“Michelle Obama was a real supporter and I felt very honoured because she wore very few non-American designers.”
Duro Olowu is a Nigerian-born, London-based fashion designer. He is best known for the “Duro dress” and his innovative combinations of patterns and textiles that draw inspiration from his international background.
Duro, you were born in Lagos, Nigeria in 1965. Your father is a lawyer and your mother was from Jamaica and you studied law in England at Canterbury University and then practiced in Nigeria. How come you became a designer in 2004?
I started a label with my first wife, Elaine Golding, in 1998. We both had other jobs. We called it Olowu Golding. She designed the shoes, and I designed the clothes. We had a small boutique off Ledbury Road (in Notting Hill, West London) which lasted five years until we separated.
From a very young age I always knew what I wanted to do. I came to school in England when I was 15 in the early 80s, and later went to law school. At that time studying fashion was not an option in the eyes of my parents. They had always been very encouraging of my creative side but felt another profession would provide stability. Nonetheless I would spend my time browsing in the Kings Road, Kensington Market and Hyper Hyper and going to clubs like the Wag, the Mud Club and warehouse parties. I managed to do very creative things in an important period of style and music in London, and I wanted to experience all the aspects of that time. From New Romantics to Leigh Bowery, punk and reggae, all mixed in. I read up on fashion from Vionnet and Saint Laurent to Fiorucci and knew all about that. I love style and culture and I try to bring that into the realm of fashion
Was it Azzedine Alaïa who inspired you?
I was particularly inspired by certain designers when I was young. Yves Saint Laurent, Stephen Burrows, Azzedine Alaïa, Madame Grès, and Walter Albini and Issey Miyake. My mother wore Rive Gauche when I was growing up, often mixing it with pieces of traditional Nigerian clothing and other pieces picked up on holidays abroad. I felt that these designers bought so many very different elements of culture and style into the realm of their work. The beauty of women was very inspiring to me, as were my parents, who loved clothes.
You are London and New York based. What does Lagos still mean to you?
I was born in Lagos and visit there several times a year as my father still lives there. A lot of my work reflects the mixture of fabrics and the juxtaposition of fabrics that I would look at from the car window as a child going to school. My wife Thelma Golden often refers to the back of the car experience she has since herself experienced on her trips to Lagos with me. I believe in international chic, but my Nigerian heritage finds its way into my work. Those colours are reflective of a kaleidoscope of colours that I pick up subconsciously.
You were already an independent designer in 2005?
Yes, I was an independent designer and I had my own little store. I launched my label in 2004, with one dress. It was a juxtaposition of print and an Empire waist silhouette. It became sensationally popular. I had to be very careful not to be overwhelmed by the success of what became known as “the Duro dress”. It was a sort of patchwork of materials, my prints matched with vintage couture fabrics.
Do you still make that dress?
I still make it to order for certain international clients and stores. The demand is still very much there. It was a dress of its time, when women wanted to be free, chic and full of joie de vivre. There were waiting lists and queues for it at Barneys, Biffi and other stores. And I won Best New Designer at the British Fashion Awards in 2005, largely as a result of its success.
You say that you are inspired by the world and the women in it, and by artists?
The things that inspire me are women, past and present, how they live, see things, what they need. I want to make women feel confident in an effortless way. I am inspired by colour, silhouette and pattern, so I look to art and artists from all over the world including early and contemporary African art and international art and photography. Chris Ofili, Carol Rama, Matisse, David Hammons, Francis Picabia, Glenn Ligon and Domenico Gnoli are particular favourites.
How did Michelle Obama become your client?
Mrs. Obama became a client in the run-up to her husband’s first term. She bought pieces by me from a shop called Ikram in Chicago. When Obama became President she continued to buy and wear pieces. I love to dress people I respect and I have a huge amount of respect for her. I like making clothes that are appropriate for a confident woman who doesn’t make herself out to be something she’s not. Michelle Obama was a real supporter and I felt very honoured because she wore very few non-American designers.
She asked you to decorate the Vermeil Room in the White House for Christmas 2015. What did you do?
Hundreds of volunteers come every year to help hang the White House Christmas decorations. It’s a big deal, which I didn’t quite realise until I saw it in motion. I got the request and said yes immediately, but I hadn’t decided what I’d do. My wife and I knew the Vermeil Room, it’s a beautiful room with a portrait of Jackie Onassis in the centre. I created a surrealist diorama. An assemblage of miniature dolls, curios and fabric pompoms, alongside draped vintage and new fabrics. We made little trees from shells that were put on the fireplace, and patchwork teddy bears in fabrics from everywhere. It was a wonderful experience.
Do you like being a curator?
Yes I very much enjoy it. I have curated two gallery shows in New York at Jeanne Greenberg’s gallery Salon 94. The first in 2012 was an exhibition called “Material”. I juxtaposed fabric, sculpture and all kinds of work by contemporary artists. Roberta Smith wrote an incredible review in the New York Times. I waited a while to do another show, “More Material”– in 2014, and that had an even bigger response. I see myself as someone who finds things and places them in unusual surroundings. Last year at the Camden Arts Centre I was asked to curate a museum show. I titled it “Making and Unmaking”, it was a very ambitious exhibition featuring over seventy international contemporary artists. I drove them crazy because I never had a drawing or a plan, but it turned out to be the museum’s most successful show ever. The public responded incredibly and they had to reprint the book within a month.
How would you describe yourself?
I am a fashion designer in deep conversation with other disciplines, such as art, film and culture. I have worked rather hard for my independence, Therefore I can do what I want creatively at the end of the day. Real fashion is style and confidence in your personal style. I like people who wear clothes that stand for something. I like the integrity of elegant activism, or in support of the arts. In the old days clothes were not disposable things.
One could say that there are two kinds of designers, the fantastical and the every day. What kind of woman is your woman?
Clothes are a shield, they protect you, they make you feel good. I like alluring women, smart, sensitive and charming, but not wallflowers. They speak up for themselves and what they wear says something about what they think.
Could you dress the Queen?
Why not! I think she’s very chic. With her jewellery by Andrew Grima, and much replicated “Princess” coats. I love that ‘Granny chic’ – it’s a good look at whatever age.
Some very famous artists are recognizable because they repeat themselves. Some like Picasso are recognizable because they cover the whole range. What kind are you?
I experiment constantly, but my clothes become very recognizable because of the way I mix the fabrics. Print and texture have become a signature of my work. However I am also very particular about the cut and the making of my collections. The clothes are made in England, the knitwear is made in Perugia in Italy and the shoes in France. Women tend not to want to throw away these clothes!
Do you divide your time between London and New York?
Yes I do. Both can be very hectic depending on what is going on. I plan my schedule around my wife’s schedule. I do a lot of business in America but my headquarters are in London.
And your clients?
They are in London and international. I sell in stores all over the world, but clients like to come here as they see a bigger collection. Each season the stores buy certain styles, but clients feel they need to see more and come to the shop. I try to create an atmosphere where people can come and hang out. For example, we are inundated during the Frieze Art Fair in October.
Where is fashion today?
For really creative designers who are doing things from the heart it’s a very good time to be the best at what they do and make special collections that are stylish and seasonless. Unfortunately there are very few independents like myself and even fewer young designers. The ones that exist are always approached to be taken over.
Is fashion too expensive?
Fashion is featured in everything now, and clients are very educated. It becomes less exciting because there are too many seasons and it changes too often. It’s important in times like these that creative people should go to work and make meaningful things which represent the era.
Are you expensive?
I am pricey but value for money. I am not mid-range. Prices start around 900 Euro.
Saint Laurent is known for his black, while Missoni for example is very colourful. You are among the colourful?
I love the warmth and passion of colour (including black or white) and try to create harmony in the mixed palette of my prints and fabrics. Whether fitted or billowing, I also find a longer silhouette is more appealing.
What are you aiming for?
I want to continue doing what I do and to keep enjoying it. I have been very successful and lucky but have worked hard for it. I have had amazing continuous support, in a fashion world that can sometimes be fickle, from people who just got it. Anna Wintour, Sally Singer, the late Franca Sozzani, Rosy Biffi, Alex Shulman, Suzy Menkes etc. have always been very supportive. You don’t get that support unless you deliver an aesthetic and certain level of beauty and professionalism that they appreciate. I certainly wouldn’t be who I am without the amazing women that walk into a store, year after year, and ask – all over the world, every season – to buy my pieces.
How do you work?
I work by myself. I work every day. I have a tiny team of seamstresses and tailors and a great pattern maker. The more people you have the more time is spent on delegating. I have also recently designed a fine jewellery collection for the American jewelers Sidney Garber in New York.
Which city is the best for fashion?
London is the best for freedom and experimentation, however it suffers from a lack of financial support for new young designers.
What is chic today?
Chic style is practical and personal. Everyone should have a uniform and not buy something just because of the label
What is your uniform?
My uniform is a vintage French workman’s jacket, wide cuff trousers and slip ons from my tailors New & Lingwood, and button down Uniqlo Merino cardigans.
Do you also dress men?
I am starting again at the end of the year with a capsule men’s collection of sharp and elegant classics in interesting fabrics.
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28th March 2017