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Sunday, 19 February 2012

Ozwald Boateng: A Man's Story

For the past twelve years, documentary filmmaker Varon Bonicos has been following Ozwald Boateng's journey to becoming one of the most successful tailors and menswear designers in the world. A Man's Story may not be one of the most investigative of documentaries, but from the perspective of someone who gets the same pleasure and intellectual stimulation from high-end fashion that other people might get from going to an art gallery, this film is a godsend.
A Man's Story is a delight to watch for the same reasons that people gravitate towards world-class athletes and musical prodigies. It's immediately apparent that Boateng was made to do what he does. When we first see him with his parents it's a shock because they are so normal-looking. Ozwald, on the other hand, towers over everyone, has perfect posture, and is one of the most attractive people I have ever seen. His mere presence is an advertisement for the clothes he wears and creates. In motion, he's as smooth and exacting as one of his suits. And when he's working on those suits, it's with a silent, intuitive speed that belies the 10,000 hours of practise Malcolm Gladwell says one needs before one can be a master of any skill.

Ozwald Boateng in Tom Stoddart's Walk With Giants photoshoot.
In order to understand Boateng both as a creative person and as a powerhouse of the menswear industry one must first understand that he's not a "fashion designer", he's a tailor. He's the youngest person -- and the only black man to date -- to open a shop in the prestigous Savile Row, and even once he reaches the level of Creative Director of Menswear at Givenchy and is dressing A-list celebrities, he makes no bones of the fact that his aims are that of a tailor, not a typical fashion designer. Also, he's not terribly good at the sort of art-school jargon that most high-end designers tend to churn out when explaining their work. Boateng is the director of a few of the sort of short fashion films in which people spout cryptic phrases at each other while doing things like pouring sand into boxes and gazing thoughtfully at at the landscape, and having watched a couple of them I think it's safe to say that while his aesthetic instincts are second to none, he's no concept artist.
The 100 models of Ozwald Boateng's A Man's Story collection in 2010.
I think it's rather telling that even after twelve years of filming and four hundred hours of footage shot, both the documentary itself and its portrait of Boateng are still more style than substance. The tagline is "The Coolest Man On Earth", which couldn't be more accurate considering his effortless good taste and the endless well of confidence that allows him to rub elbows with the rich and famous and maintain a ruthless "You have no option other than to impress me," business attitude. There are a lot of talking-head interviews with celebrities saying how witty and fascinating he is, but no real evidence of that onscreen. At no point does he successfully articulate the thought processes behind his creative drive, and the film doesn't make much of an attempt to delve into the technicalities of tailoring or the menswear design industry.
from Ozwald Boateng's Spring/Summer 2012 collection.
This is a man with only two aspects to his life: his career and his family, and over the course of the film he torpedoes the latter in favour of the former. In the footage from the mid-2000s it's clear that Boateng is an incredibly uxorious man, but even while you're watching him speak of the deep love he has for his wife, you get the feeling that the marriage is unlikely to last. Never mind the more prosaic concerns that they're a pair of rich, extremely good-looking creative people who spend a lot of time on opposite sides of the globe; he's just too single-minded. Like many geniuses, his focus is so concentrated on his work that everything else is a secondary concern. One of the truest moments in the film is an interview with his ex-wife, in which she says with a sort of weary affection that Boateng still doesn't really seem to understand what went wrong in their marriage.
Boateng in 1994. I'm 90% sure he doesn't actually age.
As a triumph-over-adversity story this film is emotionally engaging but far from groundbreaking. However, it's still impressive to watch Boateng steamroller through the various obstacles life throws at him and proceed to become a world-famous designer and businessman. In the aftermath of his first divorce, his first major show after moving to Savile Row is beset with disaster, and then the entire collection is promptly stolen from the premises. And yet a few years later, through a combination of talent and unrelenting ambition, he's been awarded an OBE and is sought-after for red carpet fittings by A-list actors. Both as a behind-the-scenes film about the fashion world and as a biopic I think A Man's Story could have gone into more depth and detail, but if you enjoy menswear as much as I do then that may not matter all that much.
Ozwald Boateng in Tom Stoddart's Walk With Giants photoshoot
A Man's Story goes on general release in the UK on March 9, 2012.

Trailer/preview clip for A Man's Story.
Ozwald Boateng homepage.
Footage of Boateng's 100-model-strong A Man's Life show in 2010.


  1. Looks fascinating. I can't wait to watch it!


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