Directed by Varon Bonicos (who also created the TV series “House of Boateng”), the documentary “A Man’s Story” spans an epic dozen years in the life of its subject, designer and larger than life fashion world figure Ozwald Boateng. The youngest and first black tailor to open a shop on London’s Savile Row, Boateng starts the film in 1998 at a low point, having lost his business in the midst of a tough divorce. “A Man’s Story” treks through the next decade-plus at a breakneck pace, charting Boateng’s stint at Givenchy, his marriage, the birth of his two children, his second divorce, his celebrity-studded charity event in Ghana, fashion shows in Milan, in Paris, in London, trips to China, Russia, Los Angeles, Doha, runways, red carpets, offices, storefronts, parties, planes. It’s a glittering blur throughout which Boateng remains tireless, both in his work and as a careful curator of his personal brand. I caught up with filmmaker and his subject after the film’s world premiere here at the fittingly upscale Abu Dhabi Film Festival — both were clad, of course, in impeccable suits.
When this started, it was intended to be a three to five month project — how did it end up going on for so much longer?
Ozwald Boateng: There’s no easy answer to that, because it doesn’t really make any sense. No one would plan a film for 12 years. Varon has maybe 400 hours of usable material. To put that into an hour and a half is quite something, and when you watch it you don’t realize you’re actually carrying that amount of weight. You feel the emotional experience, but you slip through the time, it’s very cleverly put together in that way.
The film is about belief, about love, about getting it right and getting it wrong, getting it right, getting it wrong. If you look at anyone’s life over that period, it looks like that. And there are a lot of famous people in the film, but you don’t feel their fame, you feel them as people. That’s one of the fundamental points, communicating that wherever you are in your life, we’re all still trying to get to the same place emotionally. And I’ve been able to expose myself in a way that under normal circumstances is not done. The first time I watched the film, I couldn’t speak for a week, week and a half about it.
Varon Bonicos: For me, it’s like when you have a newsprint picture. You look at it really close and can only see one dot, and you start to pull out and you see lots and lots of dots, and by the time you get to the end, the edge, you go “Oh my god, that’s the picture!”
How did you know you were done?
VB: Ozwald was always very confident in everything, but he got to the point in his life where he was absolutely set. If you ultimately love something you have to be able to let it go — that’s one of the things that I learned.
Ozwald, you’ve made ten short films yourself, have they all been connected to collections?
OB: The first catwalk show I did in Paris in 1994, my invite was a short film. Those days it was on VHS cassettes. It seemed like a really interesting tool to use — film is immediate in terms of delivering an emotion. When you show the clothes afterward, it’s a good set-up for that. That became a part of my creative life.
When Varon started filming, I already had an understanding of film, and that’s kind of why I agreed to make the piece… which was supposed to last three to six months. Why he was able to film so long — he has a gift for disappearing. He’s been in places with me where it’s impossible to film, but he’s been able to film. I’m a creative — I challenge myself a lot, so I understand the gift of being able to do that.
Varon, did you show Ozwald any rough cuts along the way?
VB: No, the interview at the end, where he talks about the dream, he saw it just before. If you rewind your life 12 years — I think he was quite blown away, because you forget everything.
Ozwald, can you tell me about the work you’ve done in film costume design?
OB: Usually I dress characters — more often than not, the lead. I’d like to dress a whole movie, like Armani did for “The Untouchables.”
Does that happen often?
OB: No, that’s rare. You almost take the role of a wardrobe designer for the film. In terms of how it works, wardrobe will come to me and have a character in mind, and I’ll create a series of looks. In the case of “Miami Vice,” where I was dressing Jamie Foxx, I went and saw Michael Mann. I showed him the Chinese film [shot during the course of the documentary], he liked that. He works very similar to me — he creates a series of mood boards, he’s very visual in his process.
He’s also very detailed. Jamie was wearing one of my pieces, and Michael Mann talked about moving the button down about a centimeter. I thought I was the only one who was crazy enough to think in those terms. I said, well, look, I’ve spent the last 17 years figuring [these things] out, trust me, it’s in the right place. He still tried to go on about it. Jamie said, I don’t think that’s a good idea! Then we had a big laugh about it. Creating for film is really understanding the character.
Are there any films you’ve found particularly inspiring in your work?
OB: I did some clothes for a James Bond film, but it was for the bad guy. I want to dress James Bond. In 1995, I did a whole James Bond fashion show in Paris. It was quite a number, actually. I did it at the circus, and had models dropping from the ceiling. On that collection, I won Designer of the Year in France. It really struck a chord. That show was inspired by the whole James Bond, the man who could be everything. I’ve always been on this journey of discovering what makes men tick. The whole concept of making a suit, being a tailor is understanding the needs of the man you’re making the suit for.