Savile Row tailor and celebrated British designer Ozwald Boateng OBE writes an essay for Vogue on his new ‘Africanism’ collection and why it was so important for him to unveil it at Arise Fashion Week in April 2018.
The rebirth: African luxury redefined with every stitch, a fusion of woven heritage and modernity, rich in texture, colour and substance. A casted net that reaches far beyond fashion, the embodiment of a continent’s history culture and style. Empowered by ancestral stories recreated for a new Africa, a new world. The celebration of Heroes, Kings and Queens, inspiration for the future, the next generation. A true manifestation of individuality, the enhancement of your inner self, the real you, character, passion, heart and soul, undeniable self expression with NO COMPROMISE, AFRICANISM.
The last major show I did was in Marrakech five years ago. I wanted to show creative talent across Africa, so I picked a whole crew of credited designers, and put a fashion show together, and then I got artists like Akon and John Legend to perform so it was a really exciting, energetic event, and very successful. Off the back of it, I realised something about creativity in Africa. I’ve been designing for a few decades, but I wanted to push that connection between my cultural roots and my design to the forefront, and I felt that there was a way that I could actually create an African aesthetic but in a very modern way. But even more than that, I also wanted to respect some of the spiritual heritage as well, that sort of strength that you can’t really explain, and that became really clear in my mind. I was always looking at different ways to develop fabrics to communicate that, so obviously I took the Kente cloth which is traditionally Ghanaian, looking at new ways to interpret Kente I used solid colours instead of the multicoloured pattern the cloth is traditionally known for.
I’ve always wanted to take men into a place where they felt maybe they weren’t comfortable before but realised they could be in the use of colour and how they could wear it; when you use deep rich colours, any man can wear those colours. If it’s styled the right way with the right components suddenly something a man thought was unwearable suddenly becomes wearable. My approach has always been to modernise tradition, that’s what I did when I came to Savile Row and have continued to do that subtly over the years. Now I feel I can be really vocal and more direct about it.
There’s a real opportunity for it right now. Look at fashion in 2018 and you see Africa is having an incredible influence culturally. To see black culture finally celebrated is a great thing. There’s no longer a line that says if you do this you’re not a part of the world of creativity somehow, you’re just doing some weird ethnic thing that doesn’t relate. But now suddenly, it does relate and that’s great. It means that everyone’s culture gets a voice finally.
There has always been a purpose behind my creativity. There are some aspects to this collection that are very distinctly African but you may not even know what they are. Historically, this has always been the core principle that underpins what I do and informs my creative process. When you design with feeling and purpose it created an emotional connection between the clothes and the wearer. When I was at Givenchy it was very important for me to find the true essence of a French man and translate that through the clothing. With Africanism I wanted to put a magnifying glass on what I’ve been doing over the years and ramp it up 100%. The fabrication in this collection played a very important role in helping me do that. It gave me the opportunity to create some unique pieces throughout the collection. There was a real focus on fusing traditional English fabrics such as tweed and flannels with the Kente and tribal fabric that I designed.
I had the mind to do pre-fall women’s pieces too, and so I looked to my daughter, who is 18. She used to sit on the front row at my shows, and when she’d see me come on the catwalk she’d run to me. I’d take her on the catwalk for the finale and it became a bit of a thing that we’d do, right up until she was about 7 years old. That was in Paris and Milan and then I remember taking her to her first woman’s show, which was Julien McDonald and she turned to me and she goes “oh my god? women can do this?” and it dawned on me that she’d never seen girls, she’d only ever seen men on the catwalk. Then she saw Naomi Campbell on the catwalk and she got excited, and she said “Oh my god! Dad! Look.” Years passed and then last month we were in Nigeria for Arise fashion week and at the end of the show I naturally went to grab my daughters hand to go out. I was with Naomi and we all went out together at the end, and then I realised that that little girl is now walking with this iconic woman she looked up to. I suddenly had this special feeling. That was a really amazing way for me, spiritually to launch something for women. When I did this Africanism shoot, it became apparent that a lot of the pieces in the collection were genderless and looked great on both the women and the men, they just worked in a truly organic way.
The name ‘Africanism’ came from legendary Nigerian musician Fela Kuti. He was talking in an interview about socialism and capitalism and at the end he said Africanism and I jumped on it. As a creative talking about change, he’d defined his language and I felt Africanism is about a creative viewpoint to all of it. I feel that Africanism is more than just clothes, it’s a way of thinking, it’s a way of processing life. It could be respect for all genders, it could be respect for the environment. It could be a creative thought process.
While I was out in Lagos for Arise I went to this event, that was called homecoming which had performances from Skepta and Wizkid, a truckload of local musicians. There was this youthful energy that was so African and so content on being African. Before, I remember being in Nigeria and there was this sort of desire to move away from that and adopt another culture. This wasn’t the case. This was about a uniqueness of self and an understanding of self, culture and value and that realisation has created an incredible confidence. 60-70% of the population of Africa is under 21. So it’s all about inspiring youth.
I felt this was the right time to do this show in Africa, I wanted to redefine the meaning of luxury on the continent and create a new visual language in this space.
See more of Ozwald’s Africanism collection at Vogue UK.