Since arriving on the London fashion scene in 2004, Nigerian-born Duro Olowu has impressed the right people with his vibrant mix of African prints, seventies tailoring, and unlikely color combos. A high-waisted patchwork boho dress—known as the “Duro”—put the brand on the fashion map and became a cult item in 2005 after being discovered by American Vogue editor Sally Singer and Julie Gilhart of Barneys.
Duro Olowu was born in Lagos to a Nigerian father and Jamaican mother; he grew up in a multicultural and big family (he’s the fourth of six children), where any art expression was encouraged. As a child, he passionately loved fashion: his first inspirations were fabrics and prints, shapes and volumes of dresses seen on African women. His Jamaican mother was his first style icon. “My mother was an individual. She embraced my father’s Nigerian culture and would always mix things up. She’d wear costume jewellery with a Gucci scarf and a skirt made by a local tailor. When she got dressed it was instinctual, it wasn’t too drawn out. And I think that’s a valuable lesson.”
My mother used to find the tailors who carried sewing machines on their shoulders and get them to make patchwork shirts and furnishings from local fabrics mixed with others she picked up on holidays abroad. She was a big influence on how I see color and print.
In the 80s he followed his parents’ wish: he studied in London and took a degree in Law, then went back to Nigeria; soon after, apart from being a lawyer, he started working in fashion. He returned to Europe, and spent a year in Paris at the beginning of the 90s, working as a freelance illustrator. He tells: “Paris was wonderful but really what it taught me is that fashion needed to be a business as well. It really showed me that the way you presented things and projected things and your vision were super-important for the future.”
Duro Olowu Fall 2007
When he went to London again, he met his soon-to-be first wife Elaine Golding, a shoe designer; they launched a brand – Olowu Golding – and opened a boutique: “We were working hard but we were doing things we wanted to do.”
After splitting up with his wife, in 2004 he launched another brand with his own name, totally self-financed, and opened a new boutique: the first dress he designed in this period would set his future success.
In 2005 Sally Singer, who was Fashion News/Features director at Vogue at that time, spotted a dress in the Olowu boutique and fell in love with it: wide sleeves and Empire waist, it was made of colourful and printed fabrics in different combinations. “It’s a very joyful dress, effortless, comfortable, and sexy without being in-your-face,” he explains. When buyers from important New York stores eyed this dress on the journalist, a mania started: everybody wanted the dress promptly called “Duro”.
Duro Olowu Fall/Winter 2012
In January 2008 he married Thelma Golden, curator and chief director of Studio Museum of Harlem, in New York: the bride wore a dress designed – of course – by Duro.
Even if he says he doesn’t design for celebrities, many of them love his style: among the others, Michelle Obama, supermodel Iman and Iris Apfel.
He takes care of all the styling in his shows and often works, as a stylist, with the German photographer Juergen Teller.
Duro Olowu Fall/Winter 2013
He fights against the progressive racism in the world of fashion, where very few models on the runways are black: “The fault lies with the designers – their ignorance and their racism. Yes, it’s true that a lot of agencies don’t bother sending non-white models – my casting agent told me that I’m the only one who asks specifically for non-white models – but things will only change if the designers take a stand and ask for them.”
In 2005 he was appointed New Designer of the Year at the British Fashion Awards, just one year after launching his own brand.
Duro Olowu spring 2015
Duro & Iris
info: Vogue Italia & Herald Tribune/ Suzy Menkes