From Savile Row to the runway: Ozwald Boateng presents BA’s new uniform
As Ozwald Boateng’s uniform collection rolls out across the British Airways network, Victoria Moss meets the man who brought his Savile Row expertise to every stitch. She discovers exactly what goes into reimagining the uniform for the modern age, while British Airways staff from across the airline model the new looks
Photographs by Jamie Morgan
Where to start when tasked with the magnitudinal task of dressing the entire fleet – more than 30,000 – of British Airways staff? For Ozwald Boateng OBE, the esteemed Savile Row tailor and multi-hyphenate, it was with the staff themselves as he embedded himself in their working lives, something he describes as a “profound experience”. “I saw the captains who fly the planes – they put me in a flight simulator – then I met the engineers and the baggage handlers.
I asked everyone what they wanted, and what they expected,” he explains from his London atelier. The first thing Boateng honed in on was semantics: “I realised the way to change the relationship was to no longer call it a uniform, but a collection,” he says. It’s a small shift, but one that he felt offered colleagues the chance to feel heard and respected, one that gave them a sense of choice and, ultimately, excitement about dressing to come to work every day. “I knew that once the staff are happy, the passengers will be happy,” he adds.
The collection, now being worn by staff, is the latest in a prestigious line of designer contributions shaping the look of British Airways. The outgoing retired uniform was created by British designer Julien Macdonald 20 years ago, and it has been the longest serving duration of any BA uniform.
But the storied relationship between the fashion world and the real runways goes right back to the early years of glamorous high flying. In 1952, British couturier Sir Norman Hartnell (who also dressed Queen Elizabeth II) designed some of the first cabin crew uniforms. A decade later, Sir Hardy Amies, another couturier to the Queen, was chosen for the follow up, which reflected the changing modern age, employing 1960s shifts with shorter lengths. The uniforms have since developed and changed with the fashions of the time, which means that one of the trickiest parts of designing the uniform is creating something modern but with a timeless durability to it, too.
Boateng was an obvious choice for the job, having revolutionised the world of British tailoring with his sharp cut and vibrant design details. His skill marries fashion flair with acute wearability, his aesthetic drawing on his Ghanaian heritage, fusing together tradition with forward-thinking edge. Having launched his career dressing Mick Jagger in the 1980s, in 1994, Boateng was the first-ever tailor to put on a catwalk show at Paris Fashion Week.
He opened his first atelier and store (his flagship now sits proudly at 30 Savile Row) on Vigo Street, Mayfair in 1995, which reinvigorated the traditional and slightly fusty reputation of classic British tailoring. This led to a stint as creative director at Givenchy, as well as industry awards and accolades and a burgeoning list of celebrity clientele that includes Will Smith, Idris Elba and Keanu Reeves. Alongside his work as a fashion designer, Boateng designs interiors and directs short films. Last year he took over London’s Savoy Theatre for a breathtaking show and celebration of Black culture, which was his first in Britain for 12 years.
When embarking on this latest role, redesigning the BA look, Boateng asked questions: “What does it mean to redefine such a known British brand and how do you revitalise it? You have to redefine that history, and what the future looks like.” He elucidates that the biggest challenge was “people’s expectations”, from cabin crew to customers.
The first thing he designed was the fabric. “It’s subtle but there’s a lot of detail in the texture of the fabric, it’s a herringbone Jacquard, but with that BA speedmarque running through it,” he says. As much as possible, the collection utilises fabric with sustainable concerns front of mind, incorporating recycled polyester and cotton sourced through the BCI (Better Cotton Initiative) programme.
“What I was trying to do is find a very classic, chic and forward-looking uniform collection that could stand the test of time,” adds Boateng. An airwave pattern is echoed across the collection, including on ties and neck scarves, expertly bringing the teams together. And there are different trouser options – both slim and regular fits, as well as skirt and dress choices and, for the first time, a jumpsuit for women.
“I want everyone to really like what they’re wearing. I want them to feel cool,” offers Boateng enthusiastically about this refreshing modern addition.
The collection involved 1,500 colleagues from the start. It was put through its paces, being secretly wear-tested over the summer of 2022 by many staff across the company, who fed back with tweaks and amendments. Testing included live flights, outside shower deluges and -18°C conditions.
The project started pre-pandemic, with Covid adding unavoidable delays and setbacks. It has taken almost six years to come to fruition. Inevitably with the safety precautions that must be observed on board, there were some compromises for a Savile Row tailor.
“The ties have to be clip-on, so you don’t get that perfect knot… I had to let go of that one,” Boateng laughs. A self-proclaimed perfectionist, when asked if he is happy with the final outcome, he leans back and says, “You know, as a designer, I’m never satisfied. I always want to be better, to do better.” He admits he could have gone on playing around and adjusting elements forever.
This shoot with staff is, for him, the finale, the big unveil and show moment. “I’m excited for the staff, and cannot wait to feel the energy of what they’re feeling when everyone’s wearing it,” he says. I ask if he’s going to be able to stop himself from tweaking colleagues’ looks when he’s on board. “It’s going to be virtually impossible for me not to correct it!” he laughs.
“I like doing big fashion shows and expressing myself, but the most rewarding element is always when you create something for somebody and they love it. Nothing beats the energy of that.”
Creative direction: Jamie McPherson
Production: Matt Richardson; Katherine Knight
Photography: Jamie Morgan
Stylist: Kimi O’Neill
Hair: Sarah Jo Palmer
Makeup: Crystabel Riley
Set design: Robbie Doig
Photography assistants: Gabor Herczegfalvi; Jack Kenyon
Digi tech: Lisa Bennett
Styling assistant: Angharad Merrey
Hair assistants: Brielle Edmondson; Aminata Kamara
Makeup assistants: Temi Adelekan; Chantal Amari
Set assistant: James Simmons
With thanks to Ozwald Boateng and Lisa Davies
Partner news: Kidzania
KidZania, one of London’s most popular attractions lets children act out their future fantasies in a city created just for them
The world’s best rugby locations
Three England rugby union players select their favourite destinations around the globe to hit the turf
A new generation of engineers arrives
Aston Martin and British Airways are helping to create a new era of aerospace technicians