized that my culture, my cultural roots were influencing my choices in color. So my color palette was very African without realizing it was African, 'cause it just, the color made sense to me.
I always went for color that had a richness and depth, because if you have a richness and depth in the color, it means more people can wear it. They will say I, I'd hear many times that I can't wear that color because it doesn't work, and I'd say, well actually it's, that's not really what it is. Actually, it's at what shade? There's like 1,000 different versions of blue, and it's endless.
So it's all about the right shade, so I developed my own sort of color palette or shades which meant many people could wear, and then it evolved from there and then at a point, when I recognized that my color palette was very based in my African heritage, that's when I started bringing more of my understanding in terms of textile into my work. London Fashion Week is back. There's been a break, of course, the pandemic, and this is your first time showing in...
12 years, can you imagine? It's been a while. A while. So are we seeing things like this in the collection? You'll see definitely hints of this, definitely. And this has sort of become my, sort of like my house-designed fabrics, so you'll definitely see that and other variations of it, so. So the show, can you, I know you can't tell me about the designs, but is there a theme? What's the thought behind it? So I did this huge show in New York in 2019, and it was, the show was, actually was called AI, interesting enough, but instead of saying artificial intelligence, it was more about the individual, so I flipped the letters and I called it Authentic Identity, so it was more using the language like this, and so the show itself was this bridge between African-American culture and Africa, and finding a way of bridging those positions, and so the collection really was a real clarity on that, so my show that I'm doing here in London is, I'd say, an expansion of that. Now we're kind of in the sort of, like I said, the sort of post-George Floyd time. I thought it'd be great to sort of celebrate Black culture in this country over the last 50 years.
And it's interesting, there's a company out of Nigeria, funny enough, a fintech business which is home-grown out of Nigeria, but it's a platform that enables farmers, they have like nine million farmers on their platform, helping them with the agriculture business, and they've actually came in and effectively supported and sponsored this event that I'm creating. And for me, that's quite special, 'cause historically, I would never have thought that an African tech business, home-grown, could be in that position to do that. They're about to list on the New York Stock Exchange. So the whole thing, behind the scenes through to the designs is funded and the design has that link. It has that link, but more importantly, it's a very important point, because in the, in this shifting change of time, it's about having a voice, right? And a voice as a designer, a voice in the tech world, there's all this big debate about, do you have enough women, do you have enough representation on your board - Black representation, all this has been a very loud shout for the last, let's say, 12 months, right? And what's beautiful and I feel quite happy about is that the traditional rule of it is, I would have to go elsewhere to get the support, right? And it's great that it's coming from Africa to actually support something here, that's really important.
'Cause it's very easy to lose track of one, the influence, and the creative influence of the culture here, because what makes actually London special, I can say London 'cause I'm a Londoner, is it's the melting pot of lots of cultures. And sort of being able to respect and receive that I think is London's future, and so I feel that this show will be a very good example, a catalyst for that realization, because it's not about hitting you over the head with this is who I am, I'm Black and I'm proud, it's not about that. It's more about, this is who I am, and it's great, and I'm happy to be here and contribute. Yeah, so that's really what the show's about.
I wanna get into some of your designs and how you come to those, but I think what's fascinating with the pandemic is fashion will have changed. I mean, it's always changing, but perhaps this is one of those moments where we don't go back potentially, especially men, to suits, and we were already moving away from them, but now, if you've just been on a Zoom call-- Look, look, I think it's just been a very interesting time, right? I think so much has happened in these two years. Technology, Zooms, George Floyd, I mean it's a lot, right? For me as a creative, all of those things have influenced and touched me, and I think it's just great that we can start to see people again, I could do this with you, right? And so in terms of what I'm gonna do with the collection, there's a strong cultural African culture aspect that is probably more visible in my work now than it has been previously, and a real celebration of that, not that I never did it before, but I feel the time, what we're in today allows and more importantly, I think it's important to demonstrate. I still have the traditional values of my Savile Row background 'cause I love that, I love the tailoring of that, and so you see that very distinctly in the collection, but also there's an embrace of this casual wear, because no one's had to wear a suit for two years.
I think it's quite sad that we'd seen the decline of the suit already, and now perhaps it's maybe gone even more. We've seen in suit sales and all of that, it's down. It's really down, yeah, I mean COVID definitely kind of compounded that, and I think prior to that, there was just birth of sort of like casual wear in a way that it was moving into our, even our work lines in a significant way, but where I position myself, tailoring was never a uniform in my world. Tailoring was a choice.
So people would come to me for special occasions, weddings, award ceremonies, and so the dynamic around how I work is more about pleasing the, finding the ingredient for the wearer for whatever the occasion that you need the suit for, so it's slightly different. It is, but I suppose I'm just asking maybe as well for your view on whether, you know, that moment, I don't know the exact moment, but people stopped wearing hats. When we, I wonder if you think the pandemic is one of those moments, not necessarily just with the suit, but kind of where we get even less formal in some ways, in the way that we dress. Yeah, yeah, I think, no, I think for sure, the pandemic's made us all not maybe paid the same amount of attention 'cause you're at home, right? And you're doing Zoom calls.
But in the same breath, now it's starting to shift. We all wanna go out, and now we're starting to think about what we're wearing, so that's changed. What's interesting is is the purchase on the, online, on eComm, 'cause apparently there was a lot of purchases, but very particular type of purchases online and then-- Elasticated trousers, if you're a woman, bigger knickers. Exactly, exactly, exactly, so that's quite interesting, and there's no question that eComm universe as a consequence of the pandemic has really shaped the business, and for sure, I've had to react to that. I think that's interesting as well, because during lockdown, did you have to do consultations remotely, and how did you find moving the business in that way and trying to make those connections? Can you do it? It was very unusual actually, and I tried a few consultations on Zoom, which I did personally, and that was quite interesting. I ended up cracking a lot more jokes.
I was more funny on Zoom. Because the whole thing seemed so crazy to me, because you're trying to work out, oh could you step further back from the screen, and it's, you're talking to a CEO, Tilt your head this way. you're talking like CEOs run like $120 billion, could you move, could you turn around? I think there is a way to do it.
I need more time to figure it out. Well, and the advances in technology, the idea that you don't need to measure in person by hand, it can be done by machines, what do you make of all of that? I think we're still, I think it's, the tech's out there, I just, I haven't personally been able to experience it. I mean the, ultimately, the best way we'd do it is if there's some way you're able to use that facial recognition tech on the body. I'm actually of the view that the future would be, that everything is made to measure, and somehow, Really? there is a manufacturing unit that, in the way that you're at home and then you have a request of something, and it's made for you at the factory and then sent to you. I know, I feel that it's possible in the future for that to happen.
Because it's kind of mad that it couldn't, right? That all of it is such an estimate, the idea that one size of a type of a size could fit so many people. Exactly. But it's not just that, because the nature of the business is that I don't know who's going to purchase it, so if I don't know, I have to make 20 variables of size to fit you, see? And so what happens is it's designed to create waste.
So if you know the measures, then you don't have to make the five sizes to find you. So that could be the route to a greener future, but I mean big fashion, fashion, 'cause the hugest houses of this, and I'm not talking the couture end, I'm talking the faster end, they still just don't work on any way of that level, do they? The amounts of waste is huge. This is a massive issue. Yeah, yeah, yeah, there's a,
no, there's, absolutely, and, but the thing is it's also a challenge for them, so, unless you're controlling your manufacturing, which a lot of them don't. They may have really good agreements with manufacturers, it's a very difficult one to change outside of creating a system where you can bring the garment that you're no longer working back where it could be recycled. I don't see how they're gonna resolve that issue.
How many suits do you have? Good question. I recycle. So interesting enough, I only have as much as I need in a given time, so maybe, it's maybe 20, maybe 20? Is that it? Yeah, I wear it and I'll sell it off. And I asked that because I'm trying to think about what you said about confidence and what a suit can do. So do you really feel in yourself when you put on your suit, what do you feel? How does it change you? Well for me, it's interesting 'cause I've been wearing suits since I was like 16, so I have a wholly different light, it's like putting on, it's almost like putting on a tracksuit I would imagine, for me, right? So I don't, I'm not thinking about it. But if it's something, I think, there's two things.
One is the suits and having a suit made for you, and then my intention when I create a suit for an individual. So my intention is always to encourage the wearer to be who they are, be in their truth effectively, and so, and I like to support that in the way I cut the suits, and so once they look at themselves and they're feeling better about who they are, they show more of who they are. Suits and clothes are our armor a lot of the time.
They say how we feel about ourselves a lot. I volunteer with a charity, a women's charity called Smart Works where we dress women who are going for job interviews, and obviously we're not tailoring it, it's largely donated clothes, but when you dress a woman, when you dress someone, you help them get dressed, as an adult so not as a child, the feeling it gives them, that effort's gone into their appearance, is extraordinary. Yes, absolutely, and it's a very good point. When I'm dressing a client and he's putting the suit on for the first time after we've done the fitting process, the dressing of that individual, the experience of putting the jacket, putting, helping them put the trouser on is quite a powerful, powerful relationship actually, 'cause effectively, they undress in front of you, and then they dress in front of you, and then that experience when they look at themselves in the mirror is quite something, it's quite special.
Are you on social media? I'm trying. My daughter says I'm hopeless. I'm really trying.
I'm still on the fringes of social media. I think you should stay there. You know? I'm sort of, I understand it's, I need to be more engaged, but it's interesting because I think on one hand, it's fantastic because then you get a chance to really express and there's no, in a way, middle man to your communication. Also in the same breath, anyone could say anything they want. Truth or not, they can just say, this is an issue. Well also,
there's no gatekeepers in quite the same way. If you start a business now, certainly in the fashion world, you can just get people to wear your stuff, influencers, and then it grows. You don't have to have bricks and mortar on Savile Row anymore. No, no, no, exactly, and which is, I have to say, I'm really getting to understand, because the main thing for me is the real kind of, it's always about connecting with the wearer, and I always go back to it. I'm very spiritual about my work.
And so I like that dynamic within every purchase, even if they're not even aware that that's what's happening, once they put it on and they've started feeling good about themselves. 'Cause I've now been at it long enough to be able to say it, 'cause probably historically I wouldn't actually communicate in that way, I'd say, oh you know, they enjoy wearing my clothes, but it's been a long enough time, I know that's what it does, right? And so that for me is the most important thing, and how do you communicate that on social media is interesting. And the fashion world sometimes doesn't have the best reputation, divas and the like, and the best behaviors and the work behaviors. Well I have to say though, I have to say, in the old days of fashion, you had a lot of that, actually.
Lot of egos, huge amount of egos. But I'd say probably in the last five, eight years, it's really changed a lot. I remember going to fashion awards and, of recent, and everyone going up on stage and the speeches were a lot more considered, not so much about what they've achieved or who they are or who they said they were, there seems to be a big shift, and it was needed, because-- How bad was it before? At some points it was a bit, just ridiculous, yeah. There's a theater requirement within fashion, because you're a creative. You're an artist.
So you're entitled to wanna have purple roses or whatever it is, because this is the vision that inspires you to create. But sometimes the performances went so beyond the realms of reality that they need to, What's your, pruning, they needed to ground it, yeah. come back. They need to be, yeah, step back. What's your most diva-ish request, you think? That's quite funny, actually. Go on. What have you always gotta have? Well no, no, actually me, I'm, actually I think I'm quite, I'm very clear about what I want, I'm very detail-oriented when it comes to my creative, but probably my only major diva moment I would say actually is when I was a creative director at Givenchy.
I was in the office design room, and I wasn't getting things done in the time that I wanted, and I couldn't understand. I was very diplomatic, and so I went for lunch with a friend of mine, and then I was saying that, probably, it's not moving quick enough. And he said, "Yeah, but they're French, you know, "you gotta throw a tantrum." I said, "What do you mean?" "Gotta throw a tantrum?" He said, "Yeah, you gotta go in there "and you gotta tell 'em what you want," so I go in, I threw a tantrum, and I got the stuff done immediately. What does that look like, you throwing a tantrum? Well I was, I mean it was quite funny because it was slightly performance. I wanted black tulips.
It's a whole thing, black tulips, I want black tulips everywhere for the stage, it was a whole thing, so. I want my black tulips and I want them now. Basically.
Who's the best person you've dressed? Are you allowed to say? Or a memorable moment for you, with all these stories and all these people? I mean there's so many, I mean there's story of Daniel Day-Lewis, dressing him for the BAFTAs, when he won for "Gangs of New York," I think, yeah, and he came to see me first and I dressed him up and that was really beautiful, 'cause he gets, he went on stage and he won the award, he was, he talked about his tailor but he didn't know how to say it, because it was, because the thing is is when you have that special moment, there's a lot of pressure, right? And so you, well at least it's what I do, I like to make that moment when I come to dress you a moment where you don't feel that, so it takes a lot of that away, and then when I dressed Jamie Foxx, when he won his Oscar for "Ray," so that was great. Incredible movie. Yeah, great movie, and I've become very good friends with Jamie, and so that was special. I would say there's been many special moments. And is it special, of course they win and then you see them, and they look sharp, they look how you've talked about, but is it the actual connection that's made that's the-- Yeah, that's, for me, what's more important is how they feel. Many, probably I'd say, most of the time that I've dressed people, the usual rule is, they're going on a carpet and you'd say, look, make sure you tell them that I dressed you or, and I've always been kind of the opposite to that.
I've always said, look, if they said oh I'll mention, I say look, don't worry about that. If you're feeling good, it will be good. Thank you so much.
And thank you so much for being with us. Until we meet again, do stay safe, and goodbye.