When the OG’s make a statement, it calls out to the younger dudes they paved the way for to come out and pay homage. That was the case this May when Ozwald Boateng debuted his latest show in Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater. The occasion was to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance, and there aren’t many people in the fashion world that I think better embodies the spirit of that time period more than Boateng.
The show was entitled “A.I” a move which fooled people into thinking it was going to be on some futuristic Jude Law and Haley Joel Osment tip. The real meaning however, was “Authentic Identity”. That theme alone, would’ve corny in less able hands. In the last few years, many have tried to capture the essence of Black male masculinity by either; playing up the respectability aspect by putting a bunch of Black dudes in suits, or by having us wear “flower crowns” in order to convince white people that we play well with others. How well Boateng achieved the goal of embodying individualized Black male masculinity in this particular show, is a discussion for another day. The way that Boateng has grown to represent different aspects of what it means to be both Black and male however, is unquestionable.
I first encountered Boateng all the way back in the late 90’s. My uncle was reading some article about how his original brand “Boateng” was failing at the time. I was probably 17 years old, and I couldn’t care less about fashion–I needed all my loot for comic books and video games–but the picture that accompanied the article struck me ‘cause he was dark-skinned and well put together. It just wasn’t a combination I saw a lot back then. Fast forward to 8 years later, and I’ve started diversifying my loot purchases past comic books, to include J. Crew. Early 20’s Claude was out here buying new clothes at an insane pace and spent time online just trying to learn more about fashion history in general. The one thing that I kept running into was that nobody looked like me, nobody was Black like me. I reached back out to my uncle, a fashion head in his own right, and asked him about the Black people who were doing big things in the world of fashion and tailoring. That’s when I learned how dope the dark skinned dude in that picture all those years ago really was.
Boateng is a self taught tailor that started working at 14; the age where I finally got my friends to agree that Wolverine could take Superman. He was the first tailor to show at Paris Fashion Week, which the same year Biggie’s first album dropped,1994. He also managed to open his first Saville Row boutique the year before Jay dropped “Reasonable Doubt”. The most impressive aspect of all his accomplishments, is the amount of self assurance he had to have possessed to pull all of it off. It’s one thing to strike out on your own, and another thing entirely to do it in a space where no one else is Black like you. Boateng had the ability to climb high, have it all crumble around him, and still came back to do things like run Givenchy. The ability to persevere, and do it in style, is the epitome of what it means to be Black.
Looking at the ‘fits that Boateng sent down the runway this past May filled me with pride.The clothes represent so much for the diaspora than what we’ll be putting on our backs for any particular season. Boateng’s show was a message from a black Brit of Ghanian descent to his brothers and sisters across the pond to say “I see you.”