Inside Ozwald Boateng’s Triumphant Womenswear Debut at Harlem’s Apollo Theater
The British tailor hit Harlem for the debut of his womenswear collection and a celebration of black culture.
It should come as no surprise that Savile Row designer Ozwald Boateng, long known for his sharp, British-with-a-twist tailoring, throws a commanding runway show.
But add some challenges to the mix—untraditional runway staging at Harlem’s Apollo Theater, a downpour outside leading to some soggy spectators—and the triumph of Boateng’s show becomes all the more impressive.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was that the night’s theme of “AI” found with zero robots on the runway. In a short film projected onto the famous stage just before the show began, Boateng explained that the initials stood not for artificial intelligence, but a trifecta of “authentic identity,” “artificial intelligence,” and “ancestral identity.”
Boateng, a first-generation British son of Ghanaian immigrants, opted to debut his debut womenswear collection on his own terms. In show notes, the former Givenchy creative director wrote of finding inspiration in the Harlem Renaissance of the '20s.
“Keeping up with tradition is good, but I have always held a strong belief that traditions have to evolve otherwise they will eventually die,” Boateng, 52, wrote.
As models walked to the center of the stage, then made a lap around the “runway” that were aisles of the theater orchestra section, it was easy to pick up the reverence Boateng has for vintage designs.
Along with obvious sartorial nods to the '20s, the designer took cues from the '70s, '80s, and '90s. To keep things less costume-y and more current, historical references were juxtaposed with sleek, timeless suiting, giving the entire scene a futuristic vibe. (Again: robots.)
In the unisex show, both men and women wore Black Panther-esque berets tilted to the left. Some were put over printed keffiyehs that flowed with each step.
As expected from a tailor like Boateng, the night became a parade of some very smart suits. The best were saved for women.
One model’s right trouser leg had a slick, straight silhouette, while her right one fanned out into skirt-like pleating. Another wore a pristine white jumpsuit that would have been a little too angelic were it not for two pointy pant creases that toughened things up.
There were also traditionally feminine styles, too, for men and women. One showstopper that came in the middle of the night was a printed maxi with a skirt layered over the top. Boateng paired it with a jade peacock headdress Josephine Baker would have scooped up in a heartbeat.
Another structured suit for men got the gender-fluid treatment with a long, purple skirt overlay.
The night’s homage to black culture included a soundtrack that was impossible to not seat dance to, with remixed tracks from James Brown, Prince, and an encore from opera singer John Holiday.
Boateng recently dressed Idris Elba for his April wedding to Sabrina Dhowre; the newlyweds sat front row on Sunday night. Also present was the model Adut Aketch, skin pristine after a 24 karat gold mask facial she got to prep for the evening (and, of course, Monday’s Met Gala).
The singer Justine Skye also made an appearance in a faded tangerine pantsuit. Boateng utilized a similar rusty hue for many of his designs, making one wonder if burnt copper is the new hot pink.
Some vestiges of a typical fashion show remained. A long line stretched outside the Apollo, guests standing in the rain, blocking the entrance to a nearby Red Lobster. Predictably, there was some door drama with ticket barcodes. The show did not start until more than an hour after its 7 p.m. call time.
Minor details, really, in the face of the meaning behind Boateng’s Afrocentric show, which celebrated fashion on the designer’s own terms. Not only did Boateng eschew the traditional fashion calendar, but he held his extravaganza the night before the Met Gala.
The move took some chutzpah, sure, but the designer proved he has the ability not only to fill the Apollo on such a busy night but to bring the audience to its feet, too.