London, 1998. When Varon Bonicos was asked to consider Ozwald Boateng as a subject for a documentary, his initial response was hardly encouraging. “I was like ‘I really don’t care about fashion or clothes,’” he laughs, but he was surprised by what he saw. “He’s a very straightforward, heterosexual guy who is a fashion designer, which is not very common in the fashion industry.”
Like Armani before him, Boateng was reinventing men’s designer-wear. Yet four years after his triumphant arrival on Savile Row, Boateng was in deep trouble, both personally and professionally.
It’s at this point that A Man’s Story begins.
An Epic Journey
For a documentary that began as a six-month project, set in an industry that by its very nature is transient, A Man’s Story became a permanent fixture in the lives of both Bonicos and Boateng. By the time filming stopped a staggering 12 years had passed, and over 420 hours of footage in the can. “I was with him for 12-14 hours a day”, says the director, “we’d go out to clubs. We’d travel to Paris a few times, but it was after the first six months, after many late night conversations with Boateng, I was like ‘Let’s just see what happens, as a journey of a man, rather than of a fashion designer.’”
Inevitably, as filmmaker became friend, Bonicos bore witness to a remarkable series of events in his subject’s life. “The truth of it is, Varon was very respectful, intuitively respectful, of many moments,” says Boateng. “There were many times I didn’t know the camera was out and he was filming.”
Over the following decade, Bonicos was there almost every step of the way – from Boateng’s period working as creative director for Givenchy to the incredible moment when he was awarded an OBE. “There’s one thing I was really upset that I missed,” laughs Bonicos, “which was when he lost his mind at Givenchy, a week before the fashion show. I had a camera fault. He was screaming ‘I want black tulips, I want black tulips, I want black tulips!’ And someone says ‘Ozwald, there are no black tulips, they don’t exist.’ So he made them spray a load of white tulips black – and they all died.”
Despite this omission, Boateng willingly admits that Bonicos caught him off-guard on many occasions. “There are elements of myself that are in that documentary that you just wouldn’t see; elements that make me roll around on my seat.”
While this may be true, the one thing Bonicos never saw was his subject looking less than supremely elegant. “I’ve never seen him badly dressed, no. He takes his clothes very seriously. I remember the first time I saw him do Tai Chi, I was amazed. He had this outfit on which actually looked like a suit. Not baggy shorts and a T-shirt. You see him in a suit and he’s the best sales marketing tool that any business could have. I feel really scruffy when I’m with him but he’s not judgmental about other people’s clothes.”
Being ready to film Boateng at any given moment took its toll on Bonicos. “He doesn’t sleep!” says the director. “I’ve travelled with him and you’ll get a knock on your door at 5am, and we didn’t get in until 1am. It was like being in a vortex of time. It’s like going ‘I’m popping out to the shops, dear’ and not coming back for a month.
The film also shows Boateng’s philanthropic side, when he organised a fashion show at the African Union Summit in Ghana in 2007. “My father was always telling me I needed to do something back in Ghana, and this was an opportunity. The importance of that was it was doing something I’d promised myself I would always do. I wanted to give something back.”
Other highlights include Boateng’s interview with Giorgio Armani for the BBC. A man who greatly influenced Boeteng. “When I was 16, and I wanted to be a designer, I looked at what that was,” says Boateng. “Part of the reason I even used my name was because of him. I thought, ‘Who are the most famous designers in the world?’ Chanel, Armani, Yves Saint Laurent, Valentino…everyone is using their name. So if you want to be a famous designer, then you’ve got to use your name!’”
Yet as Boateng’s name grew, so did Bonicos’ problems, as the director was forced to fund the project himself. It didn’t help that Bonicos had had to stay wherever Boateng did. “We’d be staying at the Bulgari Hotel in Milan at $700 a night,” he says, noting that cheaper accommodation just wasn’t an option. “If I was in the B&B round the corner, I wouldn’t have had that relationship with Ozwald and I wouldn’t have got the material. As soon as there is a definition – that you are an outsider – then it all goes wrong.”
Tailoring A Man’s Story
By 2008, Bonicos knew that he had reached the point at which, for the film to reach its true potential it was time to get a producer on board. Rachel Robey from Wellington Films was set the task of helping Bonicos shape the film from a mass of footage. “When we came on board, there was a huge wealth of material,” says Robey. One of the early questions that arose was where to start the film. It was decided that when Bonicos starting filming was spot on. “The place where we started seemed so perfect,” Robey says. “He’d just seen his business catastrophically implode. And because that Paris fashion show was the start of his rebuilding, we really wanted to keep to that.”
It’s why the film begins with Boateng in a heated discussion with Gyunel on the phone, when she tells him to “be a man”. Says Bonicos, “It’s so disarming, as he goes ‘What does that mean – be a man?’ It was awful for him, and you don’t know if you should like him or not like him. And then you’ve got this intro of how important he is, and how good his clothes are, but in the back of your mind you remember this argument. That’s the reality. Behind the image, the persona, there is a reality.”
Then came the biggest challenge – what Robey calls “the Hollywood clearances”. With Boateng’s friends and clients – A-list players from Jamie Foxx to Will Smith, Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne – all appearing in the film, it meant that each had to be approached to get them to agree to their image being used!
Yet through it all Director Bonicos knew he wanted to take A Man’s Story in an alternative direction to other fashion-based documentaries. “The fashion is in there, and you can classify it to some degree as a fashion documentary. But really, as the title notes, it’s a man’s story. That’s what it’s all about. I’ve only ever filmed it as a journey of a guy. For Bonicos, how Boateng lives his life is summed up with the word ‘experience.’ Everything is about the experience – his clothes, his marriage, and his children, everything he does. It’s all about the experience.”