Before Virgil Abloh, There Was Ozwald Boateng
“I always felt if I could just be good at what I do, it could inspire people. I’ve always designed with purpose. It’s never just been about creating a beautiful piece of clothing,” Ozwald Boateng tells Refinery29.
When LVMH announced Virgil Abloh would succeed Kim Jones as its new artistic director, Twitter users were quick to call Abloh’s appointment “special” because he was a Black man picked to run a French fashion house. Some incorrectly report that he’s the first Black man to do so. Others have mentioned Abloh in succession with the Black men who have come before him — Olivier Rousteing at Balmain and Ozwald Boateng, who was the creative director at Givenchy from 2003 to 2007 — or as an outsider who comes from the streetwear realm in an effort to attract a younger clientele. But while Rousteing and his Balmain army are some of fashion industry’s favorite people to celebrate, the same industry has largely forgotten Boateng.
Fifteen years ago, British menswear designer Boateng joined Givenchy as creative director for Givenchy Homme, where he was tasked with creating the brand’s first ready-to-wear men’s line, the first time a person of color was tapped to helm a storied luxury fashion house. But even before Boateng landed at Givenchy, he was already used to showing up in places he didn’t belong. The Ghanaian immigrant was the youngest Black designer to open a business on London’s Savile Row in 1995, and was part of the New Bespoke Movement that was responsible for launching the neighborhood — once an insider’s only secret — to international recognition. “In Britain we don't shout enough,” Boateng told The New York Times in 2006. “So I took it on myself to make it known to the world.” His work – ostentatious suits in bright colors perfect for parties – caught the eye of London Prime Minister Tony Blair as well as celebrities like Richard Branson, Jamie Foxx, Will Smith, and Jude Law. When Hubert de Givenchy visited Boateng’s atelier, he was obviously impressed, and hired him months later. When Boateng was appointed, the brand’s chief executive told The Times that Boateng understood the direction the fashion house should head in, but also where it came from: Givenchy would always be ‘classic clothing about cut and cloth.’”
In stark difference to how we talk about race today, Boateng made a point to never focus on his background. That refusal to talk about his own Blackness is arguably one of the reasons that a revered French brand would tap a self-taught Ghanaian immigrant who made his name by excelling at British tailoring. But for immigrants, assimilating quickly and adroitly to a white world is as much a superpower as it is a tool for survival. The difference between a Boateng and a Abloh (who is also Ghanaian) is the difference between how we we talk about race in 2003 versus 2018.
Boateng says there were two options for Black immigrants: to focus on your perceived setbacks, or focus on your dreams. He chose the latter. “I just refused to acknowledge [race] as a boundary,” he tells Refinery29, going so far as to say that his Ghanaian roots didn’t have any influence on the suits he created initially. Besides, Boateng lacked the support and camaraderie of peers in the industry, and social media, particularly for fashion fans, didn’t exist back then: “There weren’t many Black in the industry, at [my] level of stardom when I started.”
“You wouldn’t talk about [race],” Boateng, now age 51, says, recalling the press surrounding his first Givenchy collection in Paris, and how he didn’t focus on anything other than producing good pieces. “There was a certain political correctness. You wouldn’t want to bring emphasis [to the fact that someone is Black]. Now, you do,” he adds, attributing this shift in global mindset to Barack Obama’s two-term presidency.
But despite the hype, Boateng was only at Givenchy for three and a half years. He claims he never expected to stay. “When I got there, I wanted to get the place here it would be easier for another creative to come in, because it’s a major house, and major designers had come before me,” he tells Refinery29. “But it was always hard for designers to succeed there.” Givenchy’s internal design team created the collection for spring 2008. Vogue noted the pieces had a “vibe (mercifully) less contrived than Boateng’s.” He went on to continue working under his namesake brand, opening a new flagship store on Savile Row in 2007, where it remains today. Riccardo Tisci joined Givenchy in May 2007 as menswear designer and stayed for 10 years.
“Now, I’ve reached a place where I’m more vocal [about race],” Boateng says. “My work has a strong African identity without being what you would normally expect.” Instead of using common references like wax cloth or Kente prints, Boateng created garments like a teal single-button suit that appeared in Black Panther — a choice that references the uniquely dandy ankara styles of West African gentlemen. “It revolutionized the truth of Africa,” Boateng says of Black Panther, Ryan Coogler’s superhero Marvel film. “To make clothing for the film was a great, great honor. I wish I could do more. I wish I had the opportunity to have gotten involved with the film from the beginning. I’ve never seen the extravaganza of clothing and such fabrications with such strong African heritage. I’d never seen anything like it before and being a designer, it was such a beautiful thing to see.”
It’s important to look at Boateng not through the context of race, but within the fashion history, too. “People always get excited about the creative director,” Teri Agins tells Refinery29, one of the first reporters to cover fashion for the Wall Street Journal and author of Hijacking the Runway: How Celebrities Are Stealing the Spotlight from Fashion Designers. To her, the job of a creative director is to offer the brand an it-factor or a cache of coolness. Agins saw the shift that edged Boateng out of a legacy he deserved. “If you have a large social media following and some branding chops, you’re going to be able to deliver the customer to the brand,” says Agins. “People will buy on your cult of personality alone. This isn’t to diss Ozwald as a designer, I’m just saying that where we are now — it was a different time period. In the past, all you needed was a French name. The Givenchy name really meant a lot. I don’t think it meant a lot in 2003,” she says, referring to when Boateng started the menswear business.
“No one wore Givenchy menswear then, ” Agins argues. “In the ‘90s, menswear went casual, which was the biggest disrupter in this industry. The casual clothing movement upended everything. Ozwald did help pave the way. He was the first [Black] guy in Paris,” she continues. But Abloh, unlike Boateng, has what Agins considers the perfect storm that is only possible in 2018: the power of social media, marketing, and celebrity. A point drilled home by Abloh’s first showing at Vuitton, with its impeccable social media rollout on the brand’s Instagram account, the rappers who were the first to get their hands on his first Louis Vuitton sneaker, and finally, a celebrity-filled front row that brought in upwards of an additional million plus eyes (via social media, of course) to watch the designer take his first bow as an American Black man leading menswear at a French fashion label.
“Everybody wants someone young now because they see what happened with Olivier Rousteing at Balmain,” says Agins. “He has a lot of showmanship and has a huge social media following. He made that brand cool again.”
As for Boateng, he sees Abloh’s appointment in the same way he saw Black Panther: as a fresh start. He also credits this potential shift in the industry to Edward Enninful who was appointed as editor-in-chief of British Vogue in 2017, a publication who has long been criticized for its lack of diversity within its masthead, its covers and and its pages. “I’ve know Edward since he was 16 years old,” Boateng says. “We were born on the same day, and we have origins in Ghana. If you spoke to me and Edward at the time [earlier in their respective careers], on how things would have changed...” his voice trails off. “I always felt if I could just be good at what I do, it could inspire people. I’ve always designed with purpose. It’s never just been about creating a beautiful piece of clothing.”