The Root Interview: Designer Duro Olowu Defines Afro-Chic

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Duro Olowu grabbed attention in Europe a few years ago as the London-based designer of the "it" dress featured in American Vogue. In 2005 he was named Best New Designer of the Year by the British Fashion Council — and he had never had a runway show.

Since then, both his collection and his business have grown. This year, during New York Fashion Week, he showed the line in the U.S. for the first time. Since 2008, when he married Thelma Golden, the fashionable and sociable director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, he has divided his time between New York and London.


While he was in New York, The Root talked to him about life before the limelight and now that he's in it.

The Root: How did you get into fashion? You are a trained lawyer, correct?

Duro Olowu: My design experience is very interesting. As a child, I used to sketch all the time. I was always interested in art. Recently my dad gave me a basket full of sketches I did when I was kid. However, I'm 44, and for my generation, when you studied, you studied to be a lawyer, a doctor. You didn't go to school to study to be a designer. My parents were very supportive of my talents and all of that, but for me, I never thought to say, "I want to study design." It didn't occur to me.

TR: Also, I would think the culture, too, would not encourage that?

DO: Right. I'm Nigerian. My dad is a barrister from Nigeria. My mother is Jamaican. My parents met in England in the early '50s.


TR: How did you become a lawyer?

DO: I went to school in Nigeria until I was 15; then I was sent to boarding school in England, and then to law school. But even then, all my money went to books and magazines about fashion and art. I think that's some of the reason my work is the way it is. I didn't have that formal fashion training from an early age. I didn't have in my head the way it should be. That was very liberating.


After university, I did Nigerian National Service, which is for one year, and then I went back to England and to Paris. I practiced law in Nigeria and England for a while before I [went into fashion].

TR: How did you get started in fashion?

DO: My previous wife and I started a small label called Olowu Golding. She did the shoes and I did the clothes. We opened this little store in Notting Hill in 1998. That's how Sally Singer [then an editor at Vogue, now at the New York Times] found me. She just walked into the store.


My wife and I split in 2004. As with every breakup, it was a very difficult period. I designed one dress. It had an Empire waistline. It was the one dress, and I did it in a lot of different prints and fabrics. American Vogue named it the dress of the year. It really made my career. But I saw it as a step in the right direction, not the end.

TR: It's your first time showing in America. What has the reception been like?

DO: It's been really good. New York is very peculiar in a good way. It's a conservative place in a way, but people are hungry and open. Americans were the first to give me coverage in a great way, and I wasn't even an advertiser or anything like that. Barneys and Ikram were some of the first stores to support me.


TR: Tell me about this collection. What were some of your inspirations?

DO: I always do international. I was also looking at the photographs of James Van Der Zee. The Harlem Renaissance.


TR: What are some of the African fabrics you used? Or are those Dutch?

DO: People think they are African fabrics, but they are not. I design most of my own fabrics. I print them myself. Some of them I get from Abraham [the famed French manufacturer]; some are elaborate pieces like the cape with appliqué.


TR: Why does it look so West African?

DO: It's an Afro-chic aesthetic. It's international. My mother dressed like this. She would mix something Jamaican with something Nigerian with English. Everybody starts to box you in. But I design, for instance, jacquards, and what I do is I repeat the same design in flannel.


TR: What's next for the business? What would you like to do?

DO: I did handbags a few years ago, but now I want to do a limited edition shoe and handbag range [the English term for "collection"] this year. I want to do menswear in 2012. I want to do classic shoes and handbags. There's a problem in fashion where things change too quickly.


TR: Speaking of change, how did you and [your wife] Thelma [Golden] meet?

DO: I was at a Target party in the Rainbow Room, and Kim Hastreiter of Paper magazine introduced us. Thelma came up with this sonnet. This is what I call it. She said, "You've changed the silhouette of fashion," and all these things about my work. I thought, "Who is this woman?"


TR: Was it love at first sight for both of you, or were you friends and it grew? You have a love of art and of fashion in common.

DO: I knew. She was someone I fell in love with and was to marry. I was absolutely certain. She wasn't quite so sure. [Laughs.] I think she was more like, "Hmmm. I don't know about this guy." I thought, "How fortunate for me to meet this woman."


Constance C.R. White, a former style reporter for the New York Times and style director of eBay, is a consultant and independent journalist.

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