Why Philanthropic Ozwald Boateng is the Angelina Jolie Of Fashion Designers


This article was written in collaboration with PolicyMic pundit Matthew Rozsa.

There is a phenomenon about celebrities that we have decided to dub the "Bono effect" or more currently the “Angelina Jolie effect.” In summary, it refers to the tendency of the rich and famous to engage in conspicuous charitable and/or philanthropic endeavors for reasons that smack more of self-aggrandizement than genuine nobility of spirit. While few would be inclined to fault those who are motivated by a sincere desire to give back to a world that has elevated them to success (often as much through sheer good luck as through the tried-and-true verities of hard work and talent), there is still the unshakable sense that some celebrities are, for lack of a better way of putting it, showing off. It's why the television show South Park was able to mine such comedy gold off of Bono's endeavors ... and why, on the other end of the spectrum, projects that deserve more time and attention fail to receive it.

This brings us to Ozwald Boateng. Imagine a modest home: in North London where the mother is a skilled seamstress, perhaps with patterns and swatches of fabric lying around the room. A father whose affinity for smart dressing is an impressionable characteristic to his young son; that son receives the gift of a bespoke suit (a suit that is made by one person) at the age of five thus piquing his interest in the skill of tailoring. That son nourishes that interest and eventually grows up to be a fashion designer, on the famous Savile Row (where the likes of Alexander McQueen earned his beginnings). Said designer comes into his own with bold suiting for men and creates a fashion house of his own.

In short, if you have an affinity for men’s tailored suits, you've probably heard of Boateng by now. Many people forget what an art form a tailored suit is: it’s a skill that requires diligence, technique, and talent. A bespoke suite is a true fashion statement. Men’s fashion is often overlooked because admittedly there are not as many options for men, but if you’re creative, you are able to work with what you have and push those limits. For example, Boateng is known for his bold colors, where he has taken the traditional idea of a men’s tailored suit and, while keeping that intact, made its elements visually stimulating, exciting, and most importantly: contemporary.

Boateng staked his claim in the fashion world several years ago, opening his flagship store in 2007 on Savile Row, considered by fashionistas (Moi!) and industry professionals alike to be the Buckingham Palace of tailoring and the most prestigious place to learn the skill. In 1994 he was the first tailor to debut his collection at Paris Fashion week. Boateng’s talent lies in his skills for provocative color and ideas. He pairs classical pieces and coloring with bold embroidery and pops of bright yellow and green. It would not be his fashion show without a bright color to catch the audience’s eye. The sharpness of the suit paired with the attention grabbing color evokes a wide range of emotions. 

With his expansive fashion career in full bloom, he is now dovetailing off said success to influence the politics in his ancestral country, and influence he may: although a native of England, Boateng was born to Ghanaian parents, and in the past he has discussed the ties he feels to his heritage. Unfortunately, the region to which Boateng can trace his genealogy is the same one, which "The Economist" described back in 2000 as "the hopeless continent." Its world image is one of rampant bleak poverty, violent social instability, and brutal political repression. Yet to a large extent, this reputation is unfair. As The Economist itself acknowledged eleven years later, labor productivity and international trade in Africa have increased since the start of the century, while inflation, foreign debt, and budget deficits have dropped. As a report by consulting firm McKinsey declared, "The rate of return on foreign investment is higher in Africa than in any other developing region. Global executives and investors must pay heed."

This is where Boateng has stepped in with his new organization, the Made In Africa Foundation. As the website points out, its goals are to "provide finance for feasibility studies for African businesses and projects involved in the development of major infrastructure projects across Africa, introduce a funding mechanism to assist successful businesses in Africa to transform their existing investments and prospects, and give Africa independence through development and infrastructure."

What makes this mission statement noteworthy is that it reflects more than public preening from the individual some have referred to as "the coolest man on earth." It also shows a clear-eyed understanding of the problems facing Africa, the latent economic and human potential of the continent, and meaningful ways in which philanthropists and government agencies which wish to help the region can effectively do so. Yet even though his charity effort has not received a great deal of attention, he is still making himself heard for matters near and dear to him.

Although Boateng may not be receiving proper accolades for his work in Africa and his name is not yet synonymous with that of Bono or Angelina Jolie, he is still at the top of his game in one of the most competitive industries in the world. Fashion has been known to be frivolous, but it seems more and more designers are able to influence the world in more ways that one. Ozwald Boateng is just one example of this kind of ideal but he’s a great one and hopefully more designers will follow suit. 

Pun intended.