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.

Black History Month: Black Journalists

The inaugural issue of the first ever African American newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, appeared in March 1827.  Its stirring front-page editorial stated “Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the public been deceived by misrepresentations”, encapsulating the truth that the experiences, needs and ideas of black people could only be expressed through the voices, pens and printing presses of black people. Black journalism has a fascinating and illustrious history, through which a rich tradition of brilliant minds sought to wrest the narrative of black experience from the dominant white commentators, fight the battle against racism and advance the cause of liberation.

As the earliest journalists recognised, no war could be waged – whether against the slave trade, which would continue for another four decades after the birth of Freedom’s Journal, or against lynching, the deprivation of civil rights, racist miscarriages of justice, institutional racism in the criminal justice system, government, and society generally – without a press created by and for black people. Newspapers were the way for individuals and communities to communicate with each other and challenge the racist misinformation that distorted the reality they knew.
Campaigns of huge political importance were carried out through their pages, debates shaped, and injustice exposed. They also fulfilled people’s need for entertainment and leisure at a time when black people could only find themselves depicted in stereotypical caricatures in white media. In this month’s display of books from our Special Collection of Biographies at Kensington Central Library, we mark Black History Month by looking at the stories of some of the most fascinating figures in black journalism.

Picture one

Some of the biggest names in 20th century black literature, whose stories can be found in our collection, worked as journalists – the poet Langston Hughes was a columnist for Abbott’s Chicago Defender (see below), and the novelist Zora Neale Hurston [pic 1] was also a reporter (one of her most famous pieces of journalism was her reporting of the 1952 trial in Florida of Ruby McCollum, the black woman convicted of murdering the white doctor and “pillar of the community” who abused her over many years).

Picture two

Lorraine Hansberry, [pic 2] the writer of the celebrated play A Raisin in the Sun wrote for the black newspaper Freedom, which was published by legendary singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson. Claudia Jones [pic 3], who founded the Notting Hill Carnival, set up the UK’s first black newspaper, The West Indian Gazette.

Picture three

Anyone who has watched the wonderful Mangrove film in the Small Axe series of films by Steve McQueen will have seen the brief appearance of C.L.R. James, played by Derek Griffiths.

Picture four

James [pic 4] was one of the most important journalists and historians of the period; he immigrated to Lancashire from Trinidad in 1932 and subsequently moved to London, where he wrote for many newspapers and was a leading figure in Marxist politics.  In the late 50s James returned to Trinidad and became the editor of The Nation newspaper, though he spent the last years of his life back in the UK, living in Brixton. James was also an expert on cricket and was cricket correspondent of the Manchester Guardian (now the Guardian) in the early 1930s. Huge names of black history like W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey were also journalists, but in this blog post I would like to focus on a few names that may be less well known.

Picture five

Robert Sengstacke Abbott was born in Georgia, USA in 1868; his parents had been enslaved until not long before his birth. [pic 5]
After practising as a lawyer, in 1905 he founded The Chicago Defender newspaper, which went on to become the most widely read black-owned newspaper. Having himself made the journey from the South to Chicago, Abbott was passionate about what is known as “The Great Migration”, which saw many black people relocate from the Southern to the Northern United States to escape rural poverty and the horrific “Jim Crow” system of racial segregation.  (During the first wave of this, between 1916 and 1940, 1.6 million black people resettled in the North.)  Abbott used his newspaper to inspire others to make this journey, as he felt black people could have the opportunity to improve their circumstances only when they left the terrible conditions of the South behind. At the same time, he saw all too clearly that racism was also a huge problem in the North, and campaigned for equal civil rights, the end of discrimination in employment and education, and the end of persecution of mixed-race couples. Black railway porters, who in 1925 were to form the first official trade union led by African Americans, increased the paper’s circulation by distributing it on trains. It is estimated that at its most popular, the paper was read by four out of five of all black adults in the entire United States.  (The paper still thrives 116 years after Abbott founded it, though two years ago it became online only.) We have a rare early biography of Abbott, written in 1955 by another African American journalist, Roi Ottley, whose career took off in the 1930s and who went on to become the first African American correspondent to file reports on World War Two for major national newspapers.

Picture six

Born in Jamaica in 1941, Barbara Blake Hannah [pic 6] had been a TV newsreader and a contributor to a magazine run by her father Evon Blake (founder of the Press Association of Jamaica) before she arrived in the UK in 1964 and became a prolific journalist, her work being published in many national newspapers and magazines. In 1968 she became the first black reporter on Thames Television’s first regional news programme, London-based Today. Blake-Hannah interviewed many famous people, but what then transpired is a disgraceful indictment – viewers complained about having a black reporter on the programme, and rather than defending her, Thames Television dismissed her without explanation. She went on to work on a local news programme in Birmingham, commuting from London as no hotel in Birmingham would admit her. She also worked as a researcher on the BBC’s prestigious documentary series “Man Alive.”  In 1972, Blake-Hannah returned to Jamaica to work on the ground-breaking film The Harder they Come. She has written extensively about Rastafarianism and was the first Rastafarian senator in the Jamaican Parliament for three years in the 80s.  She is now the Chief Executive of the Jamaica Film Academy.  Her autobiography Growing Out: Black Hair & Black Pride In The Swinging Sixties came out in 2016 and describes her experience in the UK.

Picture seven

Una Marson [pic 7] was an extraordinary woman who dese. Born in 1905 in rural Jamaica, she escaped her strict upbringing (her father was a Baptist minister) and was already a prolific journalist, playwright and poet by the time she was in her early twenties (at 21 she was assistant editor of The Jamaica Critic and by 23 she had set up her own magazine, the first Jamaican woman ever to do so).  She came alone to the UK while still not yet 30 and threw herself into the world of black activism and feminism, travelled in Europe, the USA and Israel, and met such important figures as Paul Robeson and Haile Salassie. She worked alongside George Orwell as a BBC producer during the Second World War, the first ever black woman to be employed by the corporation.  From 1942 she produced the BBC radio programme Calling the West Indies; she recreated it as Caribbean Voices, which ran for 15 years and showcased the work of important literary figures including Derek Walcott and V. S. Naipaul.  She is considered to be the first major female Caribbean poet and a key voice in the development of feminism.

Picture eight

Finally, George Lamming, who is now 94 years old, was one of those who read Walcott’s poetry on Caribbean Voices produced by Una Marson. [pic 8] In 1951 he came to London from Barbados and began broadcasting for the BBC, and he wrote for the Barbadian magazine BIM. In the late 60s he embarked on an academic career in Jamaica and has been a visiting professor at universities throughout the USA and Australia.  His book In the Castle of My Skin was written during his first couple of years in the UK, and though often classified as a novel, it is included in our Special Collection of Biographies because it is considered to be an autobiographical evocation of Lamming’s childhood and youth in Barbados. It is an exquisitely written book, which gives a unique insight into his home island at a particular moment in its history.

This black history month, we hope you will enjoy finding out more about these and other unique individuals from the history of black journalism [pic 9], inextricably interwoven into the history of activism, literature, politics, and culture.

Picture nine

Don’t forget to check out our BioEpic podcast, available on all major podcast platforms- Claudia at Kensington Central Library.

Black History Month event at Chelsea Library

The caged bird sings
with a fearful trill
of things unknown
but longed for still
and his tune is heard
on the distant hill
for the caged bird
sings of freedom.

Caged bird by Maya Angelou

Black History Month did not pass unnoticed at Chelsea Library. We were well prepared with a rich collection of books for children, teenagers and adults – and we had information displays throughout the library.

On Saturday 21 October, the library held a very successful Black History Month story and craft session. I invited Ade Akinbi, a teacher from a local primary school to be our special guest. As our events are free, and families can just come along – you never know how many will come, how old the children will be, and whether the planned activities will be appropriate for them. Therefore, I prepared for all possibilities – and hoped for the best!

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After my short introduction, Ade read ‘Caged bird’, Maya Angelou’s famous poem.

I then read Julia Donaldson’s ‘The ugly five’. This story is such a great fun and a fantastic introduction to our craft session – making animal masks. Tigers were absolutely the favourite choice, as you can see. Monkeys, lions, hippos, giraffes and cows (acting as wildebeests) could not compete with them.

After the first fifteen minutes of hubbub and excitement, everybody gradually got quiet and listened to songs from The Lion King in the background. (By the way – this is a guaranteed recipe for home-family-art-craft-workshop: talking book playing in the background and all sorts of craft materials on the kitchen table.)

The children and adults seemed content in designing, colouring and cutting, and I seized the moment for Ade to read another story – ‘When the rains come’ by Tom Pow and Malika Favre, set in a village in Malawi. We all enjoyed it, even learnt how to say “Hello, how are you?” “Moni. Muli bwanji.”

Six year old Christina made three masks – all tigers! Agynes (8), twins Phillip and Luke (7), Camilla (6) and Victoria (4) and many others, who had to leave earlier, spent a dynamic and creative afternoon with us.

Zvezdana, Chelsea Library

Black History Month – writers

Our Biography Collection at Kensington Central Library display for October marks Black History Month with a showcase of writers from around the world. From literary giants like James Baldwin and Langston Hughes to unjustly neglected writers like Bessie Head, our display is a starting point from which to explore black voices.

Among many from the Americas we have: Zora Neale Hurston, who portrays the harsh realities of life in the Deep South in nevertheless rich poetic language; Ralph Ellison whose prose urges the reader to confront the painful truths of political struggle; Maya Angelou and Alice Walker whose appearance on the literary scene in the 1980s offered a view of black women’s lives written from the inside.

African writers like Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe and more recent British voices like those of Aminatta Forna, Colin Grant and Jackie Kay investigate cultural dislocations and rediscoveries of heritage across continents.

We have interspersed our biographies this month with the works of some of these writers and hope you will enjoy both.

We are inaugurating a new strand of our displays this month, which will link some of the books in our Biography Store Collection to current film and TV, and also commemorate those famous people who have recently died. So this month, as the film “Goodbye, Christopher Robin” comes out, we have books on A. A. and Christopher Milne, and on Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe who are portrayed in the film “Borg vs. McEnroe”. Sad news of the death of Liz Dawn prompted us to display her autobiography.

The Biography Store Team at Kensington Central Library

Kensington Central Library – October 2013

Kensington Central Library
Kensington Central Library

Hello to you all from the staff at Kensington Central Library!  Autumn seems to have started but don’t worry – we have plenty of events happening that’ll keep you out of the wind and rain…..

Events past and coming up

Scary masks!

Gruffalo crafts
Gruffalo crafts

On Saturday 21 September, some scary monsters appeared in Kensington Central Children’s Library, the scariest was the Gruffalo himself! Everyone gathered round for the story of a little mouse who plays a big trick on his fellow animals. Then we made masks to disguise ourselves as all the different animals. There were lots of animal noises to be heard for a while afterwards!

We are now holding a story and craft session every Saturday in the children’s library at 2pm, until 3pm. Come and join us, for more creative fun!

Gemma Baker
Gemma Baker

Gemma Baker

Senior Customer Services Assistant

Author events

We’re extremley to lucky to have some great authors speaking at Kensington Central LIbrary this month –

John McHugo talks about his latest book, Sophie Parkin explores bohemian Soho, and Lucinda Hawksley marches with the Suffragettes.

John McHugo will be appearing this evening Tuesday 15 October, 6.30 to 8pm, Sophie Parkin will be here on Thursday 17 October, 6.30 to 8pm and Lucinda Hawksley on Tuesday 29 October, 6.30 to 8pm. Tickets will be available on the door.

Full details of these events are on the library events page.

Social media help

Facebook and Twitter logos
Facebook and Twitter logos

Like to learn more about Facebook and Twitter? We’ve a free training session at Kensington Central Reference Library on Friday 25 October, 10am to 12 noon. Places are limited so book your place soon at the library.

Half term fun!

Half term in the Royal Borough is week commencing Monday 28 October and we’ve plenty of events to keep your kids of all ages busy.

HiRes Halloween
Halloween!

They’ll be a Halloween story and craft session on Wednesday 30 October, 2 to 3pm for four to ten year olds.

Persian tile
Persian tile

Also we two Persian themed workshops – Persian dance on Tuesday 29 October, 2 to 4pm for eight to fourteen year olds and Persian art on Thursday 31 October, 2 to 4pm for five to eleven year olds. Both these events are part of the Nour Festival of Arts and can be booked on www.nourfestival.eventbrite.co.uk

New displays

We’ve some new book displays this month that have been put together by our creative staff – pop in and take a look!

We’ve displays for:

  • Black History Month
  • Man Booker Prize
  • Graphic novels – a selection of our collection

Hope to see you at our events this month!

Jodie Green, Lending Librarian
Jodie Green

Jodie Green

Lending Librarian

Celebrate Black History Month at North Kensington library

North Kensington Library will be screening Pressure to help celebrate Black History Month

Still from the film Pressure
Still from the film Pressure, Black History Month

A pioneering first feature length film by a Black British director, Pressure (1975) tells the story of the coming of age of Tony, a bright young teenager caught between the aspirations of his parents and the realities of growing up in Notting Hill.

Horace Ove
Horace Ove

In this ground breaking film, directed by Horace Ové from a collaborative script with Trinidadian author Sam Selvon, Pressure uses a mixture of professionals and amateur actors to explores the dilemmas of being young, Black and British in mid 70s London.

The film will be followed by a discussion, led by Birkbeck history lecturer Mike Berlin.

Michael Berlin

This free event is part of Birkbeck’s Black History Month celebrations for more information please visit the BHM website. 

Scene from the film Pressure
Scene from the film Pressure

Details:

  • Thursday 25 October, 5.00pm
  • North Kensington Library
    108 Ladbroke Grove
    North Kensington, London
    W11 1PZ

Birbeck University web logo
Birbeck University web logo

Ticket information:

  • This is a free event and all are welcome.
  • Customers can book tickets on Eventbrite
  • Please note, we are not taking bookings in the library.

For more information please contact the organiser Kate Potts on 020 73803112