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The Italian Photographer Whose Sun-Soaked Images Inspired Duro Olowu’s Latest Collaboration

How Luigi Ghirri’s eclectic compositions led designer Duro Olowu to his latest collection for Max&Co.

Zoe Grossman

Despite being warmly invited to take a seat before my interview with Duro Olowu in his curiosity-filled Mayfair studio – as the Nigeria-born, London-based curator and designer wraps up a phone call – I find it impossible to do so. I have, it appears, a case of the fashion fidgets. So captivated am I by a boxy black jacket accented with bold graphic florals hanging on a rail near the front door, I find myself moving instinctively towards it. When Olowu materialises, I am keenly inspecting his signature highly saturated limes, lemon yellows and fuchsias, in a similar way, it transpires, to how he’s been admiring the potent, sun-soaked compositions of Italian photographer Luigi Ghirri, the inspiration behind his spring/summer 2023 collaboration with fellow Reggio Emilia-originating brand Max&Co.

Duro Olowu with model Enya Davis, who wears satin jacket and stretch-satin trousers, by Max&Co

“There’s a dark orange, almost terracotta, that I call ‘Ghirri orange’,” he enthuses of a colour synonymous with the trailblazing 1943-born artist, who created a visual style that mediated between reality and fantasy, the banal and the kitsch, the vivid and time-tinged, before his death in 1992. Olowu, whose art-suffused collections abound with photographer references such as Eileen Agar, Beth Lesser and Lee Miller, specifically alludes to “Brest” (1972), a photograph of a woman with a dark bob wearing a rich orange coat. Her face is invisible but the silhouette of her palms and back appear to the viewer pressed into frosted glass. “My favourite Ghirri quote is, ‘I take photographs in colour because the real world is in colour,’” says Olowu.

Ghirri preferred “minimal journeys” when seeking out his subject material, and most of his expansively imaginative oeuvre – be it scenes of wind-whipped beaches or studies of metal shop shutters – was lensed within three kilometres of his home. Despite this near distance, Ghirri was obsessed with maps, and in 1973 he put together Atlante, a photographic series that wittily blew up the cartographical illustrations of atlases, such as the tree symbols of forests and the blue squiggles of rivers. For his Max&Co collaboration, which launches this month and comprises 35 pieces, Olowu imagined Ghirri leaving Reggio Emilia and whirling high above the oceans, roads and hills of his photographs, capturing the topography of Mali’s capital, Bamako, and the shore-lined Saint-Louis in Senegal. “Ghirri’s studio was the city, the terrain,” Olowu says. “I thought, ‘What if he’d had the opportunity to travel?’”]

“I saw these big smiles on their faces,” Olowu says of the Max&Co team’s reaction to his captivation with Ghirri. “It felt so fortuitous that he also came from Reggio Emilia.” For his People, Places, Colour collection, he has merged European and West African tones and “geometric and psychedelic prints”, “Ghirri orange” and burnished “Bamako brown”, watermelon pink and emerald green, pointillist chevron stripes and undulating waves. “One of the most incredible parts of working with Duro was seeing his eclectic approach to building prints using different references, such as Moroccan carpets, graphic 1930s motifs and colours inspired by Ghirri’s pictures,” says Max Mara Group board member Maria Giulia Prezioso Maramotti, who worked closely on the project. “We also took inspiration from silhouettes within our own archives and built out the moodboards from there.”

Cropped biker jackets and shirtdresses, lightweight ribbed knits and headscarves: pieces in the collection are designed not for the staunch stylistic rigour of resort towns, such as Capri or St-Tropez, but for a liberated and adventurous spirit, and someone who flings time-honed clothes into a suitcase and books a one-way ticket. “We also incorporated an off-white inspired by the colour of a keepsake T-shirt that’s been worn and worn and rewashed,”Olowu says. “I was also listening to Sade a lot. And thinking about her sense of sharp but thrown-together dressing.”

“Brest” (1972) by Luigi Ghirri Luigi Ghirri

Ghirri’s playful and surrealist visual style saw him distort proportion and place, and expand the nature and realms of physical possibility. The works dabble in the human ability to dream. In “Salisburgo” (1977), four women stand facing a majestic mountain scene, which the reader comes to realise is not a real Alpine landscape but an illustrated map or mural. In “Parigi” (1972), one of Olowu’s favourite compositions, Ghirri captures the back of a boy, a floral bandana tied around his Afro, sitting against an unidentified watery backdrop and holding a miniature model of the Eiffel Tower. Olowu and Max&Co’s collection is equally transportive. It allows its wearer to travel even if only in the imagination, flitting between heat-drenched Italian and Senegalese streets or the enclaves of any dreamt-up destination. Ghirri’s minimal journeys? Now they’re endless.


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