The first thing that hits you is his suit. It is immaculate. So well cut, it could be painted on. As he rises to greet his guests, his shoes catch the eye. They accompany the suit well, perfectly in fact. They’re just simple black brogues – nothing too flashy, nothing too ostentatious. Ozwald Boateng is a man who seems to keep things simple. That is until you look beneath the surface to realise why he’s one of the most successful male designers Britain has ever produced, a bona fide cultural icon and a bloody nice bloke to boot.
“There’s no dispute about what impact I’ve had on the street,” begins Boateng. “There’s no dispute about the impact I’ve had on menswear. There’s no question that when I started, menswear was on a very different path to what it is on today. There’s a greater understanding of using the craftsmanship of traditional tailoring and design. There’s more of a marriage. Before, there was no marriage.”
Entirely self taught, the son of Ghanaian immigrants, the London-raised designer had initially set a design studio on London’s Portobello Road when he was 23. His dream was to modernise tailoring, a dream he had partially realised by the time he had met the film’s director, Varon Bonicos. Across the time-span of A Man’s Story, Bonicos travelled with Boateng across four continents, going to countries as diverse as France, United Arab Emirates, the United States, Russia, China, and Ghana.
Meeting Boateng was an enlightening experience for Bonicos. With over two decades in the film industry and thousands of remarkable people crossing his path, Bonicos was still amazed when he met him. He says: “He’s a very straightforward, heterosexual guy who is a fashion designer, which is not very common in the fashion industry.”
Inevitably, as filmmaker became friend, Bonicos bore witness to a fascinating series of events in his subject’s life, both personally and professionally.
“I spent probably every day with him for the first six months,” exclaims Bonicos. “I mean every day. I was with him 12-14 hours a day. We’d go out to clubs. We’d travel to Paris a few times. After a six-month period we became – as Ozwald might say – tight.
“I thought to myself, ‘When are the cracks going to appear? Who is this person?’ He was really confident – and I was really unconfident at the time. I couldn’t understand how anyone could be that confident. I was like, ‘Let’s just see what happens, as a journey of a man rather than as a fashion designer.’”
Confidence isn’t always an indulgence Boateng can rely upon. He looks reflective as he recalls the more tender times in the twelve years of his life that were caught on film. Boateng never forcing Bonicos to turn off the camera led to relations remaining amicable through the organic nature of the filming.
When Boateng first watched A Man’s Story, it was a shocking moment for him. “I couldn’t speak for a week about it,” he confesses. “It was just too much to take on. I think you only get the chance to see that level of detail of your life when you’re dying. Watching the film back was pretty impactful because a lot of the things in the film you just forget.
“You forget things like minutes…moments. For me, I can get lost in the moment. Like the scene where I’m telling my son to stand up for the first time. I remember the whole day. It was a very powerful experience for me and still resonates deeply.
“In the end you just allow it to happen. That doesn’t mean five or six years ago, I didn’t want to kill Varon sometimes. The thing is, he was never supposed to film for that long, but we became such good friends, so intertwined in each other’s lives, I just got used to it. What is interesting is that even though he was there, it was like he was invisible. I totally forgot he was there.
“When Varon started filming I had an instinct about the film and 12 years later it’s matured into that space,” he enthuses. “When I went in at first I was very light-footed because I was aware of the camera. Getting passed that initial stage stripped the layers off and left this raw truth of everyman’s life and it’s the same.
“Regardless if you’re the president of a country or a guy who works in a supermarket putting groceries in a bag. The thing is we all have the same issues. ‘I want to fall in love’, ‘it worked’, ‘it didn’t work’, ‘I’d like to make more money’, ‘and I’d like to be more successful’. The balances of these things are somewhat the same and that’s what I think is great about the film.
“What happens is when you’re watching, you don’t realise how much you’re taking in to begin with. It’s a film you probably have to see two or three times to really get the message. I remember when I saw it the second time I realised I’d missed 50% of the film and it was bizarre because you really do get lost in moments. So for me it’s a very powerful piece of work.”
Powerful indeed. Unlike a typical fashion documentary, an unpolished façade of Boateng is shown that the public would never normally be privy to. Over the past few years, cinema has seen a variety of fashion documentaries. Designers like Karl Lagerfeld (Lagerfeld Confidential), Marc Jacobs (Marc Jacobs & Louis Vuitton), Valentino (The Last Emperor) and Isaac Mizrahi (Unzipped) have all allowed the cameras to get ‘up close and personal’. They were, however, disingenuous. They lacked the sincerity of this incarnation and left the audience wondering how much of what they just saw was in fact ‘real’.
The most personal moment of the movie wasn’t the candid conversations between Boateng and his wife and mother of his two children, Gyunel. Nor was it the moment he realises his Savile Row store has been cleared out by burglars and is close to tears. It is an off the cuff instant when he is watching his children, Emilia and Oscar, race each other in an underground car park. The family could have been anywhere in the world and be anyone in the world. The simplicity of the footage was compelling and the honesty the interactions reflected made it the stand alone scene from the bulk of the movie.
Boateng congratulates his son on his win and has a tongue in cheek dig at his daughter. It is beautiful. It goes a long way to reminding the viewer that this is first and foremost the telling of an unremarkable, basic story shrouded in remarkable circumstance. Everything for him is about the experience – his clothes, his marriage, his children, everything he does. It’s all about the experience.
Bonicos continues, “It’s such a luxury to be able to draw upon 12 years of footage but it was exhausting. We travelled all over the world and for some watchers the film is exhausting. People get exhausted by the film.
“When I first met Ozwald, I thought he was very interesting and the way that he deals with life was very interesting and that was enough. On a daily basis he forgot about me most of the time because he leads this high octane life that he doesn’t even realise he’s living. What kept me going was documenting Ozwald’s life. Personally it was difficult but the actual process of filming Ozwald was a pleasure.
“I wanted to finish the film, show it to Ozwald and say: “What do you think?” The film wasn’t made for any gain or purpose. It was literally like I left my house and came home 12 years later. It was so difficult to choose what to keep from the edited footage and what to throw away. I think it totalled about 700 hours worth of footage including archive material. It was a real challenge to cut 94 minutes together. It was hard to decide what to keep because if you rewind a life for 12 years, it doesn’t make any sense.
“What we had to do is craft a film from it and that was the biggest challenge. I mean, what is the beginning? What’s the end? It was a good problem, actually because it helped me to solidify what a man’s story is. What it takes to be a man. What are these qualities about Ozwald that I’m trying to look at and capture? Belief being one of them.
Boateng concludes, “I live in a world where people don’t take fashion as seriously as me. I take it very seriously because it’s what I do for a living. So it’s my job to explain the advantages and the beauty and how you can enhance who you are by the clothes that you wear.
“For me, clothes are an extension of that inner spirit. It is an exact science for me because I go creatively with that in mind. Usually when anyone buys something I accredit there’s a story that goes with it. They’ve bought it for a purpose.
“They’re winning an Oscar or they’re in front of 53 African presidents or they’re getting an honour from the Queen. It’s very broad but they’re all special moments.
So, there’s a particular relationship with whatever I create and I think that’s because whatever the essence of what I create is due to the belief mechanism within the clothes. I believe in my clothes and I believe in the people who wear them.”
A Man’s Story
Director: Varon Bonicos
Cast: Ozwald Boateng
BBFC Certificate: 15
Running Time: 98 minutes
A Man’s Story is out now in cinemas and on DVD; read our review.