My best teacher;Interview;Ozwald Boateng

29th October 1999 at 01:00
I don't think anybody could have predicted at school that I was going to be a fashion designer. The lessons I hated most were needlework. I had classes for years and I couldn't see the point - all those different types of stitching, and sewing machines and stuff. I was always asking, "Why am I doing this?" I thought needlework was for girls. All these years on, here I am on a sewing machine and designing clothes for a living. I don't remember my needlework teacher's name, but she was a little old lady and she would be astonished at what I am doing now. It's a mystery where the interest in designing clothes came from.

I went to Highgate Woods secondary school in north London which was big on football and sport, and I had a really good time. I wasn't the brightest in the class and I always had to work quite hard to get by, but my father, Kwasi, was a teacher and I probably learnt more from him than anyone. He'd been a headteacher in Ghana before he came to Britain in the sixties. He considered teaching here but he thought the British education system was too liberal and he didn't like the idea of standing in front of a class having kids throw bits of paper at him. School just isn't like that in Ghana.

He studied law instead but he was very academic and I always felt he expected me to have a PhD by the time I was 17. He had a very regimented approach to my doing my homework. He wouldn't let you say the word difficult. You just had to get on and do it.

When I was eight he and my mother divorced and I lived with her and had a bit more freedom. But he was still there with the stick. At the same time he was very good at instilling confidence. He taught me that the mind is very strong and powerful and you can do whatever you want if you believe it. His attitude was that if you want to swim the Atlantic, providing you are 100 per cent sure then you can do in it. He taught me to talk in public and he made me a good communicator. He also taught me a lot about my Ghanaian heritage. Because of that I never had a cultural identity or colour problem at school.

I got on well with all my teachers but it is difficult to say that any of them inspired me. I had it in me to try new things and be experimental but I never felt encouraged in that way in school. My entrepreneurial spirit wasn't cultivated in the way it is in American schools. They could have done a lot more in terms of identifying the talents of kids. In Russia if they see you have an aptitude for music or sport, you are sent to a specialist school. We need a support system like that.

The only one who did unlock a door for me was my sports teacher, Mr Ammons. He was a real hard nut and wouldn't accept any excuses. You did your best, and if you didn't then you were out. I'll always remember him for that and it is a lesson that has held me in good stead. I had a fear of coming last, so in sport I pushed myself to the point of complete exhaustion. I'd get to the finishing line and be about to have a heart attack but at least I was in the top three. I applied that to everything, and if I'm honest I'm still driven like that.

One of my disappointments was that I had to choose between geography and art. My dad said art wouldn't do me any good so I had to drop it. I had a really boring geography teacher and I've always regretted that I didn't continue drawing. It would have been so much more useful to me.

I left school at 16 to do computer studies and my father was horrified. It was total rebellion and I had broken every rule he gave me. When I dropped out of my computer course to do fashion it was even worse. That was like the third world war breaking out. He lost all faith. It wasn't in his plan for me but I stuck with it even though everybody said I was wasting my time.

I sold my first collection to some of the top stores in the country when I was 19, but he wasn't impressed. Then I organised a big fashion show in Ghana when I was 23. It was very high profile and it was on the BBC and in all the papers, but he was still unimpressed. Even when I got invited to Downing Street to meet Tony Blair he was kind of interested but not full-on. What finally got him was when I was invited on BBC Question Time. He watches that programme like its law and that did impress him. But he still hasn't forgiven me for quitting school.

Ozwald Boateng, 30, was born in north London and is one of Britain's most high-profile fashion designers. He sold his first collection while still a student, founded the first couture house for men and held the first catwalk show for men's fashions in Paris. He is tailor to some of the most famous names in politics, the media and rock music. Yet in 1998, with his business turning over pound;3 million a year, he went bankrupt when an order from the Far East collapsed following the downtown in the Asian economies. He started again and within six months had rebuilt his empire.He was talking to Nigel Williamson.

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