Daily encore! Nigerian-born designer Duro Olowu’s business is based in London, but Harlem—where he lives with his wife, Thelma Golden, art-world A-lister and chief curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem—is where his heart is. JCPenney is betting Olowu, a perennial best-seller at Barneys and a regular in Vogue, can go big and has tapped him to kick off its new collaboration series that comes out in stores TODAY.
What’s the most Nigerian thing about you?
I always get upgrades. I’m not pushy, but I ask for things. Thelma’s idea of me being really Nigerian is giving people “a look” when they’re bullshitting me. She calls me “Samurai Duro.”
And the most British?
Not committing. In London, someone will say “Call me,” and you say “Sure, sure.” And then you never call.
What was your childhood like in Lagos?
I had a good childhood. My father, a Nigerian, was a lawyer and would take us on holiday to Geneva. My mother was Jamaican. I was a little afraid of her, but she was really great. I grew up in a dynamic household, where we were encouraged to embrace everything from Jimi Hendrix to ska. My mother taught us a life is a life, and you’re not better than anyone else.
Were they a stylish couple?
My mother dressed very international chic. All my friends at boarding school in London thought my mom was fly. We have this saying in Nigeria: You never know when you’re going to a wedding, a funeral, or a christening.
You were a lawyer in another life, right?
Being a designer in those days wasn’t a thing, and my father was a lawyer. So, when my parents came to visit, I’d ask my friends to borrow their books to replace the art and fashion books I had on my shelf.
Were you a good lawyer?
I worked in the foreign office in England, giving legal advice to British nationals arrested abroad. I was very good at that. I wasn’t great in court, though. I thought it was very colonial. You try wearing a wig and gown in 80 degrees!
So you started your first fashion line, Olowu Golding…
Yes. I was married before to a shoe designer, Elaine Golding, and we set up a small label in a little boutique in Notting Hill. She designed the shoes, and I designed the clothes. When we broke up, I went out on my own. I really learned about the fashion industry from that store. Women would fight for dresses. It made me realize that if something isn’t everywhere, people will look for it.
People like Sally Singer, who put you in Vogue.
Exactly. She had come to our store and loved it. I didn’t know who she was at the time, but when I started my new label, I called her. She came by the studio and asked about one of my dresses. She said, “I need two.” I said, “You can have one, Sally.” Now she and I are good friends, and I know her kids. I respect her. She’s a writer who understands fashion. She’s not a consultant. I don’t agree with fashion editors who consult for brands. It’s a conflict of interest.
What do you two talk about?
Patti Smith is a favorite topic.
Thoughts on her return to Vogue?
Sometimes I make a collection that I love and no one gets it. T was a wonderful experience for her, and she’s very lucky to have a home to go to. I’m glad she’s there.
READ MORE DURO ON NEXT PAGE
How often are you in New York?
I try to come at least one week per month. This is a very special place to me. Even though my label is London-based, New Yorkers were the first people to really embrace my work. I love the effort they put in. Who knew a woman could get that many blowouts? I didn’t even know what that was before I came here!
What does New York mean to you?
The first thing it means to me is romance because I met Thelma here.
Where did you meet?
At the top of Rockefeller Center at a fashion function in the Rainbow Room. It was one of those hot New York summers when you’re just looking for a spot that has air-conditioning. This woman came up to me and proceeded to go into this beautiful discourse about my clothes. She says we talked a bit and then I walked away. I asked Kim [Hastreiter] who she was, and she said, “Thelma? You don’t know Thelma?!”
Did you ask her on a date?
We went to an opening together—Thelma’s always going to an opening—and then we grabbed a bite to eat. Afterward, we hailed a cab, and I told her we’d drop her at her apartment in Brooklyn first. When we got there, I turned to say good-bye, and she was basically at the doorstep.
When did you know you wanted to marry her?
From that day. I’m impulsive like that—with fabric and with love.
When are you happiest?
Sunday morning between 10:00 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. in New York, lounging with Thelma.
We hear you’re a closet nerd. True?
Up until about five years ago, I could rattle off box-office returns for any good movie—domestic or international. Oh, God, I’ve ruined my career by telling you that!
Our secret! Any other hobbies?
Book collecting. I love Dickens, first editions of James Baldwin, Chinua Achebe, Ernest Hemingway, you name it. I own just about every fashion book from 1970 to 1994. I found the entire set of Portfolio on eBay about seven years ago. I collect Flair. The rarest is my Salvador Dalí cookbook that I found in Sweden. I buy books the way women buy shoes.
What do you love most about Harlem?
I’d live anywhere in the city as long as it has that energy, except maybe Brooklyn. There are too many trees. Harlem is great because it’s not a tourist destination; it’s a neighborhood. I love the crowds, all buying these funny Christmas trees on the street. I love that Duane Reade is always full because black people are always buying something. And no matter how you feel, someone on the street will say something to you that will make you buck up.
Walk us through Harlem fashion.
The little kids are angelic and dress like the Jackson 5. Then there are the younger hip-hop kids that queue outside the Nike store, or the women who wear the tight jeans and pink puffers. And there are the young professionals—that’s why you have the H&M and American Apparel. You also have the old-school crowd, which coordinates everything. The style is very sassy, and everyone appreciates it. Thelma will be walking down the street in one of my coats and some addict will say to her, “Girl, that’s a bad coat!” [Our model for the shoot, Kinee Diouf, stops by our table to bid adieu.]
Yes, she’s Senegalese. I like models with sass, who look different.
Let’s talk about that. What do you think about the state of diversity in the industry?
What I’ve always loved about fashion is that we’re constantly inspired by other cultures and using their ideas and techniques to create something new. But that’s where it ends lately. The industry is much less diverse than it was in the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s, and I think that’s unfortunate. This reluctance to use not only black models but also those from diverse cultures is baffling. I find it hard to sit through a runway show that has 40 looks and every model is white. Beauty, like style, is international. At the end of the day, the buying public is intelligent and more exposed. They’re ready to embrace collections and art that reflect diversity.
What’s the answer?
It begins and ends with the designer. We are accountable. If someone says putting an Asian model or a black model in a show or campaign won’t sell the product, then they’re out of touch with the consumer. They have insecurities, not the public. Also, Middle Eastern clients are a major part of why couture houses survive. If they, and other international clients, don’t see themselves represented soon, they won’t keep buying labels that don’t have an inclusive vision. That’s one of the main reasons why I liked JCPenney. Their ads were culturally diverse without being patronizing and reflect what America really is.
How did the JCPenney collection come about?
They contacted me. Initially, I didn’t know how big they were, since I didn’t grow up here, but I loved the concept. I wanted a democratic version of what I do, so people feel like they’re really buying a Duro Olowu.
What was the whole process like?
They approached me last year in April, and by May I was signed. There weren’t 10 conversations. We bounced everything off each other from the prints to the photographer for the campaign. They weren’t afraid to say “Go for it!”
What do you think about their new direction?
I loved [JCP CEO] Ron Johnson’s vision from the beginning, and then when I went through the new store concepts, I was blown away by the layout. We’re going to do small build-outs in 600 stores, and the display model is a real, conscious presentation. It’s great to see someone who really gets it. He’s gotten some shtick [sic] for it, but I also invested a lot of my time and money going down a different path and that’s why I’m still here. I respect that in him. Plus, JCP has integrity. They’re also nice people.
You enlisted Iris Apfel to help with accessories. How did you meet?
I met Iris at the British Fashion Awards in 2005. I saw this woman with this big feathered bag and thought, Who is she? The next day I went downstairs in my hotel for breakfast and who was sitting there but Iris and her husband. She said, “Oh my god! He just won best new designer!” The whole restaurant turned and stared. After that, we were family.
Where do you fall on a spectrum that places, say, Michael Kors on one end and Miguel Adrover on the other?
Kors went through so many trials and tribulations, but always kept his vision. Eventually he found a backer who allowed him to do his thing. That’s honorable in its own way. Adrover is an incredible story. Like him, I don’t find it hard to say no. Fate just played against him. Otherwise, he’d be Margiela. But he’s found his way. It may not be accessible to everyone, but maybe he doesn’t want to be in 100 stores? Maybe he doesn’t want to dress the actresses at the Oscars? You can still live well and have a great business.