Black History Month: Celebrating Fashion Designers Willi Smith and Duro Olowu.

The Costume and Fashion Special Collection at Chelsea Library celebrates Black History Month this October.

Chelsea Library is home to the Costume and Fashion Collection, a treasure trove of books and magazines chronicling the history of Costume and Fashion. This also includes an archive of British Vogue dating from 1923 to the present.

The Costume and Fashion Collection is supported by the digital resource Bloomsbury Fashion Central (https://www.bloomsburyfashioncentral.com/library-card-log-in?linkPassUrl=https://www.bloomsburyfashioncentral.com/), a comprehensive research tool for students, professionals and anyone interested in fashion and is free to use online with your library card.

For this year’s Black History Month, we are featuring the work of two designers: Willi Smith (1948-1987), whose important legacy has often been overlooked and Duro Olowu, the Nigerian born, British designer, who in 2003 opened his first boutique in the North Kensington. Both featured in major exhibitions in 2020.

The cover of Willi Smith: Street Couture

Willi Smith

It has been over thirty years since Willi Smith’s death and last year saw the first retrospective of his work – Willi Smith: Street Couture at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York.

 Willi Smith was born in Philadelphia in 1948. Initially he studied fashion illustration but later went on to study Fashion at Parsons School of Design in New York. Early in his career he worked for Arnold Stassi, a designer known for his high society ball gowns. He then worked for Digit Inc. Sportswear, where he quickly made name for himself and was nominated for the prestigious Coty Award in 1972. After Digits Inc. went bankrupt in 1973, he unsuccessfully set up a company with his sister Toukie Smith and then in 1976 while in India, inspired by the cotton fabrics and street fashion, he and his friend Laurie Mallet came up with the idea of setting up WilliWear Ltd and by the time they return he had designed a capsule collection that was ready to go.

WilliWear quickly captured the interest of the fashion industry. His designs crossed over from sportswear to couture. His clothes were oversized, colourful and gender fluid. He was the first designer to unite womenswear and menswear under the same label. This is echoed in his unisex patterns for Butterwick and McCall’s, which still seem radical today.

Willi Smith’s design ethos was that his clothes should be functional, fun, affordable and cross boundaries of race, gender and social status. He was inspired by how people on the street dressed. He called it Street Couture for his seminal Fall 1983 Collection. It was urban not ballroom. He famously said, ‘Being black has a lot to do with being a good designer. My eye will go quicker to what the pimp is wearing than to someone in a gray suit and tie…Most of these designers who run to Paris for color and fabric combinations should go to church on Sunday in Harlem. It’s all right there’. (Vogue online July 2020)

Willi Smith was one of the few successful ‘non-white’ designers at the time to navigate the fashion industry on his own terms and by the time of his death in 1987, aged thirty-nine from an AIDS related illness, he had become the most successful black designer in history with annual sales of over twenty-five million dollars and selling in five hundred stores worldwide.

Willi Smith pioneered Streetwear which has influenced generations of designers. Throughout his career he worked creatively with artists, architects, filmmakers and dancers. Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer were amongst the artists who he worked with on his ground-breaking artist t-shirts in 1984 – now ubiquitous in the industry. He started collaborating with Christo and Jeanne-Claude in 1967 and in 1985 designed the worker’s uniforms for the wrapping of the Pont Neuf in Paris. The radical architects SITE created his urban street vision for his show rooms and with artists Nam June Pak and Juan Downey his fashion shows became more performance than catwalk.

So, it seems strange that his legacy has largely been overlooked. Perhaps it was because his career was cut short, maybe it was also due to ‘the negativity associated with AIDS at the time’ (James Wines, SITE, Surface Magazine Jan 2020). But it is also true, as Kim Jenkins, founder of the Fashion and Race Database says ‘…fashion history for the most part, has been white history. On the whole, we have designers of color missing from our textbooks’ (WMagazine Jan 2020).

The cover of Duro Olowu: Seeing.

Duro Olowu 

Duro Olowu is a Nigerian born British designer. In 1998 he opened his first boutique off  the Ledbury Road in Notting Hill with Elaine Golding, called Olowu Golding, where he showcased  his early designs  and Elaine Golding’s shoes. Then in 2004 he launched his womenswear label.  His  Spring-Summer 2005 Collection was an instant success and he was named New Designer of the Year at the British Fashion Awards, the only designer to receive the award prior to their first runway show. His empire line dress with flowing sleeves, dubbed the ‘Duro’ became a sensation, hailed ‘Dress of the Year’ by both American and British Vogue.

Duro Olowu punctuates designing with curating. He moves with ease between Fashion and  the Art worlds. Last year he guest curated Seeing at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, where he brought together over 300 works of art selected from public and private collections from around the Chicago area arranging them in thematic groups.

Previously in 2016 he curated ‘Making and Unmaking’ at the Camden Arts Centre in London. Mixing and placing works which included photographs, paintings, sculpture and fabrics. The exhibition was like wandering through his stream of consciousness. There was a sense of freedom, where seemingly unconnected work flowed from room to room in a kind of beautiful choreography. In the interview with Glen Ligon for the exhibition he explained, ‘…the process of discovery and experimentation is very empowering and that is what ‘Making and Unmaking’ is ultimately about’ .

Duro Olowu’s designs are a sophisticated  play of pattern, colour and cut, suffused with the influence of African textiles, with their symbolism and how they translate to the street fashion of a continent and then melded seamlessly with western couture to create designs that are both powerful and subtle at the same time.

The exhibition publications: Willi Smith: Street Couture, Alexandra Cunningham Cameron, Rizzoli Electa, 2020 and Duro Olowu: Seeing, Naomi Beckwith, Prestel, 2020  are on display in Chelsea Library during the month of October in the Costume and Fashion Collection.

For further information on Willi Smith, the Willi Smith Community Archive created inconjunction with Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum gives personal accounts and insights into the designer by people who knew and worked with him. https://willismitharchive.cargo.site/

You can also listen to Duro Olowu in conversation with Valerie Steele, fashion historian, who also curates  Bloomsbury Fashion Central’s fashion photograhphy archive. The conversation is from the Series: at home: Artists in Conversation, Yale Centre for British Art.  https://youtu.be/71ZdF_YVVbQ

Nadia, Chelsea Library.

Inspirations from our Biography Collection

For this month’s special display from our Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library, library staff were asked to nominate figures who had inspired them.

See what Steve Biko, RuPaul, Malcolm X, J. K. Rowling, Jimi Hendrix, Lauren Bacall, Tove Jansson, David Attenborough and many others mean to members of staff, learn more about them from their biographies – and see if we have a book about your own inspiring figure in our collection. With around 85,000 titles spanning two centuries of publishing, there is a good chance we do!

Mzu chose: Steve Biko

Bantu Stephen Biko…popularly known as Steve  Biko. Apart from teaching us that democracy is something to fight for, constantly, my inspiration,
Steve Biko, a South African anti-apartheid activist (18 December 1946 – 12 September 1977), was known for his slogan ‘black is beautiful’, which he
described as meaning ‘you are okay as you are, begin to look upon yourself as a human being.’ He fully understood that the foundation of any true
liberation is self-love.

Fani chose: Helen Keller

I would like to suggest one of my favourite authors, Helen Keller because this woman overcame her  dual disability and managed to live the life that she dreamt without barriers. I love the below words from her: ‘The best and most beautiful things in the world  cannot be seen or even touched- they must be felt  with the heart’.

Katie chose: Patrick Leigh Fermor

Adventurer, polyglot, lover of people and nature, Leigh Fermor  explored the world and wrote about its beauty. His ‘Time of Gifts’  books feature his walking journey from the Hook of Holland to  Constantinople and he has written many delightful books on his  daring exploits and travels.

Nina chose: David Attenborough

The most inspiring man who seems capable of uniting the whole world. People from all over the globe have grown up to the sound of his husky voice telling them about the weird and wonderful things that exist in nature, and many were made aware of dangers that threaten them though watching his programmes. He is a man so universally liked that I have no doubt he would be chosen as the President of the World if such a role existed.

If you’re nearby, do pop into the library and take a look at the display – we’re sure you’ll be inspired too.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Dogs and cats at Christmas time

As the festive season approaches, thoughts turn to cosy domestic scenes and some of us will be lucky enough to be sharing our festivities with a beloved pet, so we have had a rummage in our special Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library for memoirs of dog and cat friends – and found a treasure trove which we hope you will enjoy.

True to form, our very special collection reveals its diversity in this as in all other areas – so we meet dogs who are the reliable companions of people with disabilities, the cherished workmates of farmers and shepherds, the dear friends of some of our most familiar celebrities, and dogs who have shared wartime experiences, often with heroic fortitude.

We have memoirs of those whose work is the rescue of dogs and cats from abandonment and cruelty, and those whose have themselves been rescued by their pets from loneliness and despair, pets immortalised in beautiful artwork, pets with all their eccentricities. Curl up with one of these heartwarming stories – perhaps with your own beloved canine or female friend close at hand.

Also in the spirit of festive conviviality, we have dipped into the part of our special collection comprising of oversize books, to peep into some of the family photograph albums of the famous past and present, finding intimate pictures of family life – sometimes recorded by humble amateur snaps and sometimes by great photographers – and a glimpse of Christmases past.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

The fall of the Berlin Wall

This month’s display from our special Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library is to do with the fall of the Berlin Wall .

9th November is the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The wall had been the most potent symbol in Europe of the Cold War separation between the Communist USSR and its satellites and allies on the one hand, and the US and its allies on the other.

The evening of the 9th of November 1989 was a decisive point in the ending of this separation, as the Berlin Wall quite suddenly ceased to function as a meaningful barrier in a divided Germany, with people from both sides starting to move freely through checkpoints and literally over the top of the structure.

Our display of books from our special Biography Collection focuses on the key political personalities associated with this uniquely resonant moment, and also memoirs of ordinary people’s lives behind the “Iron Curtain”.

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

Lives at sea

We are an island nation, and throughout our history the sea has been inextricably mixed into our lives, whether we experience it as part of our immediate environment, learn about its place in our history, or trace its many marks on our language and literature. Images of the sea and seafaring metaphors sparkle and surge through our poetry and our idioms, and the sea exerts a pull of mystical romance.

To mark National Maritime Day on 1st September, our Biography Collection display at Kensington Central Library features memoirs of lives at sea. There are books tracing how the sea influenced artists and writers including Conrad and Turner, and books recording the experiences of sailors and fisherman struggling to maintain a livelihood in often pitiless conditions.

Many have been drawn to engage the sea in battles for supremacy, leading to amazing feats of endurance and will – these are the loan yachts-people, circumnavigators and channel swimmers who lead us through their life-changing struggles. There are intimate and personal records of how the sea effected changes in relationships and the sense of self (my personal favourite is Gwynneth Lewis’s Two in a Boat, an account of how the superficially crazy idea of going to sea became a jumping-off point for profound insights into the nature of moods, marriage and metamorphosis).

Our naval history is inevitably linked with painful themes of colonialism and war, and we have books on how projects of land conquest and trade depended on the conquest of the sea from the Elizabethan period onwards, and on how the protagonists of terrifying sea battles understood their experience.

And of course, there are pirates, with brutal realities often far stranger than the romantic legends we have inherited.

We hope you will dive in and find something to interest you.

The Biography Store Team, Kensington Central Library

Great names of British comedy

It’s fifty years since the first broadcast of that classic of British comedy, Dad’s Army, and this month our Biography Collection display at Kensington Central Library showcases the life stories of some of our funniest men and women. We have a truly enormous number of books celebrating the comic genius of stand-ups and sitcom stars. With intimate glimpses of the highs and lows of their real lives, we find that the tears of a clown are often a real phenomenon, while some stars have brought their comic talents to their own memoirs so that their trials and tribulations cause tears of laughter as we read.

The vintage funny business is all here – from the Victorian double entendres of Marie Lloyd and the silk dressing-gown cool of Noel Coward, to the surreal capers of ITMA (It’s That Man Again), Round the Horne and The Goons and the even more surreal and subversive – and perhaps also quintessentially British? – comic kaleidoscope of Monty Python.

I wonder if I am alone in finding Private Frazer’s mournful cry of “We’re doomed!” strangely reassuring – it’s interesting that over the years we have loved so may characters who express comic despair at life’s frustrations, with a special place in our collective psyche for the hapless melancholy of Tony Hancock, the car-thrashing frenzy of Basil Fawlty, the tightlipped defeatism of Victor Meldrew and the wailing lament of Steptoe junior as his father greets another faux pas with a malevolent toothless grin. There’s that traditional strand of social competitiveness, snobbery and one-upmanship to relish in many of our best loved characters too (Fawlty and Steptoe’s anguish has a lot to do with this, and think also of Hyacinth Bucket, Rigsby,and Margot). The “saucy” humour of the seaside postcard resonates in the Carry On era and Benny Hill, and British comedy has also always had a healthy disrespect for the institutions of authority, taking the wind out of the sails of power in Yes, Minister and of the criminal justice system in Porridge.

Through the alternative scene of the 80s, shows like The Kenny Everett Video Show, Not the Nine O’ clock News, The Young Ones, The Comic Strip Presents and Three of a Kind all represented seismic shifts in comedy styles and pushed the boundaries of what made us laugh.

More recent faces feature in our display too, like Walliams and Lucas, Mitchell and Webb, Miranda Hart, Michael McIntyre, Sarah Millican and James Corden – and there is no shortage of hilarious women – Wood, Windsor, and Walters; Lipman, Tate, French and Saunders, and many more.

There are so many, many great names of British comedy, that I am already wondering how I could have written this blog piece without mentioning by name, for example, Tommy Cooper, Kenneth Williams, Spike Milligan or June Whitfield – and you will doubtless have your favourites who you can’t believe I have not included! I am glad to say this embarrassment of comic riches is reflected in our Biography Collection, with our display representing the tip of an iceberg of hundreds or comic biographies. If you can’t find your favourite, just ask.

The Biography Store Team, Kensington Central Library

Women in medicine

Female medical students currently outnumber their male counterparts in the UK. This is a situation that would have seemed incredible to the earliest female doctors.

In 1865, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson became the first British woman to qualify to practice medicine. (The first woman, that is, since Dr James Barry, who though born female, lived her adult life as a man so that she could practice medicine from 1815, her secret only being discovered after her death.) Even with her qualification, Anderson was excluded from work in any hospital. She set up her own practice and launched a remarkable career in medical work, and in the furtherance of women in the profession and in wider society.

However, the battle for women to become doctors was very far from over. It is difficult for us to appreciate how strongly, and with what sometimes vicious misogyny, women’s entry into the profession was resisted well into the 20th century. A medical career was considered by the male establishment to be far too physically arduous and intellectually rigorous for any woman’s capabilities. All kinds of quasi-medical theories were propounded in support of this view – all the more bizarre when you consider that these were often expressed by highly educated men in the scientific community: they included the idea that too much study would cause a woman’s womb to atrophy.

These prejudices were enshrined in the regulations of the most important medical institutions. During the first half of the century, women were still barred from training at the major hospitals – with the sole exception of the Royal Free, where Garrett Anderson had established the London School of Medicine for Women in 1874. Although for some women, the shortage of men during the First World War around the time that they qualified provided a timely career-boost, allowing them access to institutions that were forced in desperation to admit them. Between the wars, it was still common for job advertisements in the British Medical Journal to specify that women need not apply.

In 1911, Marie Curie won her second Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Apparently unmoved by her achievements, Sir Henry Butlin, President of the Royal College of Surgeons, delivered a lecture in the same year in which he stated unequivocally that he believed women to be unsuited to medical research. An indication of how slow attitudes were to change is that 30 years later, in 1941, Sir Robert Hutchison, President of the Royal College of Physicians, told female medical students “medical women make excellent wives, while their qualification is always a second string to their bow.”

Against this background, the achievements of the early female doctors are all the more impressive, and we are pleased this month to be able to display fascinating biographies and memoirs of many of them (from our Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library), as well as those of contemporary women doctors writing about the stresses and joys of their chosen career.

We are also delighted to tell you about an exciting event linked to this display: on Monday 18 June, 6 to 7.30 pm here at Kensington Central Library, Dr Abby Waterman will be discussing her compelling memoir “Woman in a White Coat”. This is a wonderful read which describes with great humour and honesty her journey from an impoverished girlhood in the East End to a wide-ranging medical career.

You can book a free place to this event via Eventbrite 

The Biography Store Team, Kensington Central Library

All about us

A post from our Service Development Manager, Angela Goreham – about what RBKC Libraries have to offer.

R Research for a project that interests you
B Booking a PC, a place at an event
K Knowledge as we all need this
C Connect (to others in the community and the wide world)

L Lending items for your pleasure or information
I Information that will help you with your day to day or forward planning
B Baby activities and information to help new parents
R Reading – a core skill and past time in any format
A Access us at any time and from anywhere
R Resources – varied and plentiful, in different formats to suit different needs
Y Young and old – we’re here for everyone

Are you 1 in 840,344? Or maybe you are 1 in 515,004? They’re odd numbers you might say, but the first one is the number of times the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s libraries were visited between April 2017 and March 2018 and the second is how many items were borrowed during the same period – how many did you account for?

104 people from our local communities supported the Library Service by volunteering with us and over 40,000 people came to one of the events that we held.

They are huge numbers but we always want to beat our previous year’s figures so please come along to one of our libraries, find out what we can do for you and you can help us pass last year’s numbers.

There are six libraries within the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea – find out more about them and what we offer by either visiting us in person or our website or you can call us on 020 7361 3010.

Cityread London 2018

May’s display from the Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library showcases books related to the Spanish Civil War, as the Cityead London book this year is The Muse by Jessie Burton, a novel set partly during that time – and Cityread starts tomorrow, 1 May.

Obviously, we have picked from our shelves biographies of major political actors in the conflict, such as General Franco and the Republican President Caballero, as well as cultural figures with an association with the conflict, such as Picasso and Lorca, along with commentators such as Orwell. But we have also found that we have a fair number of volumes by or about the many ordinary people who fought in the conflict, particularly those volunteers from overseas who joined the International Brigades on the Republican side.

The Spanish Civil War is widely viewed as the prelude to the Second World War, happening as it did between 1936 and 1939, and consequently as predominantly a conflict between Democracy and Fascism. However, on closer examination, things seem much more complicated – so complicated that Biography Store team have almost despaired of writing anything brief and coherent on this topic.

The history of Spain for the hundred or so years before the outbreak of the war is very complicated but arguably characterised by extreme internal instability following the loss of nearly all of the Spanish empire in the Americas by the end of the first quarter of the nineteenth century. This was followed by attempts to modernise in competition with the other European states on a new basis. But Spain remained very underdeveloped compared to these other states in the early twentieth century, economically, socially, and politically, so that the hardship suffered in the Great Depression led to fresh instability and ultimately the War.

This was broadly between on the one side the conservative, pro-church, Army-backed “Nationalist” forces supported by Nazi Germany and Italy and on the other the Republican coalition of liberals, socialists, anarchists, and communists, which was backed by the Soviet Union, though the Republican side was far from entirely united. In this sense, one could see the war as a repeat (but with a very different outcome) of the Russian Civil War, rather than as a prelude to the Second World War. Nevertheless, the rather half-hearted support for the Republic by the Soviet Union and the non-intervention of the ‘Western’ powers can be seen as cautious foreign policy positions – wishing not to provoke premature outright confrontation with the Axis powers.

Do come into the library and take a look, and also check out our Cityread London events that are happening this month.

The Biography Store Team, Kensington Central Library

 

 

 

Civil rights movement: leaders and activists

On 4 April it will be 50 years since the world was shocked by the assassination of Dr Martin Luther King Jr in Memphis, Tennessee. Our display of books from the Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library this month is about the African-American civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, in which he was one of the key figures.

When the movement began there already existed certain civil rights for black people in the US at a federal level; an issue was ensuring their enforcement by the federal government against the wishes of state governments in the South controlled by (rich) white people. These civil rights included various amendments that had been made to the US federal constitution following the American Civil War. These had ended slavery and given African-Americans citizenship and the vote (the last for males only, in line with the law for whites at the time).

However, these legal equalities between blacks and whites could only be effectively imposed in the South by the use of force by the federal government in the face of fierce resistance, and once troops were withdrawn in the late 1870s , black people were gradually intimidated out of political participation, leading to a simmering compromise whereby slavery had been ended but Southern states passed local laws denying equal civil rights and imposing segregation, which were not effectively opposed at federal level.

In the 1950s, this still unresolved conflict led to the civil rights movement. Segregation and systematic abuse continued to degrade and brutalise black people in the South; lynchings went uninvestigated, corrupt authorities advanced a racist agenda, and black people who had fought in the armed services during World War II against the most racist of fascist ideologies found on their return that they were treated as second class citizens in their own country. The civil rights movement achieved limited legalistic effects – limited, certainly with hindsight, because massive inequality in access to material resources partly along racial lines persists in the US as in all of human society at present.

Like all campaign movements, the civil rights movement encompassed various strands, organisations, and personalities: Martin Luther King, with his Christian and pacifist tinged political strategy; the more militant Malcolm X, joining King’s organisation from the Nation of Islam; bodies of the organised working class and university students (these two in particular encompassing many whites); and many more.

We have aimed in the books we have chosen to go beyond the better known figures, exploring the stories of many people associated with the civil rights movement in many ways.  So, as well as biographies of King, Malcolm X and Rosa Parks, we have books on performers like Nina Simone and Paul Robeson,  whose commitment to the struggle was interwoven with their art, and sports stars like Muhammad Ali and Jackie Robinson, who refused to separate their identities as world famous sportsmen from the injustices inherent in their experiences as black citizens.

In the realm of very personal stories, we have James McBride telling the story of the marriage of his white mother to his black father against the backdrop of racial intolerance, Jan Carew recalls travelling with Malcolm X and their intimate discussions about his world view, and Charles Denby’s Black Worker’s Journal gives a detailed and evocative picture of life in a Detroit car factory negotiating the assaults of race and class prejudice.  We hope this display will deepen and broaden our perspective on a movement which continues to reverberate.

The Biography Store Team, Kensington Central Library