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British Designer Ozwald Boateng's Dream To Dress Africa


Switching gears now - our next guest wants to put you in a good suit. Ozwald Boateng was the youngest and the first black tailor to have a shop on London's prestigious Savile Row. That's a street famous for its fine tailoring - a place where the world's royalty come for their attire. Boateng dresses royalty too, particularly the athletic and Hollywood royalty because, as actor Laurence Fishburne has said, when you wear an Ozwald Boateng suit, you become a statesman of cool. He's also a statesman for something else - the future development of Africa. I caught up with him earlier this year, and I started out by asking him how he got interested in fashion.

OZWALD BOATENG: My story's quite simple. Usually men blame women for everything in their lives, be it good or sometimes not so good. In my particular case, I fell in love in college with this really amazing girl who could paint and draw with both hands. And she's the reason why I design clothes. She basically pointed me in the direction to discovering my talent. So I was 16 years old and that's it. So basically, love is the reason why I design clothes.

MARTIN: Were you always kind of secretly interested and didn't have an outlet for it? I mean, were you always a boy who liked to dress, for example?

BOATENG: No, I was. But I think that's also my mother's fault. You know, I had my first suit made when I was about 5 years old - bespoke suit. So I had come accustomed to the importance of style. And my mother used to take me to church and, you know, we had to dress our best for that. As well as my father was a teacher and he always wore suits and always looked smart. And so it was almost a way of life in my household to look good.

MARTIN: Now you were born in England, but your parents were born in Ghana, correct?

BOATENG: That's right. Absolutely.

MARTIN: And so I think many people who grow up in Africa are used to having clothes custom-made, right?

BOATENG: Yes, yes.

MARTIN: And so was that part of the tradition in your household as well, that that was just an ordinary thing? Because I think a lot of Americans think of custom-made clothing as really been quite extraordinary, I mean, it's something that is familiar to a very, very small slice of society, now, in this country.

BOATENG: You know, the suit represents many things, you know. And I think, for my father in particular, you know, in Ghana, it meant respectability. It meant authority. And so to look smart in the suit was just - it was almost cultural. Plus, you know, the suit - it has such a relationship with English traditions, and Ghana, where I originate from, was colonized by the Brits. So through colonialism, you had almost the Ghanaians being more traditional than the British themselves and the suit was a very important part of that.

MARTIN: Well, Savile Row, speaking of which, is the ultimate expression of the kind of British establishment, British style. When you started making clothes, did you always have your eye on Savile Row?

BOATENG: The reason why I chose to set up shop on Savile Row was mainly because I was about 18 years old, and I identified it, that there was a kind of something missing from the traditional suit on Savile Row that was made. So I realized that there was an opportunity to combine fashion design with traditional tailoring.

I knew how to make a suit, but I didn't know how to make bespoke suits, but I had a real flair for design. And so I realized that if I could marry those two worlds together, I could really have quite a dramatic effect on menswear globally. And so that's what I set out to do. What was interesting though, is when I kind of discovered Savile Row, the concept of the traditional suit had become so old-fashioned and was so out-of-sync with what men wanted, it was clear that there was a real opportunity. So I just, basically - I took it.

MARTIN: How would you describe an Ozwald Boateng suit for someone who has not yet experienced it? And this will either be a very pleasing question to you or just a terrible one because it's almost like describing, like, why you're handsome. I mean, that's...

BOATENG: No, no I think the way to define it, and it's evolved over time, you know. When I first started designing suits, it was always about enhancing the wearer's form and making him be very attractive to women. So in the same way a man responds to a woman in a dress that's very flattering to her form or wearing high-heeled shoes, I took that same principle and I put it onto men.

MARTIN: Do you think that men mainly dress for women?

BOATENG: I think, actually, you know, I think it's both. I think men dress for women, definitely. But also, they dress themselves, if they understand that what they're wearing makes them feel better about themselves. I mean, the big thing for men is confidence, and so I like to believe that what I create enables men to be more confident about who they are.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with British designer and bespoke tailor Ozwald Boateng. The - before we move on to some of the other work that you're doing, I did want to ask whether you've ever designed for President Obama, who's known to look pretty good in a suit?

BOATENG: Yeah. Well, I have. He came over to Ghana and the president of Ghana - we presented a suit and a morning suit on the behalf of the Ghanaian people to him. It was his first visit to Africa when he became president, which is phenomenal for Ghana. I haven't actually...

MARTIN: Have you seen him in it? Have you seen him in it?

BOATENG: I haven't seen him in it. I wish he wore mine. I wish - but you would've known if he was wearing mine, I can tell you.

MARTIN: Really? I was going to say, how would we have known it was yours?

BOATENG: You know, it's from the shoulder line. It would have been a very flattering form around his body. So that you would've visibly looked at him and seen a much sharper line. For sure, you would've noticed.

MARTIN: Talk a little bit more, if you would, about the other side of your life. You've been talking a lot more about the importance of development in African business and business ties...

BOATENG: Yes, yes...

MARTIN: ...And doing your part there. Could you talk a little bit more about what you're trying to do there?

BOATENG: Well, for me, it's quite simple. The big issue in Africa is this lack of infrastructure, and its lack of connectivity. So if you're originating from Ghana, if you're in Nigeria, there's not even a decent road or rail connection between the two countries.

And the impact of having that connectivity, or rail or infrastructure, is enormous in terms of what it does to trade. And so my feeling is really that, you know, connecting Africa with its infrastructure is the key way of changing the poverty position on the continent. I set up this foundation...

MARTIN: You can certainly see in a field like yours, where getting goods to market is the critical piece. I mean...

BOATENG: Oh, of course...

MARTIN: ...The workmanship can be whatever it is, but if people can't get their goods to market, then you're...

BOATENG: Well, it's - exactly.

MARTIN: ...You're done.

BOATENG: Exactly. Exactly. And more importantly, but you got to remember, if you don't have the infrastructure or the refinery to refine your own natural resources, then you're never getting true value for the value of your asset. And so this is one of the things that Africa suffers from. You know, it controls, probably, 60 percent of all the known minerals on the planet, but yet you still see Africa as being poor and it doesn't make any sense.

So the foundation I set up is called Made in Africa Foundation and basically, it's about unlocking that potential. How we've done it, on a very practical level, is we identified that one of the issues of unlocking those potentials is no one's ready to put the first dollar into the feasibility plan or the master planning of any project, be it an urban development, road or rail. And so the Foundation's made it their objective to finance that first dollar. So we believe that raising $400 million to be spent on master planning and feasibility studies for infrastructure will create $100 billion of projects across the continent. And that will effectively create about a trillion dollars of value, and that will add another 2 percent of GDP onto the continent and lift about 200 million people out of poverty.

So the formula is not a complex formula, but it always seems complex when you put Africa against it. You know, infrastructural plans or investing in infrastructure in any developed country is a norm. I mean, they're investing $250 billion in Russia on high-speed rail and similar amounts in China. You know, we need the same in Africa.

MARTIN: Sounds as though your interests have moved a little beyond fashion. Just wondering whether you consider getting into public service yourself.

BOATENG: No, it's - listen - you know, it's funny. Someone always asks me a question - so how did you get into this passionate place on infrastructure. And you know, it's quite simple. I just want to open shops back home. I get, you know, I get asked the question all the time, but there's - the surroundings that I require to have my own store, in say, Accra, requires me to build the environment for many stores to have the one store.

So once you're at that place, then you start to say - you look at the fundamentals and you ask yourself, what's stopping that from happening? And then you realize that to do that, you need to do the right master planning and the right feasibility planning for it to come off the ground. Then you realize, once you get to that point, you realize the overall problem. So I kind of was taken on a journey to this. I just - I love creating clothes and designing. But one thing as a designer, what we get taught - and you learn that very early on - is this, your ability to look at cloth and imagining what it can be.

It's like every single designer is taught that. And it's a part of their being. So once they can visualize what it can become, then suddenly then their guns are blazing. And so that's effectively what's happened with me in regards to Africa. It started off with just looking at a plot of land and saying what can I make it, and then it grew from there.

MARTIN: Sounds like public service.


BOATENG: No, no, no. I'm a designer.

MARTIN: Ozwald Boateng is a designer. He's the founder of the Made in Africa Foundation, and he was kind enough to join us from the BBC studios in London. Ozwald Boateng, thank you so much for speaking with us. I hope we'll speak again.

BOATENG: Thank you very much. Absolutely. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.