A Conversation with Duro Olowu
Mr. Olowu, I’d like to start by discussing how you reflect on notions of origin and heritage in your fashion practice. Can you tell us about how your upbringing in Lagos during the 1970s influenced your understanding of fashion and style? When you look back, how do you see your Jamaican and Nigerian origins interacting with each other, and fostering intuition and sensitivity towards fashion, and towards the female body?
My Nigerian father and Jamaican mother met in London in the 1950s, and moved back to Nigeria in 1959. They both had a strong sense of style, which I, with no doubt, relished. This sense of style was not based on how much things would cost; however, quality was always an important element as it could add to the way one dressed. My mother mixed things freely in her look; her style was a real mix of Nigerian clothing with clothes designed by European designers that she loved, as well as with special things that her dressmaker made for her in Lagos. I was a child growing up in the Lagos of the 1970s. At that time, there was a real sense of traditional style and international elegance that was very inspiring: a cultural joi de vivre that fed off the mood of pan-African pride with an interest in international affairs. Women dressed in a way that made them look strong but feminine; and body type was certainly not a hindrance. Musicians like Mriam Makeba, Fela Kuti, Sunny Ade, Jimi Hendrix, Victor Uwaifo, Davie Bowie, the Wailers, King Sunny Ade, The Lijadu Sisters, Marc Bolan etc. were also very inspiring to me not just musically, but because of how they put themselves together. I treated their album covers like paintings. We would spend summers in Geneva, and then in London where my mother, brothers and their families lived. So I was also immersed in the West Indian music, fashion, and culture as well. At that time ska, reggae, lovers rock as musical styles and cultures were also in the scene. I think, all of this gave me a strong idea of the possibilities of fashion, and the role of culture in creating individual style.
How would you describe your creative and emotional relationship with the city of Lagos?
The Lagos of my childhood was a dynamic city of comfort and joy. After the horrors and turmoil of Biafra when so many people were killed or displaced in Eastern and northern Nigeria, there was a period of optimistic rebuilding; and Lagos seemed to be at the core of this. It was a culturally dynamic and affordable city where ordinary people could find jobs, and look after their families. Hospitals, schools and other services worked well, and people took pride in their jobs and in the way they looked. By the mid 80's however, things fell apart. Life got harder for the masses; services declined or simply disappeared; and the new oil money became the king, destroying real culture and taste in its path. Even the way people dressed became aggressive and somewhat vulgar, similar to what was happening in England under Thatcher. By that time I had left to do my A levels in England, but I returned to Lagos every holiday, and saw more and more of a change each time.
It has been very sad to see how things have gotten worse each time I return to visit family (for a few times a year indeed), particularly for the less privileged for whom the struggle to survive in such harsh conditions is relentless. But I love the city, it's people, the can-do energy, and, of course, the effortless style of its inhabitants, particularly those without much for whom dressing is a source of pride and dignity in such a tough environment.
How do you relate to Nigerian/Jamaican traditions of tailoring and styling? Given the fact that the fashion world operates on fast track -in every sense of the word-, how do you feel about the concept of tradition?
There are similarities between the two. Sharp elegant style combined with "Sunday" is probably the best way to describe the combination of both. However, traditions of Nigerian dress rely heavily on fabric drape, volume, and adornment, which add a somewhat more regal touch to the overall look.
Regarding tradition, I feel the constant changes and fast pace of fashion are at the expense of all the good elements of tradition, which is rather sad. Whether it is the making techniques and craftsmanship used in the production of printed silks from Italy or France, embroidery and hand weaving techniques from Nigeria, or tailoring and cutting skills on Saville row, traditions of making and craftsmanship are replaced by cheap, fast-fashion production that destroys livelihoods and traditional skills. I believe that we cannot possibly develop ‘the new’ without fully understanding and learning about old techniques, which, by the way, are very modern in their own rights. In the end, the fashion world suffers for it, because one is mostly left with a lot of uninspiring products made in haste, and not with love.
Your career path changed drastically when you decided to quit your job as a practicing lawyer and started your design practice. What do you think is the most rewarding about being a self-taught fashion designer?
Being self-taught has given me the freedom of thought, and of process. I appreciate and explore things in a different way because I taught myself to think and work that way. Although I completely appreciate the design school path to fashion, I am also very aware of the fact that what one does probably stands out for the better because of this. I am very lucky that my success has allowed me to somewhat control how I work on every level: quality, aesthetic, and pace…
I believe, this year you are celebrating the 10th anniversary of your fashion brand. What were some of the milestones in your career that led to your acclaimed success in the fashion world?
A huge milestone in my career was the very early support that I got from American Vogue. They were the first to push my work in their editorials, and to appreciate how I mixed fabrics and textures in a way they felt was unique and inspiring to their readers. Winning the title of ‘The Best New Designer’ at the British Awards 2005, a year after I started my label and even before I started doing runway, was also a rather amazing thing in many ways. But in the end, I feel that my greatest achievement has been, albeit in a small way, to make collections that inspire women in different parts of the world to dress in a way that makes them feel good about themselves, confident and beautiful…
As much as the world of fashion can be pressuring about ‘always creating the new’, the ‘never seen before’; it also engages with practices of re-cycling and cross-referencing. How do you feel about the idea of ‘newness’ for an ‘upcoming’ season? When you start working on a new collection, what concerns you the most about the final product?
A strong visual cross-cultural aesthetic, quality of the cut and the fabric, and an appreciation for the female form are the things that matter to me. Newness is fine, but like with everything else, "timelessness" is better.
Following on your point on appreciating the female body, how would you describe your design approach in relation to the female body, given the fact that we are in an age of extreme consciousness towards the female body and curves?
I grew up in a multicultural household, and travelled around the world. This allowed me to see and appreciate different standards of beauty relating to women and the female form. The women that surrounded me as a child growing up in Lagos, images and depictions of women in art and cinema, women I see in different situations and places all over the world have fed my idea of female beauty. Different body shapes and sizes only enhance sensuality and the possibilities of dress and style. That’s why I try to make pieces that cultivate and celebrate diverse and confident ideas of female beauty and allure. I make clothes that hopefully merge style and function in an effortless way.
I feel that visual and structural collage is a recurrent design principle in your work. At the same time, I believe that collage becomes instrumental in revealing your thought process and intriguing the viewer/wearer to explore the design idea behind the pieces. How do your pieces mediate the relationship between you and the wearer?
Colour, collage, appliqué, and the piecing together have always been a very important aspect of my collections over the last ten years. I have always explored the relationship between fabrics of different cultures and textures. Prints are probably a signature of my work from the beginning, but I never use them in an obvious way. One tries to achieve harmony in this mix that is neither obvious nor forced. In the end, the cut and the silhouette of the clothes must not be overwhelmed by the fabrics, even when they are luxuriously printed or woven. There needs to be an unspoken love affair between the clothes and the women that wear them.
I think juxtaposing bold prints and colors needs a true mastery, and also is a form of craft on its own. Different types of fabrics, patterns and prints can exist harmoniously in your designs. What kind of designerly sensitivities do you have towards ‘the use of material’ for realizing a specific vision? How does the ‘material’ inform your creative process?
There really is no formula or trick except for, perhaps, an innate confidence in my almost child-like sense of freedom in how I work. Of course, after many years of designing in my own and relying on my own sensibilities of colour and texture, fabric and shape, I have an almost instinctive sense of what does not work for me and for the women who buy my collections. Mistakes happen, but they are healthy, and even a revelation sometimes.
I am sure that you have been asked about your sources of inspiration many times before. I am rather interested in the creative process that creates stories inspired by a variety of things, from different times. Where does ‘narrative’ stand in your creative process?
The combination of art, cinema, film, music, culture and real life somehow find their ways into each of my collections. A narrative of ideas, and possibilities of clothing and style are always at the heart of my work. I try not to make it too literal; instead, I try to suggest an intriguing reference. My latest Fall 2014 collection ‘Afro Deco’ is inspired by the work of the 1930’s artist and furniture designer Eyre de Lanux, as well as by the colour palette of my friend Chris Ofili's 2007 painting ‘The Raising of Lazarus’.
You have recently curated a group exhibition at Salon 94 Gallery in New York titled ‘More Material’, featuring work by artists from different realms of practice such as photography, film, fashion, jewellery and ceramics. What was the idea behind creating such an environment for cross-reference?
My show ‘More Material’ is a follow up on my 2012 show ‘Material’, which also took place at Salon 94 Gallery in New York. It is really a continuation of my ideas about how things, made in very diverse and distant environments and practices, are nonetheless related by a desire to create powerful, lasting statements of beauty and form that evade the normal restrictions of appreciation and display. For ‘More Material’, I curated a show that placed opulent capes of my design alongside the work of amazing artists like Cindy Sherman, Glenn Ligon, Mama Casset, Lorna Simpson, Jurgen Teller, Lynette Yiadom Boakye, Helen Marden , Malick Sidibe, Barkley Hendricks, Joan Jonas, Nick Cave, Carrie Mae Weems, Cyrus Kabiru, Antonio Lopez , Marilyn Minter, Stanley Whitney, Hassan Hajjaj etc. It also included jewellery by the painters James Brown and Art Smith; sculptures by Alexander Calder, Amy Bessone, Rachel Fienstien; ceramics by Magdalene Odundo and Matt Merkell Hess; Yoruba women's costumes; furniture by Francois Lalanne Rick amongst other things: a visual overload of beauty and a creative practice that is essential to how I work and what inspires me…
How do you maintain your connections with the Nigerian fashion design scene?
I am thrilled about the soon-to-open luxury concept store in ALARA founded and owned by Reni Folawiyo, and designed by the architect David Adjaye. Both are dear friends of mine with incredibly visionary ideas of design and retail. The store will feature international fashion, design and art from international fashion labels as well as from all over Africa. It will be the first time my collections will be sold in Africa, and I couldn't ask for a better environment. This, I think, will completely change the retail scene not only in Nigeria, but also all over Africa for the better. I am also a big supporter of young Nigerian design talents, particularly bag designer Zainab Ashadu of Zashadu, and fashion designer Maki Oh, both of whom, I feel, represent the best of the Nigerian fashion scene and will do well internationally as well.
How do you see the relationship between existing craft traditions in local communities and fashion design in Africa? And lastly, how do you think the local communities with certain crafts and making skills could be engaged?
I have long collected antique African textiles and fabrics, particularly early 20th century Yoruba, Ibo, Hausa and Malian hand woven fabrics and printed textiles. Over the years, the meticulous techniques involved in making what I consider to be these ‘pieces of art’ have been lost to the appeal of cheaply produced fabrics in the Far East and elsewhere, as well as to a lack of respect for indigenous weaving and dying skills. In the end, if there is no local demand for these skills and fabrics, they will disappear. In the last year, I have worked with the United Nations Ethical Fashion Initiative headed by Simone Cipriani and their artisanal weaving groups in Burkina Faso, to create beautiful hand-woven fabrics, which I used with great success in some pieces in my Spring-Summer and Fall-Winter 2014 collections. It is important to try to respect and preserve these weaving skills and techniques so that a younger generation is able to see the value in learning them as a viable source of income and stability in their local communities. African traditions of fabric and textiles are as historically and culturally important as those of Japan, Italy, France, and India that are exhibited in the most renowned international museums and design institutions. So they must be preserved and protected from the catastrophe of cheap global production.