Don’t ask Ozwald Boateng about his suits—at least not the ones he’s wearing these days. “It’s a sore subject,” says the London designer with a groan. “I’ve recently had to accept that I can’t fit my own samples anymore. I’ve lost that 31 ½-in. waist.”
But he’s happy to talk about dressing the stars—Will Smith, Keanu Reeves, Jamie Foxx—who love his luxe suits in eye-popping colors. “When you wear an Ozwald Boateng suit,” says Laurence Fishburne, “you become a statesman of cool.” With the right shade and cut, says Boateng, 38, chartreuse or turquoise can be “sexy, but still very masculine.” He proved it by dressing Foxx for this year’s Oscars in a violet shadow-striped ensemble that raised his profile with U.S. style watchers. “When he won the Oscar, it was like I won an award too,” he says.
While he may be relatively new to the stateside red carpet, in Britain the striking, 6’4″ bald-headed designer is a recognized wunderkind who opened his shop just off Savile Row at age 27. In France he’s known as the first black man to head a major fashion house, having been tapped to run Givenchy’s men’s line in 2003. “There’s a mystique about Ozwald,” says Britain’s Daily Telegraph fashion editor Hilary Alexander. “He’s a great personality, always at the right parties.” But he’s also got the goods. “It’s very sharp tailoring, and the cut makes the most of the body.”
Raised in North London by Ghanaian immigrants, Boateng displayed a precocious streak for finery (a 5th-birthday present was a made-to-measure purple mohair suit) and industriousness (he was delivering milk at age 6). By 13, he had a job sewing jacket linings, and at 16, he and a girlfriend put on a fashion show using, he recalls, “mad fabrics—pink, black and turquoise, very early ’80s.”
The girl dumped him two years later, but by then he had a burgeoning bespoke business. Still, it wasn’t a straight shot to the top: In 1998 his company went bust during the Asian economic downturn. A year later his entire collection, worth $140,000, was stolen from his studio. Along the way, his seven-year marriage to a French model collapsed. Boateng took the setbacks in stride, and his suits, priced from $1,685 (ready-to-wear) and $7,500 (custom-made), now sell briskly. His secret for juggling his own line and the venerable French label? “I sleep five hours a night,” he says, “and I’m very decisive.”
He’s equally decisive in matters of the heart. He wed Russian former model Gyunel, 28, a year after meeting her at a part thrown by Diddy in 1998. The births of Emilia, 5, and Oscar, 2, forced a rethinking of his style. “He’d be doing the shopping in a white suit,” says Gyunel, “and the baby would puke on him.” Not that he’s totally reformed: Recently he wanted to buy Emilia a $400 jacket, telling Gyunel, “Look how well it’s cut!”
On his own wish list: A New York store and a women’s wear line. And, of course, that elusive 31 ½-in. waist. “I gave up red meat, I’m drinking more water and trying to get into yoga,” he says. “Right now it’s a real problem for me just to touch my toes. But I will!”
Courtney Rubin in London