AFRICA FASHION FOCUS: DURO OLOWU, XULY.BET
The Spring 2017 ready-to-wear season which kicked off in New York City in September, later moving to London,Milan and ending in Paris, had a rich and diverse showcase of international designers showing the fashion world what to wear for next season. Some of these style arbiters are designers from the rich continent of Africa. During the New York Fashion Week, two international African fashion designers stood out conspicuously– Duro Olowu, a Nigerian/Jamaican and Malian Lamine Badian Kouyaté, the Creative Director of Xuly.Bët, both showcasing their optimistic and ebullient collections to good effect.
The Nigerian lawyer-turned-designer and print king, Duro Olowu, describes himself as multicultural. He spent his childhood travelling between Nigeria and Europe. From an early age, his enthusiasm for fashion was inspired by the mix of fabrics, textures and draping techniques of the clothing worn by the women who surrounded him. Born of a Jamaican mother and Nigerian father, he was raised in Lagos. His mother used to find the tailors who carried sewing machines on their shoulders and get them to make patchwork shirts and furnishings from local fabrics mixed with others she had picked up on holiday abroad. It was a big influence on how Olowu sees colour and print.
Like his father, he studied Law in England before returning to Nigeria where he practiced for a few years. On his return to London, he pursued a career in fashion, starting his eponymous label at the end of 2004. His first collection was an instant hit with fashion editors and buyers, selling out with stockists including Barneys in New York, Harrods in London and Maria Luisa in Paris. It featured the now signature “Duro” dress, hailed in 2005 by both British and American Vogue as the dress of the year. That same year, he won the ‘New Designer of the Year Award’ at the British Fashion Awards, the only designer to have ever done so without a catwalk show. Today, Olowu’s designs are sold around the world to concept stores like Ikram in Chicago, Biffi in Milan and Alara in Lagos. His fabrics are often British-made prints of his own design though he also works with fabrics from all over the world that reflect, in eclectic and somewhat quaint ways, his Afro-Caribbean heritage and an international sensibility.
Duro Olowu lives between New York and London, where he works out of a studio on Portobello Road– a vintage hub and a store tucked away in Mason’s Yard, St. James’. Olowu was also awarded TopShop’s ‘NEWGEN’ sponsorship for his first three catwalk shows as part of the London Fashion Week, beginning in 2007. In 2010, he was named Best International Designer at the African Fashion Awards in South Africa, as well as one of 6 finalists for the Swiss Textiles Award in Zurich. His curatorial projects “Material” (2012) and “More Material” (2014), at Salon 94 Gallery in New York, met with high critical praise by both the art and fashion world cognoscenti, including Roberta Smith of the New York Times, Art Forum and American Vogue.
Lamine Badian Kouyaté has been kind of a fashion rebel; presenting his first XULY.Bët collection in the rain outside of Jean Paul Gaultier’s tent in 1992. The following season, he moved to the Tuileries, where he showed his clothes on dancing models who carried radios. Interestingly, he came and left the scene in a tourist bus. The clothes showcased in this combat-ready presentation, drew even more attention as they were one-off pieces deconstructed and reconstructed through whatever means available, from clothes obtained from thrift stores and re-purposed. In 1993, Karl Lagerfeld speaking about Kouyaté told Vogue: “I love his careless, instinctual hand”. A renowned retailer Joseph Ettedgui said in a 1993 Vogue profile on Kouyaté; “What people want is something original, unlike anything else.” And that’s what Kouyaté, at his best, delivers.
Born in Mali, Kouyaté moved to France to study Architecture. He soon became immersed in the 1980s club scene, consequently making his first pieces for ‘night-owl’ friends. The self-taught designer told American Vogue’s Editor-at-Large André Leon Talley; “I just took a machine and started sewing.” He named his line, established in 1989, XULY.Bët, which means ‘Open your eyes wide’ in Wolof, the main language of Senegal, where the designer spent part of his childhood. It’s also the phrase you use when you catch someone staring at you; the way the “lookee” responds to the “looker”. Since then, the fashion cognoscenti have done just that. Playing with consciousness, the XULY.Bët label is a creative lab for trends, strongly embraces a diversity of cultures and has been described as the osmosis of a new creative energy– an invitation to open dialogue and to ‘keep your eyes wide open’. In 1994, The New York Times named Lamine Kouyaté designer of the year. In 1997, he brought his “funkin’ fashion” to the United States, opening a boutique on Orchard Street where he hosted graffiti contests. In September 2015, Kouyaté returned to New York City where he staged an outdoor pop-up show. He also dedicated his last season’s collection, shown on models of African descent to the late fashion critic Amy Spindler, one of the first people to support him.
His Spring 2017 collection showcase at the New York Fashion Week (his second consecutive runway show there) was dedicated to his native country and to his 86-year-old mother—one of Mali’s first female doctors. Indeed, one printed dress directly referenced International Women’s Day. Kouyaté used Ankara, checks and some of his own designs featuring different playful motifs including fans, money, lipsticks, cars, candles, and religious icons. The designer stays true to his sportswear interests carried on from his Fall 2016 collection. With print and damask patchwork totes, footwear, and interesting print eyewear featuring, Africa has indeed arisen!
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