Originally published in
Arise
,
September 2012
He doesn’t court fame, but designer Duro Olowu’s joyous fashion has won him fans in Iman, Michelle Obama and Shingai Shoniwa, who he styles here
Duro Olowu is sipping Earl Grey in Fortnum & Mason’s tea salon, a delightfully peaceful bastion of British society where the only sounds to reverberate off the gilt walls are murmured conversations and a tinkling of china. Today it’s providing us with refuge from London’s incessant summer rain while we discuss the designer’s inspirations: “When people ask me about my influences I don’t say something like ‘I was inspired by Kate Moss walking through Hyde Park’ because I wasn’t, you know.”
My mother was an individual. She’d wear costume jewellery with a Gucci scarf and a skirt made by a local tailor
Photography: Shiba Huizer

Far from it. It’s a short walk from here to his London boutique, which is filled with some of his favourite objets trouvés from around the world. Books on Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin sit on shelves. Small brass hands that used to adorn royal horses in Morocco hang off necklaces. Studio photography of 1960s Malian beatniks by Hamidou Maiga and orientalist oil paintings line the walls. T The space is reminiscent of an exhibition he curated at the Salon 94 gallery in New York earlier in the year, where photography, sculptures, furniture and even a giant Ghanaian coffin in the shape of a Nikon camera all happily squeezed in together. A few of his own womenswear pieces, such as a precision-cut tailcoat in iridescent and floral fabrics, melted smoothly into this noisy landscape of colours and textures. “It was about getting people to see that the world is small and that creative people tend to have a stream of consciousness,” says Olowu. “The exhibition was crazy but harmonious. I’d love to repeat it in London or Lagos.”From sedate cafés to ordered chaos, the extremes of his favoured environments give an insight into Olowu’s multicultural background and stylistic approach. “I grew up travelling a lot so I love many different things,” he says. “My work now is about authenticity. I thrive on the visual overload of juxtaposing colours and prints and aim to make clothes for the international free spirit.”

Raised in Lagos during the 1970s, Olowu’s Jamaican mother was his first style icon. “My mother was an individual. She embraced my father’s Nigerian culture and would always mix things up. She’d wear costume jewellery with a Gucci scarf and a skirt made by a local tailor. When she got dressed it was instinctual, it wasn’t too drawn out. And I think that’s a valuable lesson. My clothes are about making it easier for women.” He was as much influenced by traditional Nigerian dress, with its formal structures and larger-than-life prints, as he was by visits to his mother’s side of the family. “My uncles always looked very smart in their Sunday best while my cousins would show me that Trenchtown reggae style. My upbringing is all reflected in my work.”

Like his father, Olowu studied law in London but would secretly buy fashion books instead of legal ones. Eventually he gave up a life litigating in favour of teaching himself fashion. He spent a year in Paris, eager to share the same air as his heroes Yves Saint Laurent and Azzedine Alaïa and then returned to London, where he met his first wife, shoe designer Elaine Golding. They set up the label and store Olowu Golding in the mid 1990s in west London and enjoyed considerable success.

After the couple divorced (“It was a good marriage, while it lasted,” he says) Olowu established his eponymous line for spring/summer 2004 with a capsule collection of voluminous empire-line dresses based on the Yoruba boubou. What has since become known as the “Duro dress” was an instant hit with press and customers alike and before he’d even had his first catwalk show, Olowu won the New Generation Designer award at the British Fashion Awards in 2005 and was soon being stocked at Barney’s in New York and Maria Luisa in Paris.

He went on to become a sought-after ticket at London Fashion Week and gathered many other accolades, among them the Best International Designer award at Africa Fashion Week in 2010. And despite a no-fuss, anti-celebrity approach to fashion, still the great and good invest in his clothes. Shala Monroque, Iman, Bethann Hardison and Iris Apfel all count themselves as fans, as does a certain Michelle Obama, who has worn his work at several important public appearances.

“We’ve never met but we communicate through her office. And my wife [Thelma Golden, chief curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem] is on the White House Arts Committee, so they’re usually staring each other’s outfits up and down at functions,” he laughs. “No, but she’s wonderful. It’s the greatest compliment when someone like that buys your clothes and thinks, ‘Ok, I need this in my life.’ There are lots of very famous actresses and incredible artists who make requests [for loans] but I don’t do that red carpet thing.”

Due to the enthusiasm shown for his work in the US, Olowu made the leap over the pond for New York Fashion Week autumn/winter 2011. He now has a home and studio in Harlem and hosts presentations each season. “I like New York, it’s a vibrant city that embraces possibilities. If you can deliver consistently, you’re in. Simple. The New York fashion industry is commercial but that’s why they also appreciate difference.”

And Olowu has difference in abundance. His autumn/winter 2012 collection was inspired by Egon Schiele’s Self Portrait With Peacock Waistcoat and the painting’s striking resemblance to Jean-Michel Basquiat. Statement pieces, made with his signature collage of vintage, bespoke and couture fabrics, layer to form an eloquent, daredevil collection. Frock coats, shift dresses, maxi skirts and cloaks swirl with paisley, harlequin, cubist, floral and camouflage, all set against a relief of clean, black woollen suiting.

“I’ve taken a Viennese, feminine dandy style from Schiele and mixed it with Basquiat’s sense of colour and construction to create different shapes and dimensions,” he explains. “Winter is a time when you feel like you want to be protected but you also need a bit of joy. The linings are silk so each piece looks and feels as nice on the inside as it does on the outside. And if you leave a colder continent and go a hotter one, all you have to do is take one layer off.”

For someone whose collections, life and inspirations are so nomadic, Olowu admits to being bad at travelling light. “I’m such a terrible packer that my wife makes fun of me. But let’s be honest, our lives are unpredictable, so I don’t like being unprepared however short the trip. You can’t show up at a smart event in the clothes you got off the plane in. Well, you can – but I think dressing smart is important.”

Although his references change each season – previously he’s roamed through South American gauchos, Billie Holiday, Miriam Makeba and Jimi Hendrix – Olowu is not tempted to constantly reinvent himself or be led by trends. Instead his fashion is ageless and aimed at empowering the sensual woman. There is a depth and warmth to his clothes, which are built to be cherished and rediscovered year on year. The prints may bamboozle at first glance but take a closer look and it’s clear there is a discipline to the combinations that’s guaranteed to put a spring in your step when they hang on your back. The Duro look is an evocative, progressive one that matches its maker – a thoughtful, understated man of the world who doesn’t let ego or avarice override his hands-on, handmade aesthetic.

As such, he’s quick to reject the title thrust upon him by the May/June 2012 issue of L’Uomo Vogue, which hailed him as “Nigeria’s most famous fashion designer”. The special edition – spearheaded by editor-in-chief Franca Sozzani – was dedicated to those who are “Rebranding Africa”. The feature on Olowu ran alongside interviews with everyone from presidents to popstars. “There were a lot of people in there that readers had never heard of, which is good because in the context of Africa, it’s often just me, or Marcus [Samuelsson] or David [Adjaye], but it’s a whole continent, you know.”

In the build up to the African issue, Olowu met with Sozzani in Lagos, on her trip around Africa with the United Nations in her role as goodwill ambassador for Fashion 4 Development. Sozzani’s aim is to help women on the continent by promoting fashion manufacturing and skills-building as well as publicising existing designers. Olowu introduced her to local talent and textiles and has come on board to make a line under his own name for Fashion 4 Development.

“Franca’s heart is in a great place. When she went to Lagos she met with all of the designers and was open – no pretentions,” he says. “With the lines put together for Fashion 4 Development, what Franca and I agreed on is that the customer must have a desire for the products on their own merit. Only then will they ask ‘Oh, where was this made?’ It’s a great coming together of smaller and bigger labels to create quality pieces to be sold in key stores. It’s not just a fad.”

Olowu has always maintained strong connections to the Nigerian fashion scene and is impressed by the advances fashion from Africa has made in recent years. “There is a lot of talent in Nigeria, in all of Africa. We complain about the economy and times being tough but I think part of it is that the audience just isn’t excited any more. There’s no dream to buy that hasn’t already been sold to us. But there are young African designers, like Maki Oh, who come out with collections based on a dream and whose creative vision is clear. There is so much potential right now and I know big brands and investors are looking very hard at Africa.”

One sign of this investment is Alara, a new concept store set to open in Lagos. Olowu has put his weight behind entrepreneur Reni Folawiyo’s project by helping to enlist Adjaye to design the building and by taking rail space alongside a range of African and international fashion, furniture and art. “It’s the first time I’m going to be stocked in Nigeria but I don’t care if people buy my clothes or not because for me it’s about young designers walking into this amazing space and feeling inspired by beautiful design objects. That’s what Nigeria needs.”

The first collection to make it to Lagos will probably be Olowu’s spring/summer 2013. He’s looking forward to unveiling it at Fashion Week in New York this September – albeit with a heavy heart, as his mother has just passed away. “You think you’re prepared for it but you’re not at all,” he says with a sigh. “Losing her has been a very tiring time but also an inspiring one, because so much of me has come from her. This new collection is about placement, meaningful prints and keeping it simple. This collection is for her.”

BOXOUT: WHEN DURO MET SHINGAI

When ARISE asked Duro Olowu who he wanted to model his autumn/winter 2012 collection for our shoot, he chose Noisettes frontwoman Shingai Shoniwa. On set, it was magic.
D: We met once before by chance, last year, when we were both dining in a restaurant – because we were both there so late our tables sort of merged.
S: We began by complimenting one another’s outfits.
D: You had a great hat on.
S: Oh yes, that was the beginning of my hattitude phase!
D: I love your music. You have an incredible voice that haunts you and lifts your spirit but you don’t take yourself too seriously. You concentrate on entertaining people and do it with such joie de vivre. You have style, grace and poise and a very special talent. And you leave an impression, which is what I try to do with my clothes.
S: I was first introduced to your work in 2010 when I saw Michelle Obama wearing one of your dresses. I just thought “Oh my god, we [Africans] have arrived.” And today when I put your clothes on for the shoot, it felt very natural. They embrace every aspect of being an international woman. There’s something about the afrocentric colours and art influences that make me feel confident and able to inspire other women. What genius!
D: I’m not a genius, just a hard-working boy.
S: The genius is in the details and the original ways in which the fabrics are put together. We are a match made in heaven.

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