This story appears in the upcoming March issue of Surface, out March 10.
In 2005, I first met designer Duro Olowu in London. I didn’t know much about fashion then, but I was aware that his “Duro” dress—an empire-waist patchwork of unexpectedly juxtaposed prints in fine, billowy silk—had become a cult item. (It was part of his first collection, which would earn him the New Generation Designer award at the Fashion Awards in London later that year.) In town on assignment and with an hour to spare, I decided to check out his shop on Portobello Road, which, at the time, he manned himself.
Alas, his signature dress didn’t work for me, but a jacket in stiff silk brocade with a nipped-in waist temptingly called my name. (“Structured clothing” suited my body type, the designer told me, making the comment sound vaguely flattering.) Pretty soon, though, we forgot about clothes and got to talking about art, our common passion. Concealed somewhere in the pleasant jumble of the dark little shop, he said, was a Sonia Delaunay painting. He dug out the small canvas from the back, and we spent a few moments admiring it together.
Until May 10, visitors to the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago will also have the chance to experience art appreciation with Olowu through his exhibition “Duro Olowu: Seeing Chicago.” Curated by Olowu (who has previously organized shows in New York and London), with the help of MCA senior curator Naomi Beckwith, it presents more than 230 works from Chicago’s public and private collections. Together, they offer a portrait of a city at times riven with racial and class divisions but also unified by a particular zeal for making, collecting, and sharing great art.
The Nigerian-born British designer now divides his time between London and New York, where his wife, Thelma Golden, directs the Studio Museum in Harlem. But he knows Chicago well. The Near North Side boutique Ikram, where Michelle Obama has been a frequent client, has carried Olowu’s clothes almost from his first collection, in 2004. Still, he was surprised by the wealth and diversity of the city’s art holdings.
“I love New York and L.A., but Chicago is just something else,” he says on the phone from London, between stops in Lagos (to visit his father) and Los Angeles (where he and Golden attended the Vanity Fair Oscar party and, closer to his heart, the retrospective of the 93-year-old artist Betye Saar at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art). “The collectors in Chicago are not followers,” Olowu explains. “They’re not trend-driven or using bucket lists. Whatever they do, it’s based initially on a perhaps slightly nerdy but certainly extremely curious fascination that then becomes this incredible, semi-obsessive—but really very philanthropic—way of collecting art. And, of course, when you have that, both the big and small museums benefit greatly.” In doing research for the exhibition, he says, “I’d go to someone’s home intending to look at five works of contemporary art and walk into a room with a Miró sculpture, a Dunand cabinet, a Picasso toreador painting, and a Sonia Delaunay rug. That was just one room. And there would be no boasting. It would really be about people living with art.”
He also drew inspiration from the city’s political geography and its homegrown artistic movements. “You stand in the middle of Chicago and there’s amazing architecture, great modernism, great Art Deco,” he says, “but then there are huge areas of underprivileged housing juxtaposed with all of this. So you’re immediately confronted with these divisions.” Paintings by Chicago Imagists such as Ed Paschke and Jim Nutt, and works by the AfriCOBRA artists’ collective, founded on Chicago’s South Side in 1968, form a special focus of Olowu’s exhibition. “The Imagists were very much about freedom and nonconformism. AfriCOBRA was about Pan-Africanism, civil rights, and politicizing,” he says. “But all of these artists were also bent on making beautiful art as a way of living.”
Olowu exudes generosity, and Chicagoans have responded in kind, with loans that are unprecedented between institutions within a single city. Lenders for his exhibition range from the Art Institute of Chicago and Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art to artists’ estates and a host of private individuals.
Olowu’s cosmopolitan sensibility emerged from an upbringing that spanned continents and cultures. His Jamaican mother and her brothers had emigrated to England in the 1950s, where she met his Nigerian father, who had come to England to train as a barrister. After his schooling, they married and moved back to Lagos, where Olowu grew up. In summers, there were frequent trips to Geneva, for his father’s work, and to London for holidays and to visit his mother’s family.
He went to school in England at 15 and later earned a law degree from the University of Kent at Canterbury before making the turn to fashion design. He cites as inspirations a father who loved shopping for his wife on frequent trips abroad; a stylish mother who mixed pieces from Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche with traditional Yoruba tops; Jamaican cousins in London whose high style was a form of armor against institutionalized racism; and the city’s buzzing cultural and multicultural scene in the 1980s and ’90s. As a designer, he’s created collections inspired by artists: the painters Stanley Whitney and Ed Clark, for instance, and, most recently, Françoise Gilot and her sketchbooks from travels to India, Venice, and Dakar, Senegal, in the 1970s and ’80s. Their influence is “very subtle,” Olowu says. “It’s the spirit.”
Olowu’s 2008 marriage to Golden gave him a front-row seat to the world of contemporary art. In 2012, he put together his first exhibition, at New York’s Salon 94 Freemans: a densely packed, polychromatic amalgam of art, artifacts, photography, furniture, textiles, and books that criss-crossed genres, eras, and continents. That first show was followed by two more, at Salon 94 Freemans in 2014 and London’s Camden Arts Centre in 2016. All were well received by critics.
The collectors in Chicago are not followers. They’re not trend-driven or using bucket lists.
In his exhibitions, as in his clothing design, Olowu favors a maximalist approach. Works are hung salon-style, using vertical space, and playfully combined. No single work takes precedence over any other; all are in dialogue with each other, set off against walls of orange, purple, and teal. Visual pleasure is paramount. “He’s not making big distinctions between self-taught and academically trained artists. He’s looking at furniture as much as sculpture, at craft as much as painting,” says Beckwith, who also oversaw production of the show’s catalog, which features images from the peripatetic designer’s Instagram account (93,400 followers) alongside short fiction by artist Lynette Yiadom-Boakye and scholarly essays. “We’re at a moment in art history when we’re seeing deep dissatisfaction with the standard narratives,” Beckwith says. “People are craving other ways to imagine an encounter with art.” Olowu’s deeply democratic vision, then, offers an alternative.
The show opens with a display called “Look at Me,” where work by Lorna Simpson, Sarah Lucas, Toyin Ojih Odutola, Alice Neel, Wolfgang Tillmans, and others “reminds you of the diversity of people—ethnicity, sexuality, gender—in this city,” Olowu says. Another room, “Towards Abstraction,” includes artworks by Robert Rauschenberg and Jack Whitten, sculptures by Martin Puryear, and paintings by the late Chicago native Leon Golub. There are vitrines filled with artists’ books, including surrealist tomes by Paul Éluard and contemporary books by Ed Ruscha, all juxtaposed with black-and-white photography, a display inspired by the arrangements in a single private collector’s home. The finale is “a wall of magnificent art” by Henri Matisse, Kerry James Marshall, Jean Arp, Yto Barrada, and Brice Marden. The wall faces “about 30 mannequins all dressed up in pieces from my collections over the past 14 years,” Olowu says. “They are looking at the art, and at you.”
He’s very conscious of the difficulty of bringing fashion to life in the context of a museum. “I was offered a show of my work, and I just thought, No. … I knew I could find incredible things in Chicago,” he says. “But nothing could have prepared me for the range, the scale, the access I was given for this exhibition.” Tying it all together with multifaceted visual panache, and leaving a host of intriguing loose ends, is one way that he gives back.