2013 March 1

Duro Olowu, Prints Charming

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Duro Olowu, right; model in Duro x JC Penney Duro Olowu, right; model in Duro x JC Penney
Giorgio Niro
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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.

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