in SWAG high profiles issue 3
Interview Lisa C Soto
« When that happened, there were kids looking at me saying “I’m black, he looks like me”, and that helped shift perceptions. That story has been told and it has been accepted. Now, for me, the narrative is about this continent, starting from Ghana. The messaging before was: I am taking this traditional skill and I am modernizing it, tailoring it, designing it, and I happen to look the way I do. Now, I am taking an African concept, I am modernizing it, but what I am also saying is that it has a very important cultural relevance and we need to respect what this is all about. There is a massive narrative of education around this culture that I am hoping the diaspora and people outside of the diaspora are going to acknowledge and understand. «
– Ozwald Boateng
Born in England to Ghanaian parents, Ozwald Boateng redefined the perception of the tailored suit and the face of Savile Row. Brought up with parents who fought for independence supporting the vision of Kwame Nkrumah (Ghana’s first president), Boateng was indoctrinated with the idea of giving back to Ghana and the continent. Behind the elegance, glamour and suits popping with color there has been a very clear and consistent purpose to his work and success. Mentored by Tommy Nutter on Savile Row at age 18, Boateng is known for modernizing the suit using vibrantly colored textiles and a signature slim look. He has also been creating a system of development to support Ghana’s potential growth through the Made in Africa Foundation. We discuss the facets of his 20-year career and his latest venture introducing a women’s line, thanks to the insistence of his daughter. “She is a proper Ashanti woman that one, so you don’t want to argue with her too long,” Boateng states.
Lisa C Soto. : As a Ghanaian Brit, how do you see Ghana today? I think it is a very exciting time. When I was here a year ago I felt that we had a progressive government that has created a platform with the African diaspora. I have always been pro the relationship with African Americans and Africa. I have been in the fashion business a long time — I made clothes for Spike Lee’s second film Mo Better Blues with Denzel Washington and Wesley Snipes — I understood as far back as 1990 the relationship African Americans have had with Africa. It’s a relationship where there is a great lack of understanding of what their roots are. I’ve always felt that if we can bridge the relationship with African Americans and Africa, then both our futures can be linked. I’ve always been blown away by how much they have achieved with nothing. In Africa, we are blessed with 60% of the world’s natural resources undiscovered and we have not been able to make it work. African Americans were given nothing and see what they have achieved.
Africans were taken from their villages and brought to the coast where about twenty-five to thirty percent would die before they arrived. The survivors were starved, weakened; men and women separated and put in these small rooms not designed for people, so another fifty percent would die and then they were put on boats where another fifty percent would die. Then if you were able to survive all of that you got to the other side — they chained you, took your name, and you were in for another journey of abuse. You do not survive all of that based on mental or physical power. That is spiritual.
There is a spiritual power that African Americans have that is connected to this continent. The big part of the future of this continent is how African Americans return and how they are embraced. For me this ‘Year of Return’ — there have been many versions of this over the decades — is about that bridge needing to happen. This year particularly, I have seen the amplification of that and I think the more African Americans come and experience Africa as a whole, the more it is going to make a huge impact. Ghana has made a very great step and I am looking at next year to be even bigger still. I see a phenomenal future here.
Ozwald Boateng : In what ways did you grow up feeling connected to Ghana, without having visited until you were a young adult? I am part of the whole Kwame Nkrumah independence group. My dad was one of the students in the streets fighting for independence. In that generation you were taught to always give back to your country. As soon as I was able to get here, which was when I was around twenty-one-years old, I did a fashion show. I brought BBC, MTV and the Clothes Show Live. They televised the shoots and the show and it encouraged other diasporan Ghanaians to come back. I feel we have an opportunity now and I am trying to think of interesting creative ways, even from a financial perspective we can develop this country in a way that becomes an example for the rest of the world.
There are these things called blockchains and virtual tokens, which are different economic systems that can allow us to build our society in a very different way from the West or anywhere else. We can have our own thing. Like Fela Kuti said: new Africanism. Not socialism, not capitalism, but Africanism.
Ultimately, Kwame Nkrumah wanted to see the United States of Africa. He focused on power energy, building damns, universities. Unfortunately, he was taken out of power for the usual reasons — you can’t really talk about a unified Africa without being judged on such a vision. The reality is that we actually need a unified Africa because we have all of the resources and we should be looking at how to protect those resources. That should be a unified voice.
What influences on your style and clothes have you consciously or subconsciously taken from your Ghanaian background? That is always about the fabrics and the textures. More now than ever I am embracing that. When I started designing you could say that the influence was in the way I used color. Now it is about finding a really modern way to express my African aesthetic. The African component is for me very important. I feel that there is an African expression of creativity that is not being fully understood yet. Be it food, architecture, textiles, there is a raw opportunity to redefine and bring out some heritage and there is an aesthetic that can be created which I want to express credibly. (…) Find the full version of this interview in SWAG high profiles issue 3