EXCLUSIVE: Designer Q&A: Duro Olowu for JCPenney
Ben Hider/FilmMagic

Nigerian-born, London-based designer Duro Olowu has been dressing stylish women like First Lady Michelle Obama and Solange Knowles in his mixed prints long before it was a hot trend. Now, he’s “democratizing” fashion and creating a lifestyle brand for JCPenney that all women can afford — with everything under $100.

We met with the designer to get the scoop about the launch of his first retail collaboration, coming in spring 2013.

ESSENCE.com: How did the collaboration come about?
DURO OLOWU: Well, JCP kind of head-hunted me. I’ve never done a collaboration, not because I didn’t want to, but because I never felt that the match was right. But my main line is very separate. But it’s expensive because I produce limited amounts. I have a very big following here in America so I thought it would be nice to democratize my idea of style.

So they came to me and I said, “If I can do whatever I want and have a certain quality and say in everything, then I’ll think about it.” And they really let me do everything.

ESSENCE.com: How was the design process?
OLOWU: I presented a big inspiration/mood board with all of my sketches and worked on prints and that was it. I’m very hands on, so everything you see — even the campaign — I was very much involved in.

ESSENCE.com: Your collections are comprised of all prints. How did you decide which you were going to use?
OLOWU: It’s instinctive. What’s nice is I’m known for prints. I’ve always done prints.

Duro Olowu for JCPenney clutch.

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ESSENCE.com: Do you design these prints yourself?
OLOWU: Yes. And for the home line, I got a lady named Bella Foster who’s a friend, an illustrator, to do the illustrations that I put on the home products like the vases and stuff. And I got Iris Apfel, who’s a friend of mine, to design a necklace and a bag.

It’s a very interesting aesthetic. Style is universal, but it needs to look effortless, so I just wanted to do all the work for the person, and they just pick it up and it’s done. 

ESSENCE.com: What celebs could you see in this collection?
OLOWU: Every woman is important. As long as I can see a woman run across the street in it or walk by. There are some people like Solange who I love; I love her irreverence, and it’s real. I love Hannah Bronfman. There are a whole bunch of women, but they’re not followers. And it’s not that they have more confidence than everyone else, they just go with their gut.

ESSENCE.com: Could you tell us about the home items? Have you ever designed interior items?
OLOWU: For my own collection, I do furnishing textiles, but the opportunity to do plates and mugs and platters was great.

ESSENCE.com: The woman that you’re designing for — where is she going? What is she doing?
OLOWU: She’s traveling into state [points to the luggage he designed]. She’s going to work. She’s dropping her kids off at school. She’s running to the office. In the evening, she’s going to school plays; she has events.  Let’s be honest, all this “Oh, my inspiration is Audrey Hepburn” — it’s good to dream like that, but you want it to look good in real life.

Duro Olowu for JCPenney skinny belt.

ESSENCE.com: I love the African influence. It’s very modern.
OLOWU: It is modern. People underestimate it. When you travel the world and you go to different parts of Africa, it’s so much more sophisticated. And actually people are not wearing necessarily the African print, but it’s the aesthetic and mixing it together.

ESSENCE.com: You’ve been mixing prints forever, and it’s now a big trend. What’s your advice to those who are new to it?
OLOWU: You start with one thing and incorporate it with a monotone, and it gradually becomes really simple. You don’t have to do a full look. But if it’s a dress, it’s always easier, because there’s a certain harmony in it, and you can wear it with a more plain accessory. Otherwise, just mix.

With prints, if you put them into context they work, but they have to say something about the kind of person you are. I want a woman who’s an executive or a woman who’s a full-time mom to feel dressy in these clothes.

ESSENCE.com: Does your wife influence your work?
OLOWU: Always; she has a practical lifestyle and most women do. It’s not just about having a career in the office.

I always think it’s important to look in control as a woman, vulnerable in one way — but strong. And that the clothes should make you feel sensual but not vulgar. That’s what I try to do.

Shop the collection at jcp.com and at your local JCPenney retailer March 2013.