Something borrowed: Olowu held his castings in a West Village townhouse on loan from a friend. This painting is one of the (many) things the Nigerian-born designer loves about his temporary downtown digs.
We joined prince of prints, Duro Olowu, who shows tonight at Milk Studios, for a late afternoon conversation in his friend’s airy West Village townhouse this week. Olowu, who asks that his models smile (and, please, don’t walk so fast!), was in the middle of castings when we swung by for the visit. But that didn’t stop Olowu from talking to us about everything, including life lessons learned from his parents. Asked what the ingredients of a “Duro” cocktail would be, the amiable Lagos-native contemplated for a moment, leaning back against the kitchen counter and folding his arms. “A very dry martini,” he replied, at last. “Vodka.” A simple answer from a complex man.
MilkMade: What were your inspirations for this season?
Duro Olowu: This season the main source of inspiration was Jacques Henri Lartigue, a French photographer working from the 1930’s up until the 70’s. He took these incredible pictures of these women, in particular a woman called Renee Pearl. There was a certain freedom and also control in his women: they were dressed up, but still very liberated. There was an allure in their eyes; you felt their gaze. This is what contemporary women have. It’s just that you need the right kind of clothes to bring that out. And to make it effortless without making it look dated. So, that’s what I thought would be important for the season. To have clothes that brought out the woman within. I was also inspired by the Windrush.
The Windrush was this period in the 50’s when all of the West Indians came to England to work. They needed people to work on the rails, and these immigrants thought, ‘Okay, it’s a new beginning!’ Of course, they went through a lot. But the women were always so elegantly dressed. They were dressed in a very European way, but there was something extra. There was this elegance and grace, as well as this forward-thinking independence. The look was very feminine, but also quite strong. These women never let the difficulties and hardship show in the way they presented themselves. And I thought, ‘That’s what clothes can do.’ You put on something everyday — it needs to feel special and make you feel special.
Was there a certain color for you this season?
Hints of pink, and a lot of black and white. An okra green as well.
What do you look for in a model when you’re doing casting?
I always think of character. When you have that character and it comes through, it’s special because it’s untouched and raw. That’s what sets a model apart. A real model always has herself in there. A lot of people don’t see it during castings, but once the show day arrives and the girls are all dressed up, and have their hair and makeup done, everybody is like ‘Oh, my God.’ They see it, too, at last.
And I always tell the models, ‘On the day of the presentation, you gotta wear these things like they’re yours.’ If you like it, then you wear it like nobody else is wearing it.
So a lot of thought goes into pairing the right girl with the right dress…
Absolutely. Although, to be honest, I do change things around a lot. I mean, 20 minutes before the last show I made five new looks.
Are you serious?
[Laughing] Imagine you and five of your friends getting together. You dress up, and you’re ready to go, but then you think, ‘Oh, I’d rather wear that.’ I have to think like that because these are things women think about.
That understanding of how women work must be essential for a male designer.
There are not a lot of women who are the designers. There are a few and they’re renowned, but when you compare them to the amount of men, it’s not enough. I have always felt that when you look at the great women designers you see something that, as a male designer, should be your goal. Women want to look great and feel special; they do not want to feel like they’ve been manipulated into a look.
How many years did you work in law?
Six and a half, seven years.
Did you gain anything valuable from that experience?
When I was young, I thought I would go to design school, but I’m happy with how this worked out. I came in the side way, so I’m not constrained by design school concerns: this is how you do this, this is how you cut this, this is how you look at this. That has been my strength. Of course, that doesn’t mean I actually had any law books as a student. [Laughs] I didn’t! I was buying magazines and art books instead.
Did your parents know?
They claim to have known. [Laughs] But no, the legal background has helped. In law school, you get the confidence to say yes or no. It also helped my editing, which is important since I have so many things running through my mind. I think it always helps to think about other things. It’s like reading or listening to more than one kind of music: you kind of have to do it all. My parents always taught me to open my eyes. Look at everything. You don’t have to love everything, but you should look at it.
So, you’re famous for your fabrics — unused vintage fabric, rare couture cloths…
And a lot of these are my prints, as well. I draw my prints in England and I mix them with these other fabrics. Bold fabrics are important to me, and technical ability in that area has disappeared in the age of digital printing. But you put a digital print next to a hand-print or a silkscreen print, and you can tell the difference. If I put a trim of a rare fabric on a dress, then the fabric that I printed has to stand up to that, and be able to live alongside it.
What was the first piece of fabric or the first pattern that you fell in love with?
The first pattern I fell in love with was something I saw as a child in Nigeria. When we were kids, my mother used to just buy fabric from everywhere she traveled to and then she’d take them back to the tailor in Nigeria to render traditional Nigerian clothing in these great Swiss silks. I remember one printed silk brocade, in particular. It was this beautiful jacquard, and my mother had it cut into this traditional style. The way the tailor did it was almost like cutting something on the bias. It was this beautiful floral print and the use of it made it irreverent. That stayed with me a long time.
How does your wife, Thelma Golden, inspire and inform your collections?
She loves fashion the way I love it. She loves beautiful things, but she also loves to understand the beauty of things. That’s what I find inspiring.
What are you most excited about in fashion right now?
I’m most excited about the up and coming generation of designers. Conglomerates were great, but it did put a restriction on designers. There’s freedom now, and I’m really excited to see young people doing well. It’s good, because I still want to go into a store and buy a good shirt for myself.