Growing up, I don’t think that I was ever particularly interested in fashion. My focus was always the seductive quality of clothes worn by people with confidence and grace, regardless of their social status. This has always been my definition of true style.
In this regard, art has been a great source of inspiration for me. Photographs by artists from the past century – such as Claude Cahun, Neil Kenlock, Hamidou Maiga, Horace Ové and Irving Penn – are important records that allow for a deep conversation about power, beauty, sexuality and human interaction. For example, Ové’s photograph Walking Proud (1970) is a politically charged depiction of racial tension in London in the 1970s. Apart from embodying nostalgic memories of my Jamaican heritage, it’s a reminder of the ways in which young, black, British West Indians used style as an elegant form of pride and resistance – as did their parents, who arrived in the UK in the 1950s.
Growing up in Lagos, I was surrounded by an incredible range of local and international fabrics that were fashioned into traditional, billowing clothing, which occasionally – and effortlessly – incorporated European details. My parents were experts at this, so I watched them and learned. In my late teens at school in England, surrounded by the music and style movements of buffalo, new romantics, lovers rock reggae, rap and late-era punk, I discovered the world of the British bohemians of the 1930s – especially the Bloomsbury group and the Sitwell family – and the early photographs of Cecil Beaton. The strong poses and charismatic poise of Beaton’s beautifully dressed subjects reveal his deep understanding of the power of style. This is evident in his portrait Georgia Sitwell, Renishaw (1930), in which the entitled froideur of the subject is imbued with a strange warmth and air of enigma by the decadent yet modern combination of Sitwell’s strictly cut, utilitarian jacket, a frivolous evening gown and her bound head. Beaton was known to choose or alter the clothes of his sitters and, in so doing, create an atmosphere of ambiguity and unease in his lushly composed photographs.
Horace Ové’s Walking Proud (1970) is a reminder of the ways in which young, black, British West Indians used style as an elegant form of pride and resistance.
The beguiling studio and outdoor portrait photographs of the 84-year-old Malian photographer, Hamidou Maiga – whose work I discovered about six years ago – are a testimony to the kind of style that is both highly personal and culturally defined, yet still somehow manages to be international in its scope and free in its expressive ambition. For example, the confrontational stare and body language of the subject of his untitled portrait from 1962 belie the tough reality of a woman’s life and status in Mali at that time. Her elegant printed sundress, plaited hair and delicate jewellery distract the eye from her dust-covered feet and practical slippers. All of this makes clear Maiga’s no-nonsense charm and skill as a photographer.
The British artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye’s beautiful, highly charged portraits of imagined people, swathed in plain or printed garments – strong characters seemingly in control of their destiny, with all its complicated connotations – are also a source of inspiration. The clothes worn by her subjects are simultaneously functional, luxurious and individual. For example, in Amber in the Ether (2015), the man’s downward stare makes him appear both uninterested and interesting. His coy sexuality is enhanced by the boldly patterned sweater he wears. It’s the kind of stylishness I try to achieve in my own designs.
Alice Neel’s paintings have a similar appeal. Her portraits are wonders of execution and complex reflections of the style of her sitters. Lush and detailed, riveting yet never obvious, the clothing in her pictures adds mystery and allure to these myriad personalities.
Films have had a big impact on my imagination. John Cassavetes’s Gloria (1980), René Clément’s Purple Noon (1960), Perry Henzel’s The Harder They Come (1972), Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl (1966) and Luchino Visconti’s Rocco and His Brothers (1960): all include scenes that have remained with me for years and have influenced my collections. One vivid example: in Gloria, the actress Gena Rowlands plays a gangster’s tough ex-girlfriend. In one scene, she runs through the South Bronx streets of New York in a beautifully cut, silk jacquard dress; with one hand, she grips her neighbour’s small child; with the other, she holds a gun, which she fires occasionally with graceful determination. Another image that often returns to me is the combination of delicate light, haute couture and stuccoed interiors in Alain Resnais’s Last Year in Marienbad (1961), which conveys, without a word, profound levels of bourgeois restraint, emotional desperation and romantic frustration.
I have also long been fascinated by photographs and videos of musicians – especially David Bowie, Fela Kuti, Miriam Makeba and Nina Simone, all of whom made considered style choices that remain potent contemporary tools of expression. As Virginia Woolf noted in her novel Orlando (1928): ‘Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.’
Duro Olowu is a fashion designer and curator who lives in London, UK. His exhibition 'Making and Un-Making' at Camden Arts Centre, London – which includes the work of more than 70 artists from around the world – runs until 18 September.
First published in Issue 181