Trying to catch Duro Olowu for an interview isn’t easy. Olowu is a modern nomad. Married to Thelma Golden, director and chief curator of the Studio Museum in New York, he shuttles between his home and studio in Harlem, and his boutique on Duke Street, St James, in London.
When I finally track him down — on the phone — he’s in London, preparing to leave for New York the following morning.
Olowu talks fast. His delivery is precise and confident, and he hops elegantly from one idea to another. He threads his words like colourful beads on a string and he laughs often. What was supposed to be a 15-minute interview turns into an almost hour-long chat.
The Nigerian designer, who was named best new designer of the year by the British Fashion Council in 2005 and international designer of the year at the 2010 Africa Fashion Awards, is impossible to box in.
His thinking, as with his designs, is a patchwork of influences brought together in powerful combinations of fabrics and bright hues.
Olowu was born in Nigeria in 1966, and grew up in Lagos. His mother, a Jamaican, wore Yves Saint Laurent and was his first muse; his father was a barrister. At 15, the young Duro was sent to boarding school in ?London.
Aspiring to becoming a fashion designer, he recalls, was out of the question: in his family, children were groomed to become doctors or lawyers. Yet Olowu was already drawing frantically, sketches piling up in his little notebooks.
While he studied law, he bought fashion magazines instead of law books, shaping his aesthetics in the new romantic, post-punk London of the Thatcher-era Eighties.
Olowu never had a formal education in design or fashion, something he now sees as a blessing.
“I really don’t think I would have had the kind of success and vision about what I do if I had followed a more conventional path,” he tells me.
“It took me time, but when I finally got where I wanted to, I had some confidence … It is what I have always felt I was meant to do and I am very lucky to be able to be recognised for it.”
Today he dresses a cosmopolitan list of celebrities that includes Keira Knightley.
He remembers, his voice coming alive, the day when his father called him to say: “I am watching TV and I think Michelle Obama is wearing one of your dresses.”
Sitting next to her husband, President Barack Obama, on The Oprah Winfrey Show in April 2011, the first lady wore an Olowu knee-length, V-neck dress with cropped cap sleeves, in the designer’s signature fusion of prints — sandy tones, warm khakis and blues.
That single prime-time TV event propelled Olowu to immediate global desirability. But he’s quick to point out that, “no matter how big the success, work with integrity, otherwise what you have is just reputation”.
Michelle Obama was not the first to notice the designer. The “Duro”, a patchwork dress with an Empire waistline he created after the break-up with his first wife, shoe designer Elaine Golding, was named dress of the year by Vogue in 2004.
Sally Singer, Vogue’s digital creative director, had spotted Olowu’s work and eulogised his African-influenced palette of colours, bold patterns, and the juxtaposition of motifs and textures that quickly turned into cult items.
“Fabric,” he says. “It all starts with fabric. Cut and silhouette are also super important. With a mix of fantasy and love to round things off.”
Though Olowu doesn’t specifically source his fabrics in Africa, and manufactures his textiles in Italy and England, his work is still influenced by the shapes and colours of the continent of his birth.
In April he went to Burkina Faso, thanks to the Ethical Fashion Initiative (a project from the International Trade Centre that works with 7 000 artisans and aims to foster sustainable economic development) to sample the work of Burkinabe weavers and came back with traditional fabrics for his next collection.
In an interview with Vogue Italy published in May 2012, Olowu said that he still travels to Nigeria “a couple of times a year. Part of my family is there. My love for the land, colours and beauty has roots in Africa.”
He uses multicoloured textiles, crafts cut-outs in the shape of feathers and flowers, and dresses women in a sophisticated plumage.
The Duro Olowu woman is an exotic bird of paradise, “a free-spirited, strong woman with allure. She wants to look sensual but not vulgar, and wears clothes that make her feel good about herself.”
The result is a world of femininity and fantasy that contrasts with sharp silhouettes and almost an obsession for geometrical exaggerated A-lines.
Blown dresses, wrapped or high-waisted, wide-leg pants, are juxtaposed with capes that fall down to the knee with the majesty of an inverted peacock train.
On his mood board at the moment, “you will find lots of floral and tree images, bougainvillea, hibiscus, palm trees and baobab trees”.
He uses the confluence of influences to design collections that appeal to a broad clientele. “My aesthetics are international chic,” he says, beating the clichés, magnifying a mode à l’africaine, without limiting his inspiration to any continent.
Olowu’s collections reflect the man he is, a funambulist walking gracefully between several worlds without bearing the flag of any race or country.
“A lot of young African designers are not making things that come from the heart. [Designers] need first to look and learn, get out there. [They need] to pay attention to the quality, the precision, and to have a certain fashion confidence, not arrogance.”
Olowu’s lack of arrogance is one of the qualities that make him such an exciting designer. There is no pushing hard at being the harbinger of one kind of style. To him, success is about creating.