There have been plenty of plaudits for this fiercely independent tailor, yet some criticise his sales strategy as misguided. He’s determined to prove them wrong, starting with his LFW catwalk debut.
Almost an hour after his scheduled appointment with Drapers, Ozwald Boateng strides into his sleek, dark store on Savile Row, sporting sunglasses and an attitude. Ignoring the arm extended to shake his hand - perhaps the shades obscured his view - Boateng heads straight to the back of the shop, where the photo shoot will take place.
“Let me tell you how this is going to work,” he informs the shell-shocked photographer. To say Boateng is protective of his image is to put it kindly; the man is a control freak.
But what might initially be construed as vanity is in fact a deep-rooted obsession with ensuring his eponymous luxury suiting brand is portrayed exactly how he sees fit. Boateng half turns towards me, a tentative smile across his face and his big, brown eyes almost apologetic. “I like things done a certain way,” he mumbles, before resuming his authoritative tone: “The most important thing you have is your image. As a creator, you have to find your voice, communicate it and then have ownership of that.”
And two years ago, Boateng did just that, closing his wholesale business and extricating himself from his licences to focus on retail expansion and his Savile Row store.
“I know it’s traditional to have a diffusion line and licensing deals but this didn’t work for me, because they didn’t represent the brand in the way it should [be represented],” Boateng explains, bringing to mind the out-of-court settlement over the long-running licensing dispute in 2008 between his Bespoke Couture company and the then licensee, Marchpole.
“When I started there was a movement towards unstructured tailoring, led by Giorgio Armani, but I wanted to create something fashionable. I always had a fantastic client list and there was always a customer for my product, but it took a while for the wholesale accounts to catch up. I had to wait for [stores] to appear [to cater] for what I had created.”
His plan is to open 50 stores globally through franchises over the next five years, focusing on emerging markets such as China, Brazil, Russia and India.
Ambitious targets. But critics suggest he has been spinning this line for too long and question his company’s ability to deliver these ambitious targets. “Where is all the money coming from?” asks one, who previously worked with Boateng. “His overheads are enormous and, while the product is good, it targets a selective customer. And he’s not commercial, because he refuses to diffuse the brand.”
Boateng is quick to defend his position, pointing out that the company’s turnover increased 41% in the year to March 31 and achieved an overall double-digit operating profit margin. The company did not provide sales figures, which are also not disclosed at Companies House. “The luxury business is a very difficult business to be in and I made a decision not to diffuse in order to retain that high level of luxury,” he explains, adding that the delay in expansion was due to the economic downturn.
But today Boateng is in a celebratory mood, gearing up to show at London Fashion Week for the first time after 25 years in business. His Wednesday show will close LFW’s September edition, with up to 100 models on the catwalk.
It’s an interesting decision, given that Boateng only sells menswear - LFW is predominantly a womenswear event - and that he no longer wholesales. But the rationale behind it is to raise brand awareness, as Boateng prepares to launch into other product categories to support the retail expansion. This will include knitwear and denim, but Boateng insists suiting will remain the core business. Prices of the new categories are to be confirmed but will be “in line” with the suits - so rather pricey: his ready-to-wear range starts from £1,200 and his bespoke collection from £5,000.
The public will get its first viewing of the full collection at his catwalk show of autumn 10 and spring 11 product at the Odeon in Leicester Square, where a trailer of a documentary film about his life - A Man’s Story - will also be shown.
For young designers inspired by his story, Boateng advises patience: “It’s hard work to start a label in the UK, as there’s virtually no production and financial support. It took me 25 years to build a luxury brand.”
Ironically, Boateng says it was the most recent recession that allowed him to expand into different product categories, as European factories started to welcome smaller brands and their orders when the bigger fashion houses were forced to scale down production.
“The recession gave me access to factories I didn’t have before. I’m very particular about who I work with,” he says, wishing he could produce more in the UK. “I always try to be pro-British and I manufacture here when I can, but otherwise I go to Italy. I’ve seen the British manufacturing industry deteriorate because luxury as a business in the UK is not fully understood.”
Boateng’s other reason for showing at LFW is that - finally - he can. “It has always been about womenswear,” he says. “I think menswear deserves more attention in this country. There’s a huge menswear fashion business here - the UK is one of Hugo Boss’s biggest markets and Armani does really well, too. I could show in Paris - but I’m a Londoner.”
2010 Shows at London Fashion Week
2007 Opens store on Savile Row
2006 Awarded an OBE for his contributions to the tailoring industry
2003 Appointed creative director at Givenchy Homme
2000 Awarded Top Menswear Designer prize at the British Fashion Awards
1994 Shows at Paris Fashion Week
1985 Launches Ozwald Boateng
Design… The suit as a uniform is long gone. Now it’s about what makes you feel good, and that’s what I talk about first, before discussing the cut,
the colour. These details are absolutely key, but they’re like breathing to me. Understanding the fabric is an experience in itself. I often revisit my archive, which has thousands of fabrics that I’ve designed. When I started, I couldn’t get the fabrics I wanted.
London Fashion Week… For now, it’s a one-off show, but it’s key for the industry to maximise and support different opportunities. If it works, then it could encourage major [menswear] designers to do the same thing. And LFW needs big names, because it’s difficult to get buyers to fly out to London just for up-and-coming designers.
His film, A Man’s Story… It will be released at the end of this year and we are still negotiating the distribution for it. It covers 12 years of my life and more than 500 hours of material, edited down. It’s not about me; it’s about men in general. You come away with a degree of understanding about yourself.
Global retail expansion… I’m very particular about location; it has to have a particular edge, so I’ll be looking at key shopping districts but not necessarily on the main drag. The Savile Row store is a template for other stores, but the location is more to do with a love for tradition than any positioning of the brand.