LFM’s Govindini Murty & Jason Apuzzo at The Huffington Post: A Conversation With Fashion Icon Ozwald Boateng on Style, Africa, and His New Film A Man’s Story
[Editor's Note: the article below appears today at The Huffington Post.]
By Govindini Murty & Jason Apuzzo. During his meteoric career, Ozwald Boateng’s been called the coolest man on Earth, and the fashion world’s best-kept secret. Yet the candid new documentary A Man’s Story, opening this weekend in New York and Los Angeles, makes certain that the British fashion designer and style icon no longer remains a secret.
In a career already spanning two decades, the 45 year-old Boateng has outfitted celebrities from Will Smith to Russell Crowe, from Jamie Foxx to Mick Jagger. At age 28, he became the youngest tailor – and the first of African descent – to open a store on London’s legendary Savile Row. Boateng’s also designed menswear for Givenchy and bespoke costumes for films like The Matrix and Ocean’s Thirteen, and he’s even been the subject of his own Sundance Channel TV series, House of Boateng. He’s also the recipient of an OBE (Order of the British Empire) for his contributions to the clothing industry.
Throughout all this, however, Boateng’s private side – such as his quiet struggles in the rarified world of British fashion, or his efforts to foster entrepreneurial investment in Africa – have taken a back seat in public to his style innovations.
Director Varon Bonicos’ new documentary, A Man’s Story – for which Bonicos filmed Boateng from 1998 through 2010 – reveals much about Boateng’s personal life: from the challenges of growing up as a young man of African descent in London of the ’70s and ’80s, to the abiding influence of his father on his life and career. The result is a warm and often poignant film that humanizes Boateng, while doing full justice to the glamorous place he occupies in the world of men’s fashion.
We spoke with Ozwald Boateng and Varon Bonicos in Los Angeles, where they are promoting A Man’s Story. The interview has been edited for length.
GM: What is your passion for film – and in particular, how are you inspired by the intersection of film and fashion?
OB: Film has always been a really good tool for me to communicate emotion about why I create a collection. I’m probably one of the first designers to make short films. The first time I did it was back in 1994. The invite for my first fashion show was a VHS cassette. And it kind of became part of the language of my designing collections – I was always putting together short films.
Apart from that, I think fashion designers are directors anyway. We spend a year designing a collection for a fashion show that lasts maybe fifteen minutes. We have to design the look of the catwalk, cast the model for each look, work up the sound, the lighting – it’s a lot of work that goes into that fifteen minutes.
JA: Film has been so important in terms of influencing men’s style, men’s self-perceptions. I was curious whether there were film icons, movie stars who have influenced your sense of style?
OB: Sean Connery, of course, since I was a kid – you know, James Bond. Or The Thomas Crown Affair – you can’t beat those three piece suits. The Italian Job with Michael Caine – again the suits. If you’re a designer, there’s got to be some films that you’ve seen that have inspired you creatively. There’s no escaping that. Film is such a very good tool for communicating emotions, and all designers and creative people look to inspire an emotional response.
JA: You mention Connery and Bond, and he was so crucial in selling the Savile Row style here in the States.
JA: You yourself have become an icon on behalf of that style. Was that something you planned from the outset as a designer – to be so out front selling the look yourself?
OB: No, actually, I tried to stay out of it. In the early years, it was because I was a very young guy working in a very old discipline – so really, that’s tough to begin with. And then I was trying to do it in a very modern way – so again, that’s tough. Add me, visually, into the mix of all that, and that just complicates things. So for the first few years, I didn’t let anyone take any pictures of me. Basically, a lot of people had no idea what I looked like. And because my name did not necessarily sound African, a lot of people … just thought I was some kind of middle aged white guy [laughs]. So no-one actually knew what I looked like, and that was the best thing – because it allowed everyone to focus on the work.
[Editor's Note: the post below appears today on the front page of The Huffington Post.]
By Govindini Murty. They’re among the most iconic faces of the second half of the twentieth century. Isabella Rossellini, Beverly Johnson, Paulina Porizkova, and their supermodel sorority helped to shape public perceptions of beauty and womanhood at a time of rapid expansion in the mass media. Their faces graced thousands of magazine covers and they were role models to millions of young women.
But was the rise of the supermodel a sign of female empowerment, or of female objectification?
About Face: Supermodels Then and Now, an insightful new documentary by director and photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders available on HBO on-demand through September 3 and HBO Go through 2013, interviews sixteen of these supermodels about the true nature of beauty in an age of consumerism and mass media.
As alluded to in About Face, the irony that underlies the modeling profession is that it should lead to both the empowerment and objectification of women. On the one hand, the mass distribution of images of female models through fashion magazines, ads, and other media in the past century has led to women becoming quite literally more visible in today’s world – with that visibility being an affirmation of their femininity and right to exist as women in the public sphere. In contrast to this, from the Puritans to the Taliban, misogynistic societies through history have restricted sensual or beautiful images of women as a prelude to denying their basic right to participate in public life, citing women’s beauty as a “corrupting” influence on social morality. The predominance of beautiful images of women in Western culture has thus affirmed the broader right of women to exist in public as feminine and not as neutered beings.
On the other hand, modeling has also had the effect of objectifying women by focusing on external surfaces, and at times unnatural standards of beauty. In About Face, Isabella Rossellini asks of the pressure for women to undergo plastic surgery: “Is this the new foot-binding? It’s misogyny to say that older women are unattractive.” Objectification can also lead to racism by dehumanizing people and imposing narrow standards of ‘beauty’ or ‘normalcy.’ Model and agent Bethann Hardison describes in About Face trying to book African-American models for runway shows in the ’70s and ’80s, only to be told by the casting agents that such models weren’t their “aesthetic.” As Hardison explains “‘Aesthetic’ is borderline for racist.”
I spoke with director Timothy Greenfield-Sanders about some of these issues at the LA Film Festival’s screening of About Face. The interview has been edited for length.
GM: What drew you to these ladies? I know you met them initially at a party in New York, but what did you find so magical about them?
TGS: I think when I met them at that party … I immediately got a sense of how smart they were. You know, the cliché is that you either have brains or beauty, but you don’t have both. Well, they seemed to have both. It really makes it an interesting film. And I thought that people weren’t aware of that. I have two young daughters who knew who they were. But many young people today who are so interested in fashion, they don’t know the history of it and of these iconic women.
GM: What has changed about modeling? You mentioned in the screening that these models were so unique, whereas today the models and their careers seem more transient. Why is there this disparity today versus back then?
TGS: I think that it was a smaller world then. I think there was a warmer relationship between the models and the designers and even the businesspeople involved. It was not so cut-throat and not so corporate. And I think today it’s just big business and big money, and I don’t think the human relationship is there as much. I think it’s very changed.
GM: Do you think a big part of that is the issue of covers – that the actresses are taking over magazine covers?
GM: It’s such a striking change. What has that done to the morale of the models? Does it make a big difference behind the scenes?
TGS: I’m not sure I can answer that because it’s not my world, exactly. But I know certainly it was huge in those days to have covers, because covers were the definition of success. And the cover of Vogue was the ultimate success. So when Beverly Johnson got on the cover of Vogue – the first black woman to do so [in August, 1974], that was a big deal. And today – that doesn’t happen for models.
GM: I thought it was very interesting what Dayle Haddon said that it wasn’t just that she thought she was the prettiest – in fact she didn’t quite fit into the physical type that was popular at the time, but that she brought something else to the picture.
TGS: She brought something else. And Dayle Haddon had to struggle because she wasn’t the look of the moment. She was a very smart woman and she figured out a way to add something more to the picture.
GM: Do you think the reason that those models from that era were so powerful – we’re talking the ’70s and ’80s, was because they were often muses for the designers they were working with?
TGS: Yes, exactly.
GM: I think of Yves St. Laurent and models like Khadija Adams, or even Catherine Deneuve in the ’60s who was dressed by St. Laurent for Belle de Jour. I think of Calvin Klein and Brooke Shields, they were so intimately tied together.
By Govindini Murty. In honor of Fashion Month, I thought it would be fun to introduce Libertas readers to one of my favorite fashion/street-photography sites, The Sartorialist. Founded in 2005 by Scott Schuman, The Sartorialist is one of the most visually-inspiring sites out there. Schuman has been doing an exceptional job recently covering the New York, London, Milan, and Paris fashion shows. I’ve included a favorite look he captured from the Gucci show here, and other striking shows he’s covered include the Marc Jacobs show and the Altuzarra show in New York. Back in January Schuman also covered the men’s collections in Florence (where Luca Rubinacci epitomized the Italian style) and Milan, where the most elegant presentation was the Bottega Veneta show.
Of course, Schuman covers a lot more than runway shows – his main talent is as a street-style photographer – but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Jason and I often speak about the importance of feeding the visual sense. As filmmakers and creative people, it’s extremely important to think about the image as much as about words, dialogue, and ideological meaning. That is why we here at Libertas make the effort to provide you with a site that is as appealing to look at as it is thought-provoking to read.
I found out about The Sartorialist about a year and a half ago from an article in British Vogue. Scott Schuman started the site in 2005 by posting photos he had taken of the quirky and chic people he encountered on the streets of Manhattan. The Sartorialist attracted more and more admirers, including many fashion industry professionals who turned to the site to see what was happening on the street-level in fashion. Within just a few years Schuman has become a fashion force to be reckoned with. The Sartorialist now receives more than two million unique visitors a month and Schuman’s photos are on the inspiration boards of major fashion houses around the world. Schuman has also been named one of Time Magazine’s Top 100 Design Influencers and he has been profiled in numerous fashion magazines and newspapers (read an LA Times profile here and an article in The London Times). In 2009 Schuman also published a terrific book of his street-style photography.
[Editor's note: In keeping with our promise to cover all things pop culture, LFM Co-Editor Govindini Murty will be contributing occasional pieces on fashion and style as part of our exploration of modes of creativity that inspire filmmakers.]
By Govindini Murty. This week on LFM we are celebrating fashion and how it influences cinema and the arts. I will be reviewing several fashion-related films this week and will also be discussing related issues of style and creativity and how they feed the cinematic sense of filmmakers. As an independent filmmaker and creative free spirit myself, I love fashion because I see it as a form of art – wearable art. And just like cinema, fashion is an important indicator of cultural moods and shifting popular tastes.
I find it fascinating that this spring/summer all the fashion magazines are featuring a strong ‘military chic’ trend. American Vogue, Paris Vogue, Elle UK, and Women’s Wear Daily have all recently featured photo spreads with military-inspired fashions. American Vogue photographs the new military chic in a classic, all-American style with cheerful, clean-scrubbed models striding about in a jaunty manner. Paris Vogue, in the decadent style it has made famous, photographs the military chic fashions on a sexy, sultry model posing languidly in the middle of the desert. British Elle, in a photo spread shot by one of my favorite fashion bloggers, Garance Dore, takes military chic to the streets and makes it flirty, youthful, and accessible.
Perhaps the most famous designer though to embrace military chic and take it to stratospheric heights of desirability is Christophe Decarnin of Balmain, who has single-handedly turned around that venerable design house’s fortunes by creating a whole new aesthetic built on structured military jackets with exaggerated shoulders, braiding, and epaulettes paired with skin-tight leather pants or distressed jeans and shredded t-shirts – all in neutral tones of khaki, black, or steel grey. Decarnin’s shredded military-green t-shirts alone run upwards of $1500, while his elaborate, structured military jackets run into the ten of thousands of dollars. Nonetheless, chic women from Paris to London to New York are snapping up his military-inspired clothes, and influential fashion editors like Emmanuelle Alt of Paris Vogue wear his clothes almost exclusively in public.
Khaki, epaulettes, military jackets, camouflage, dog tags. What does it all mean?
Is this new military chic a sign of a resurgent traditionalism, a yearning for order and authority after years of Bacchic hippie excess? Is it a cultural indicator of a new desire for sternness, discipline, and austerity – or is it just that the structured uniform-like outfits look great on women and give them an androgynous appeal that fashion, in its ongoing decadent sampling, loves right now?
In a famously liberal industry that is vehemently anti-war and puts peace signs on everything – and I mean everything (side note: does anyone actually buy this stuff?) – isn’t it ironic that the fashion industry would now be promoting the garb of the men and women who fight wars, thereby implicitly celebrating them and what they do?
Ultimately one comes to realize that in fashion, as in the best films, the politics/ideology/morality lie on the surface as a sort of window dressing to cover up what is essentially an amoral art form. Fashion, like the cinema, is ultimately about beauty, sensuality, and emotion. Whereas the cinema is art that moves and tells a story, fashion is the art one wears to venture out into the world and live one’s own story. Or even if one can’t literally buy and wear high fashion, one can still look at it and admire how it is photographed, styled, and staged – and thus feed one’s visual sense. This is something we need to constantly do as filmmakers (since cinema is, after all, primarily about the image): we must feed our visual sense.
Thus, the new military fashion can be seen in multiple ways: as a resurgence of patriotism and traditional values, or as an arch commentary or co-opting of these values for subversive ends, or as a fetishizing of the force and authority (and even violence) that is traditionally associated with the military (and that the decadent fashion world secretly loves) – or simply as the amused aesthete’s appreciation of all these forms for the sake of the play itself.
Whatever the motivation, as long as we show respect for the real men and women in uniform who risk their lives to defend our freedoms, the new military chic is just fine with me.
Posted on June 29th, 2010 at 1:30am.
By Govindini Murty. Sex and the City 2 continues to generate controversy for its critical depiction of how women are treated in the Muslim countries of the Middle East. Claudia Puig at USA Today is still fulminating about the film, while Manohla Dargis at the New York Times addresses the hypocritical nature of the critical establishment’s outrage. Here on LFM, my own positive review of Sex and the City 2 incited a number of female readers to write in. One of our liberal feminist readers – the self-styled “Feminazi” – attacked my review and called me a “reactionary” for praising the film, claiming that lingering patriarchy in the West and social pressure to look attractive somehow are so morally compromising to us that we have no right to critique the treatment of women in the Middle East. On the other end of the political spectrum, a Muslim female reader named Hala accused me of “flaming intolerance” toward Muslims, and stated that women in the Middle East are “strong, smart, and well-treated” and that our vaunted women’s rights in the West, such as the right to drive cars, are not so great anyway. I engaged in a dialogue with both of them and found it interesting that when it came to the issue of Islam and its treatment of women, that both liberal feminists and traditional Muslim women would have the same viewpoint: that the West has no right to claim that its women enjoy any superior freedom to the women of the Middle East because women are supposedly treated in a sexist manner in the West. I found it striking that I would be defending the West’s advocacy of equal rights for women against both a liberal feminist and a Muslim traditionalist.
Finally, LFM reader Melissa commented that, while she liked Sex and the City 2, she thought it was “somewhat offensive” to have a scene where the Muslim women remove their burqas to show the Western designer fashions they are wearing underneath to Sex and the City heroines Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte. Melissa was concerned that this scene made light of Muslim women’s oppression by showing them as being able to wear Western clothes, albeit under their black robes. I responded to Melissa that this scene depicts an actual reality in the Middle East. Muslim women, especially those who are affluent, do indeed wear colorful, stylish Western clothes under their dour black robes. Though they generally can’t wear these clothes openly in public, they can wear them privately at parties and special events. It is one of their private joys; even if they are restricted in what they can show the outside world, they can enjoy wearing exquisite, colorful clothes underneath.
Call me idealistic, but I believe that American and European fashion is a unique vehicle for bringing Western democratic values into Middle Eastern women’s lives. Western fashion is not just an ambassador for Western style – it is an ambassador for Western freedom. After all, the freedom to look as you wish, to dress as you wish, to cover up or not cover up as you wish, affects how you think and move and behave. The more freedom we have in how we are able to present ourselves to the world, the more joy we have in interacting with that world. Therefore, it is entirely appropriate for Sex and the City 2, in its brave depiction of the culture clash between the West and the Middle East, to show the Western women Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda as having the freedom to wear a joyful, colorful synthesis of American and Muslim fashions in public (see Carrie in a purple turban and Samantha in gold lame harem pants in the picture above) – and to depict the Muslim women they encounter as tentatively expressing their desire for freedom too by wearing the latest Paris and New York fashions – but being forced to cover them up with black burqas. This is not cultural insensitivity – this is reality.
LFM celebrates the democratizing of film. Talented, free-thinking artists from America and around the world are currently using digital technology to make films that celebrate freedom and the individual. LFM will feature the best of these independent and foreign films – and occasionally even Hollywood films – that promote the ideas and values vital to the future of democratic civilization.
Stayed tuned for the launch of LFM on May 19th, 2010! The independent film world will never be the same. LFM is the new voice for freedom in movies and popular culture. Join us each day … and free your mind.