How Ozwald Boateng Helped Invent the Suits Men Wear Today

Ozwald Boateng
Ozwald Boateng
Image courtesy of Trinity Films

Ozwald Boateng barely made it to L.A. from Hurricane Sandy-ravaged New York. He got stranded at a strange time -- just days before the premiere of his documentary film, A Man's Story, which chronicles both his professional and personal life, and is nearly 15 years in the making. But he's here, sitting at the head of a conference table at the Pacific Design Center, looking dapper as ever, in one of his eponymous suits.

Boateng is a fashion designer and tailor of menswear who's highly regarded both in England and among Hollywood's leading men. Giorgio Armani, who is his idol, and the designer who made the loose, American Gigolo look famous, "was credited with taking structure out of suits," Boateng explains through a genteel British accent. "I'm credited with putting it back in."

"The storm -- the timing of that ..." Boateng continues, "Timing is such an amazing thing, isn't it? The documentary film has that in common with the hurricane. When things happen -- you ask yourself why today, why not tomorrow, why not yesterday? That's the most amazing thing about time. It's difficult to predict, eh? But it's always got a way of happening when you need it to."

That's seemed to be the case for Boateng in a lot of ways. The timing of things, as it does for many, changed the trajectory of his life.

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A Man's Story begins in 1998 with Boateng battling a string of bad luck. His most recent fashion show wasn't up to his standards, and soon after, he discovers his fashion house on Britain's famed Savile Row has been robbed, and his entire collection stolen. On top of professional disappointments, he's also getting divorced.

But things look up when Russian model Gyunel comes into his life -- they'd eventually get married and make a family together. The magnetism between the pair is evident even on screen. She's by his side at all times, even modeling occasionally on his runway. Business booms, and at the end of every show, he bounds over to her, as if the success is meaningless if she's not sharing it. Their bond appears rock solid, at least in its formative years.

Boateng's success in the fashion industry grew in part out of taking an unusual approach to menswear. "I've always been a tailor and designer," he explains. "I'm a fusion of those two words. I created a concept called bespoke couture ... it was very unique. Tailoring was considered to be a world that was very traditional, and basically going out of fashion. Fashion designers did not have a real link with tailoring or tradition, so I fused the two worlds together."

In the film, Boateng's aesthetic is now mainstream, and the pendulum swings again when he's recruited to be the creative director at Givenchy -- a post he holds while simultaneously still designing for his own label, as well as starring in a reality show, House of Boateng. Work and travel overtake his schedule leaving little time for his family. He and Gyunel drift apart, and allegedly she has an affair.

Yet their distance proves strangely productive for Boateng. He undertakes a project in which he partners with African-American male celebrities, including Chris Tucker, Mos Def and Jamie Foxx, to hold a fashion show in Ghana during the Africa Summit in an attempt to strengthen the ties between Africa and the United States.

The event goes well, and it's clear Boateng is at the top of his game. A sought-after designer, a household name among Hollywood's elite and a successful activist, Boateng returns to London and moves his business back to Savile Row. It's a coup, but at the same time, his second marriage falls apart.

For Boateng, good timing is always colliding with bad. Something personally devastating happens while something professional skyrockets, and vice versa. But that's precisely what makes A Man's Story so unexpectedly relatable. It's about the peaks and valleys of life -- the same kind we all experience. This film truly is a man's story, but sub in different careers and romances, and it could be nearly anyone's.

I ask Boateng if, through all this, he's learned anything about balance. "I don't know if you ever find that," he says, "but what you do is learn to accept where you're at at any given moment. That's key."

A Man's Story opens today in L.A. at Laemmle's NoHo 7, and in New York. It's also available for download on iTunes.

Follow Ali Trachta on Twitter at @MySo_CalLife and for more arts news follow @LAWeeklyArts.


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