The Anti-Power Couple

LONDON — Before Thelma Golden, chief curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, met her future husband, the London-based designer Duro Olowu, she had been on a Barneys waiting list for one of his dresses for months.

The two were introduced at a Target party on a hot summer evening in New York in 2006 — so hot that Mr. Olowu nearly didn’t attend. Fortunately for both parties, Kim Hastreiter, the co-editor of Paper magazine and one of the party’s hosts, insisted he come.

When he arrived, “Thelma sees me and comes up, and she goes into this whole thing about my clothes, and I think, ‘Who is this beautiful little thing?’” he recalled recently at the Camden Arts Center, where he was putting the finishing touches on his third art show, “Making & Unmaking.”

Mr. Olowu, a native of Nigeria, earns his living as a fashion designer, but he is also an enthusiastic collector of vintage textiles and contemporary art, and has been dabbling in curation since 2012, organizing two shows atSalon 94 in New York.

“She said: ‘I’ve been trying to get pieces of your work, but they’re always sold out. I left a message six months ago, and no one called me back,’” he said. “Of course, I got back to London and it said she called. I owe it all to Kim Hastreiter, who I now call my yenta.”

They married quietly at City Hall less than two years later, Ms. Hastreiter and the artist Glenn Ligon their only witnesses.

The oft-photographed Ms. Golden, who is also a board member of the Obama Foundation, and Mr. Olowu, who has dressed Michelle Obama and Solange Knowles, make an obvious — and very marketable — power couple.

Yet unlike, say, the artists Rachel Feinstein and John Currin, or Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, it is not a power they wield easily, or even willingly.

Mr. Olowu spends the better part of every month in London, where his studio and store are; Ms. Golden lives in New York. They refuse to give joint interviews to journalists, including this one, and despite numerous offers, they have never been officially photographed together for the glossy magazines desperate to get them into their pages.

They do appear side by side at benefits and other high-profile events, including the state dinner in 2014 in honor of President François Hollande of France, where Ms. Golden was seated on President Obama’s left. But it was not until June 18 that they collaborated publicly for the first time.

The occasion was a question-and-answer session at a packed preview of “Making & Unmaking” for several dozen friends and members of the media, fashion and art communities. According to Mr. Olowu, it had been Ms. Golden’s idea to interview him for the talk: “She just said, ‘Why not?’”

Ms. Golden, wearing one of her husband’s signature patchwork-print dresses and black peep-toe ankle boots, began by disclosing that in the many months her husband had worked to put his latest exhibition together, he had not once spoken to her about it, and she had seen it for the first time only the day before.

“You are all witnessing the first conversation,” she said confidentially.

Later by phone, Ms. Hastreiter observed: “Thelma is a strong woman, and Duro loves that about her. They’re not attached at the hip. They work like crazy, and they’re really passionate about what they do, and respect each other’s careers and love each other. They don’t just go to parties and pose for things.”

Indeed, they were not posing back in Camden; their onstage interview was like what any other two prominent members of the art community might hold on stage, albeit with a bit more teasing and affection.

Mr. Olowu discussed his early fascination with textiles as a child in Lagos, and with the idea of “something that is made flat coming to life” when draped on the body. His approach to curating is similar to putting together a fashion collection, he said, of assembling disparate elements and trying “to create harmony between all” of them.

The talk did, at times, veer into the personal, particularly when the floor opened up to audience questions. When asked what it was like to “live with a hoarder,” Ms. Golden said that when she and Mr. Olowu first began dating, she occupied an apartment with bare walls.

By now, she has learned to live among his ever-expanding collection of art, fabric and furniture, and like good Americans, they have bowed to the necessity of a storage unit. (“I’m not a hoarder, but I can’t resist a good thing,” Mr. Olowu conceded.)

She revealed that she often encourages him to photograph the things he collects because he has a habit of forgetting and buying them again. They both laughed.

“They’re the kind of people that when you walk into the room, you don’t know who to go to first,” said the retailer Ikram Goldman, who has known them since they first met. “They’re individuals in their own right, but together they create this incredible unit that you gravitate to. They ground each other.”

Mr. Olowu did not always keep his personal and professional lives so separate. The designer, who trained as a lawyer in London, did not begin his fashion career until age 30, opening a small shop in Notting Hill with his first wife, Elaine Golding, a shoe designer, in the late ’90s.

They opened their doors with two styles of shoes and two styles of dresses, which Mr. Olowu designed and which sold the first day. When Mr. Olowu and his wife later separated, he set out on his own, unveiling his namesake label in late 2004 and winning the British Fashion Council’s New Designer of the Year award in 2005. Since then, he has released a collaboration with the jeweler Sidney Garber and designed a line for J.C. Penney.

One may think that the earlier intermingling of Mr. Olowu’s professional and personal lives may have prompted his and Ms. Golden’s decision to keep theirs apart, but he says that is not the case.

“We’re just very sociable, and we don’t have the time, really,” he said. “I respect what she does, and the museum and her passion, her love of art, her enthusiasm for everything. I don’t need to say, ‘Now I need this amount of your time.’ But she’s very supportive of what I do.”

She practically refuses to wear anything besides the clothes he has designed, he said, “even though I say, please.”

That decision to be supportive, rather than collaborative, is at least partly responsible for preserving the spontaneous quality of Mr. Olowu’s curatorial projects. There is a striking similarity between the layout of his treasure attic of a store in Mayfair and each of his exhibitions, with panels of vintage fabric forming a background to the paintings and photographs on display.

In Camden, there are more than 60 artists included in the show — an unusually high proportion of them women — spanning a multitude of media, including painting (Dorothea Tanning, Alice Neel), photography (Irving Penn, Claude Cahun), sculpture (Wangechi Mutu, Sheila Hicks), weaving (Anni Albers, and West African textiles from Mr. Olowu’s personal collection) and collage (the 25-year-old fashion designer Grace Wales Bonner, recent winner of the LVMH prize for emerging talent, has a piece on display for the first time).

What unites them is a sense of pattern, repetition and a human touch, or what Mr. Olowu describes as the “process of personal ritual that an artist goes through, which is like the act of weaving.”

Jenni Lomax, the museum’s director, offered Mr. Olowu the space after attending his talk with Mr. Ligon at the Tate Modern last year, where the two discussed not Mr. Ligon’s art, but their mutual passion for textiles.

“It’s very intuitive,” Ms. Lomax says of his approach. “He didn’t do research or careful planning, and he seemed to be unhindered by historical or anything that would perhaps be expected from a curator. It’s working almost like an artist, with bits and pieces, imagining how it would all come together in his mind.”

Still, he doesn’t think of himself as a curator, not yet. He leaves that to his wife.

“In the end, it’s safe for me to think that I’m a designer who curates,” Mr. Olowu said. “This is an institutional show, but I’m not institutional, I don’t have an institutional background. Because I’m not part of the art world, because I came through this as a lover of art, I’m free, I really am.”

After the talk, Mr. Olowu held the door as guests poured into the first of the rooms containing the assembled works, while Ms. Golden receded to the back rooms, greeted at turns by acquaintances. It was now Mr. Olowu’s show.

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