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It’s the thing of life. No matter how many successes you have and I have had many, it is gratitude. You have to be grateful, says British-Ghanaian fashion designer Ozwald Boateng.

In Dubai to launch his latest ready-to-wear capsule collection, dubbed Black AI, whose initials stand for authentic identity, at That Concept Store in the Mall of the Emirates, Boateng could be forgiven for feeling self-satisfied. He was Savile Row’s first black man and the first tailor to walk the runway at Paris Fashion Week. He was also creative director of menswear at Givenchy and received an OBE.

But, now in his 50s, Boateng is more philosophical about the path his life has taken.

Success and failure live in the same chair with you, because failure is learning. Its always about the experiences I learned. They are essential,” he says. The National.

Ozwald Boateng's latest capsule collection is now available at That Concept Store.  Photo: This concept store

Although this journey brought him fame and success, it was not always smooth.

I went to school in the 1970s and culturally grew up at a time when racism was real. So being chased on the street was a daily exercise, he says.

I had a very strong self-confidence because my father gave me a lot of confidence and he raised me with a certain sense of myself. I was never sure of myself, but put that in the landscape of racism and it was hard. I had a lot of fun when I was a kid, but I was chased because I was black.

Born to Ghanaian parents and immensely proud of his heritage, Boateng realized he wanted to be able to change the way people of color were viewed.

At the time, there were two routes, he says. People might be very angry at racism, or they might get over it, and I choose to get over it.

Boateng’s chosen route was fashion, after it became apparent that he had an unwavering instinct for couture and an almost poetic mastery of color. At the age of 17, he was encouraged to bring his talents to Savile Row, the bastion of British bespoke suit making.

A friend of mine, artist Duggie Fields, said to me: You have to go to Savile Row. My answer was: What, those dusty old men? Why am I going down there?

The creator Ozwald Boateng.  Photo: Ozwald Boateng

What Fields apparently understood, before Boateng, was that if this talented, confident young black man could conquer the dusty old sphere of white male privilege that Savile Row represented, he would have the world at his feet.

At that time, in the 1980s, tailoring as an art form was dying, as designers cut their suits loose and boxy. Despite being at the heart of bespoke tailoring since the 1790s, Savile Row was losing relevance, a vestige of an outdated era.

In contrast, Boatengs suits were beautifully tailored, tailored for a slim, elegant fit, and were lined in jewel-toned silks of purple, orange, or fuchsia. Although he was only in his twenties and almost entirely self-taught, in 1994 he presented his collection at Paris Fashion Week, the first tailor to do so. As the press talked about this dynamic new talent and customers lined up outside his door, he opened his first boutique on Vigo Street, just off Savile Row, in 1995, becoming, at the age of 28 , the first black man to do so.

His dazzling cuts attracted a new generation of customers, and along with clients such as Forest Whitaker, Russell Crowe, Daniel Day Lewis and Spike Lee, Boateng is credited with reviving suit manufacturing, saving Savile Row from extinction in the process.

Black AI Show by Ozwald Boateng.  Photo: Ozwald Boateng

In 2003, he was appointed creative director of men’s fashion at Givenchy, a position he held until 2007. In 2005, he was invited to be part of the Fashion in Motion series at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, delivering a collection mixing burnt orange with lavender, royal blue with periwinkle and caramel with mustard.

Her dapper tailoring has appeared in films such as lock, reserve and two smoking barrels, tomorrow never dies and The matrix, and in 2000 he won Best Menswear Designer at the British Fashion Awards. Away from fashion, in 2008 Boateng was appointed to the Reach committee, to help inspire and motivate young black boys, and he co-founded the Made In Africa Foundation, a non-profit organization that helps development through the continent. In 2006 he received an OBE from Queen Elizabeth II for his services to British fashion.

I got to work, he said. Yet while reaching all of these personal highs in his career, he maintains that he always had a bigger goal in mind, but had to keep it hidden. I was only able to have this conversation recently, he explains.

When people ask me where my design philosophy comes from, it’s so beyond fashion and so rooted in culture. I couldn’t talk about racism when I started, because I would have been seen as the angry young man, and I didn’t want what I created to be confusing.

A model behind the scenes of Ozwald Boateng's Black AI show.  Photo: Ozwald Boateng

As a man of color, Boateng has always considered it his responsibility to excel in his field and open doors for others. I knew that my presence in Savile Row and my concerts in Paris had cultural implications. And to have the right impact, you can’t shout, you just have to be present.

Although successful, the scheme sometimes backfired, as evidenced by the rise of Virgil Abloh.

I knew what I was doing, but it’s funny people forget I was at Givenchy. When Virgil Abloh became creative director of menswear at Louis Vuitton, they referred to him as the first black designer.

In reality, Boateng preceded Abloh as head of a major fashion house by 15 years, which is almost forgotten today. But while that’s smart, he understands why his success story is often overlooked.

I did not position myself like that. Instead, I positioned myself as a creative who happened to be black. I took this position to say, what is the problem? You judge the creation, not the appearance of the person.

In 2018, Boateng brought her cultural heritage to the fore, hosting her first show in years at Arise Fashion Week in Lagos, Nigeria. Unveiling its first ready-to-wear collection at a show called Africanism, it was a stylistic evolution with its clean silhouettes and rich colors now decorated with patterns taken from traditional Ghanaian kente fabrics, as well as Adinkra phonetic alphabet.

In 2019, Boateng released its second iteration, called AI, at the Apollo Theater in Harlem, New York. The choice of location was important, he explains, because in terms of African-American history, this is the church of churches. Everyone from Ray Charles to Gil Scott-Heron to James Brown has performed on this stage.

Ozwald Boateng made his first foray into women's fashion.  Photo: Ozwald Boateng

Scheduled to coincide with the anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance, it was also her first foray into women’s fashion, a decision largely inspired by her daughter. To accompany the show, Boateng had the all-female Harlem African-American Orchestra perform live.

The energy in this space is beyond imagination, he recalls. We were the first fashion show to be held there, and I got to sign my name on the wall among all those big names. Again, it’s back to gratitude. It was a real privilege.

Deeply impacted by the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, for the third chapter, titled Black AI, Boateng doubled down on the idea of ​​blackness and black excellence.

To support this idea at home, for the finale, Boateng appeared on stage with actor Idris Elba. The highly anticipated show took place in February as part of London Fashion Week and marked the designers’ return to the British fashion calendar after a 12-year absence. It is this collection that is now on sale in That Concept Store.

Consisting of lightweight silk bomber jackets, woven tank tops, seersucker shirts and flowing, long kimonos, the collection is decorated with the same vibrant Ghanaian patterns, some literal and others a little more subdued, including an intricate pattern that turns out to be a letter of the Adinkra alphabet, repeated over and over. Colors are bold and invigorating, ranging from zesty lime to teal and red to royal purple.

While marketed as ready-to-wear, the collection has been more bespoke with three designs and 12 colors and is available in limited editions, meaning once it’s gone, it’s gone. . While Black AI represents the third chapter of the story, there are, it promises, two more to come.

Looking back on a career spanning 30 years, Boateng explains that while a lot has changed in terms of acceptance of black people, there is still a long way to go.

When I was growing up, in terms of black representation, the first black British face I saw on TV was [the comedian] Lenny Henry. There were no other reference points,” he says.

So when I got my first medium in the 1980s, I knew what that would mean. I was more than just a designer, I was a Savile Row tailor, and the message was, if I can do it, so can others.”

Now he has people coming to tell him he was their first point of reference.

Updated: June 23, 2022, 04:19

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