Ozwald Boateng celebrates black masculinity in Harlem

Published 7th May 2019
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 05: Models first looks at Ozwald Boateng Harlem Runway Show at The Apollo Theater on May 05, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Monica Schipper/Getty Images)
Credit: Monica Schipper/Getty Images
Ozwald Boateng celebrates black masculinity in Harlem
Written by Lilit Marcus, CNNNew York
When British designer Ozwald Boateng announced he'd be staging a fashion show about "AI," most people assumed he was talking about artificial intelligence.
But to Boateng, who presented a collection at New York City's legendary Apollo Theater last night, AI stood for "authentic identity." And the show's looks left no doubt about his commitment to that ideal.
The looks took West African design touches (Boateng is of Ghanaian heritage) and combined them with nods to the Harlem Renaissance. Fitting, as the Apollo is one of Harlem, and the country's, most iconic showplaces for black culture.
In addition to being a spectacle in its own right, the show is one of many events taking place all over Harlem and the rest of New York City between 2018 and 2020 to mark the centennial of the Harlem Renaissance.
Models walk the runway during Ozwald Boateng Harlem Runway Show.
Models walk the runway during Ozwald Boateng Harlem Runway Show. Credit: JP Yim/Getty Images
Models, who included a few famous faces like "The Wire" actor Michael K. Williams and musician Jidenna, showed off natty three-piece suits made of kente cloth, brightly patterned silk headwraps and enormous wooden circle bracelets that resembled the lip plates traditionally worn by Mursi tribeswomen in Ethiopia. The runway soundtrack was, also, primarily about black men, with tunes from Fela Kuti, Jay Z and Prince.
Rapper Jidenna walks the runway at Ozwald Boateng's Harlem show.
Rapper Jidenna walks the runway at Ozwald Boateng's Harlem show. Credit: JP Yim/Getty Images
Everything was tailored to perfection -- not surprising, as Boateng was the youngest person ever to have his own shop on London's legendary Savile Row and the first tailor to show at Paris Fashion Week.
Boateng, who primarily designs menswear, branched out into womenswear for the show. The show's opener was 67-year-old model Jo-Ani Johnson -- signaling a new way forward for his eponymous fashion label. And that's no coincidence -- he has agreed to design new uniforms for British Airways personnel, which will make him the first black designer to create uniforms for a major global airline.
Michael K. Williams walks the runway.
Michael K. Williams walks the runway. Credit: JP Yim/Getty Images
"We live in a time where Authentic Identity is becoming a crucial part of who we are and the journey we are on," Boateng said in a statement to CNN. "My journey continues through working with British Airways on the new uniform, something I am proud and excited to share next with the world."
Ozwald Boateng
Ozwald Boateng Credit: JP Yim/Getty Images
Guests included best-dressed list regulars, including Idris Elba (who wore a Boateng-designed suit to marry Sabrina Dhowre last month), Jamie Foxx, Jesse Williams and Malik Yoba.
Nearly all of the models in the show were people of color, still a relative rarity at Fashion Weeks around the world. And there was one last surprise to close the night: a short performance from singer John Holiday, the Texas-born opera singer.
John Holiday performs on stage.
John Holiday performs on stage. Credit: JP Yim/Getty Images
As Boateng dips his toe into womenswear, it's clear he isn't leaving his rich knowledge of men's textiles and silhouettes behind him. His Harlem fashion show was a way of celebrating black men and of portraying black masculinity as both powerful and graceful.