It required multiple emails and several iterations of a press release to get at least a sense of what it was that the designer Duro Olowu was up to for his Fall 2012 collection. Despite all that effort, the details about a happening called “Material”—a fashion show? a store? an art exhibition?—were still a bit fuzzy, which only made it more intriguing.
As it turns out, on Wednesday evening, a day before the Fall 2012 New York Fashion Week began in all earnestness, Olowu hosted a pop-up exhibition at Salon 94 Freemans. Located in a narrow, dimly lit, and perfectly menacing passageway on the Lower East Side that surely must have been the site of more than a few Law and Order crime scenes, the gallery space had been transformed into a collage of color and pattern, culture and anthropology. Clothes were in the minority, but Olowu’s style sensibility was present in abundance.
Photographs by Juergen Teller shared space with an acrylic-on-slipcase work by Glenn Ligon. Gelatin silver prints from the 1970s by Hamidou Maiga hung above ceramic milk crates, which sat near works on paper by Lorna Simpson. And high above it all hung pieces from Olowu’s Spring 2012 collection—even though the rest of the fashion industry was loudly announcing the arrival of the fall lines.
Prices ranged from a $50,000 Maria Pergay stainless-steel chair that looked like a dental device to $800 sculptures that resembled balled-up magazine pages. Further along the spectrum, there were Jimmy Cliff tour T-shirts and several coffee-table art books. It was a wholly unorthodox beginning to fashion week.
The opening was followed by a dinner party hosted by Jeanne Greenberg Rohatyn—the gallery owner and former judge on Bravo’s Work of Art—and the artist Helen Marden in a West Village town house bursting at the seams with art, artists, writers, and glamorous eccentrics. In a space that was pleasantly full, it only took one false move by an anonymous partygoer to send a rather ancient-looking sculpture tumbling to the floor. As it hit the ground, a large chunk broke off and rolled away. Those standing nearby recoiled, as if to silently declare, “It wasn’t me!”
But back to the matter of fashion and art, pop-ups and curators.
Olowu had gotten tired of the Fashion Week slog of runway shows and models posing statically in airless rooms. He also wanted to bridge the divide between fashion and art, two fields that have a close and oftentimes parasitic relationship. Designers as disparate as Marc Jacobs and Akris’s Albert Kriemler regularly find inspiration in the work of visual artists. Some designers have even collaborated with artists on collections, allowing paintings to inform their choices of prints or color palettes. Others, such as Reed Krakoff, are avid collectors. And designers have turned into shopkeepers, selling the work of other designers whom they favor. But it has been rare for a designer to try to express his own point of view by highlighting the paintings, photographs, and the sculptures of others.
“I’ve always been quite appreciative of other people’s talents regardless of what they are,” Olowu said. “I’m just showing what I love and what I have access to through work, life, and chance.”
Part of that access surely comes via Olowu’s wife, Thelma Golden, the director and chief curator of the Studio Museum of Harlem. Golden, also a fashion aficionado, was quick to deny having any hand in the exhibition (she said she was seeing it for the first time on opening night). But one has to assume that the energy between fashion and art is a constant presence in their lives, whether in work or in play.
Still, if there were linear connections between the pieces on exhibit, they were visible only with a magnifying glass and with the help of a doctorate in art history. The one obvious common thread was a kind of enthusiasm and worldliness—attitudes that are present in Olowu’s designs. “All of these pieces were made with integrity … they were bold,” he said. “I grew up wanting to be a designer. But I was fascinated by people like [designer] Jacques Doucet who was collecting African art and [designer Elsa] Schiaparelli who loved African art. A skirt is a skirt is a skirt, but if you think about it in relation to a Juergen Teller photograph, it’s more compelling.”
Olowu, who was born in Nigeria and is based in London, debuted his signature collection in 2004 and rose to some acclaim with his silk caftans in a kaleidoscope of vintage prints, which were embraced by retailers at Barneys New York and editors at Vogue. But his collections have since expanded to include day dresses, tailored jackets and coats, evening gowns, and accessories. The British Fashion Council honored him as a Designer of the Year. And recently, he has become a favorite of first lady Michelle Obama.
As an independent businessman, Olowu has the freedom to indulge in more eccentric pursuits. But he also has the constraints that face those without the deep pockets of a corporate sponsor. And as one of the few successful, black marquee designers in the industry, there are also biases to be overcome. “People had a preconceived idea about what they’d see,” he said of his early collections. “There are African prints, but the collection has always been more international than that.”
As Fashion Week went into full swing, Olowu finally did show his Fall 2012 collection—quietly, by appointment, in an elegant suite at the Pierre Hotel where elevator operators still shuttle guests from floor to floor. A single model—a wisp of a woman with ebony skin and limbs that extended forever—slipped in and out of samples the designer pulled from a metal rack. There were filmy dresses with long sleeves and ruffled cuffs in a mix of abstract prints and trompe l’oeil tweed that conjured up an open-air market. There were sharply tailored overcoats in wool melton with a high collar and an hourglass silhouette, inspired by an Egon Schiele self-portrait. A silky trench coat in a watercolor print, trimmed in turquoise marabou would have been at home at a Manhattan cocktail party. A tank dress was a patchwork of myriad vintage fabrics, as was a long skirt that included a polka-dot swatch from the famed Swiss fabric mill Abraham. And a simple black evening gown, cut on the bias with a fluttering train and a seductively cut back, was reminiscent of 1920s Hollywood.
It was a collection rooted in Africa but with an international—and even rarified—sensibility. It was curated from favorite fabrics, emotionally resonant portraits, wide-ranging travels, and personal history. Olowu’s clothes from his fall collection may not be art, but they quietly hold their own alongside it.