When Duro Olowu, the fashion designer known for his riotous way with colour and print (and the elegant, feminine clothes that are his canvas), was asked to curate a show for the Camden Arts Centre, he knew just what he wanted to put into it. Olowu has a very well-travelled eye that has been roving non-stop since he was a child growing up in Lagos, Nigeria.

He is a lateral thinker, an internationalist without conventions, and the show promises to reflect that, showcasing a range of artists’ work that you might not usually see sharing the same wall space. That’s a very Olowu thing, bringing together disparate ideas and aesthetics and somehow making a harmonious whole from them. You only need to look at one of his joyful pattern-clash dresses to see this. He describes his clothes as having “strength and frailty in equal measure.”

“In curating this exhibition Duro has woven together a fascinating array of components to create an exhibition and publication full of pattern and texture, powerful narratives and evocations of places and histories,” says Jenni Lomax, director of Camden Arts Centre. “It is a visual feast.”

When I went to meet Olowu this week at his jewel of a shop tucked away behind the White Cube gallery in St James, he showed me two patchwork skirts he had made that mixed traditional African woven cloth from the UN’s Ethical Fashion Initiative in Burkina Faso with vintage shocking pink and gold brocade by YSL, classic Abrahams cloth from the 70s, a patch of Hurel luxury, a touch of old Ungaro (he had an odd four metres of the stuff) with 60s Nigerian furnishing prints resembling the fabrics that line the walls of the shop. It shouldn’t really work but it does.

Caption: Looks from Duro Olowu's spring/summer 2016 collection. Photo by Luis Monteiro, Courtesy of Duro Olowu London.

Like the sharpest-beaked magpie in the world, he has cherry-picked art works by 60 artists, designers and photographers – pieces of work that might not be the most important, flashiest or accomplished, but that stir an emotional response in him – and often in the artist themselves. “A lot of the works I’ve chosen from say, Chris Ofili, Brice Marden, Malick Sidibe and Isaac Julien, show a certain side that most of the big gallery shows don’t. They are not the obvious work. I would go to the artist’s studio and I’d say ‘what’s that?’. Often it would be something personal to them, not for sale. And that, to Olowu, is what is really interesting. Those pieces become part of who the artist is and part of their process, which is an idea that he really relates to.

“I have a thing where I think I should really get rid of that Yohji shirt I bought from Jones in ‘89, or that fabric I used and there’s a bit left…” But of course, he doesn’t. “It’s sort of part of my process. It’s about this whole ritual that artists go through,” he said. “It’s very personal. You see a lot of work from them but eventually you start to understand their process from very few works which really involve this making and unmaking process, balancing the tension, getting everything right... like weaving.”

The show runs until 18 September and there will be a programme of events and talks kicking off on Saturday with the designer in conversation with Thelma Golden, the director and chief curator of The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York. She also happens to be his wife. It’s the first time they will talk together publically like this.

Golden is a great advertisement for Olowu’s work. Last year she told Vogue “I don’t think I have a uniform, but I do have the best thing ever: a husband, Duro Olowu, who’s the most amazing and brilliant fashion designer. I have this opportunity to, at all times, dig into the well of his work. Everything he does comes out of a deep well of inspiration and innovation – the way he thinks about color, pattern, all of it.”

 

Caption: Looks from Duro Olowu's spring/summer 2016 collection. Photo by Luis Monteiro, Courtesy of Duro Olowu London.

It was Golden who suggested they do a talk together. “This is someone who knows me, how I think and why I love these things,” said the designer. “So what better person?”

Ahead of the show’s opening, Because threw a few of our own questions Olowu’s way.

Who are the artists involved in the show?

There are 60 international artists from all over the world in three rooms. For people to feel the harmony amidst a collection of work that wouldn’t typically be curated together – that’s what I’m trying to achieve. That’s good art. Anni Albers is a very important thread in this show because she was a great artist who was somehow sidelined – with the female Bauhaus artists who made things for the home – but there is a certain fragility, strength and power in her work that I hope people will see and that a lot of very different artists share. There is also the most amazing Meredith Frampton from the National Portrait Gallery’s collection. You see that and just think, how lucky! It gets shown very infrequently. There’s Dorothea Tanning, Brice Marden, Lynette Yiadom-Boakye… so many more.

Are there textiles in the show?

There’s a Sheila Hicks – a beautiful work; the Anni Albers tapestries; another tapestry from Andreas Eriksson, a Swedish painter. The only other straight-up fabrics are West African textiles from the 19th century to the 70s – amazing pieces.

Do you have your own art collection?

Thank god for museums and galleries – who needs one of their own? But I do have a book addiction. You wake up one day and half your house has shelving and you think,what am I, the National Library!? I feel that way about museums. I have small pieces but I feel no desire to have a collection. Artists love clothes so they exchange their work for clothes. They say, “I’d like something for my wife.” The few things I have are very special things. I feel great about that. I feel it’s a mutual respect. Any of the works in the show are things I would love to live with but Camden Arts Centre is such a beautiful space, that’s where I want to see it.

You use the word clothes not fashion. Why?

I’m not interested in fashion, let’s be honest. I love style and clothes. Fashion for me is a great experience, especially when you are young, it’s like a coming of age. One day you wake up and think, I must wear corduroy trousers! It’s an awakening. It’s about how you want to be seen. It’s about an understanding of what it has taken to get to that place. I feel the world is full of too many things that don’t have integrity. There are designers I admire because the work had something and it wasn’t about being part of a movement. You look at say Christopher Nemeth or Judy Blame and it had something!

The greatest success for me as a clothing designer is when I see a woman totally at ease in her clothes, that’s my job done.

Caption: Looks from Duro Olowu's spring/summer 2016 collection. Photo by Luis Monteiro, Courtesy of Duro Olowu London.

What do you want people to come away from your show feeling?

I want them to come away understanding how international the eye of every artist subconsciously is, and also to feel that everything in those rooms co-exist harmoniously. They are visually and conceptually strong but somehow familiar.

Is the approach to curating an exhibition similar to researching and editing a collection?

The similarity is that I don’t research. Since I was a child if I liked something, I would try to know everything about it. I like to read, I like to observe, I like talking to all kinds of people: scientists, pattern cutters, CEOs, anyone! I used to be like that with vinyl: who did the album cover? Who wrote the lyrics? Similarly with this show I feel as if I’ve spent many years being very much in love with art but not regarding myself at the level of a curator. And now by weird turn of events I have the opportunity to put it together in a way that’s new.

Anything you wanted but you couldn’t have?

Oh yes! A particular Schiele that just couldn’t travel.

Has anyone used your clothes in a painting?

I think Lynette Yiadom has used my clothes in a painting. This show is not about fabric – it is about portraiture and how fabric looks in a picture.

Where do you consider home?

I’m in London most of the time and I manufacture in England. I try to spend a week a month in New York and my dad is still in Lagos so I go there every two months.

Making & Unmaking is at Camden Arts Centre, Arkwright Road, London NW3 6DG until 18 September. For more information, visit camdenartscentre.org.

Duro Olowu’s shop is at 14 Masons Yard, St James’s SW1Y 6BU

Interview by Tamsin Blanchard

Brands: