July 22, 2020
Ask Mobolaji Dawodu what he does and he’ll say, “I dress people.”
While he responds with a conciseness easily mistaken for self-deprecation, the full answer is as fascinating as it is wide-ranging. In addition to his title as Fashion Director at American GQ and GQ Style, Nigerian-American Dawodu is also a father, an aspiring farmer, a world traveler, a costume designer, and an entrepreneur. For him, building a career as iconoclastic and free-wheeling as his globally-inspired personal style boils down to two simple rules: be open and be respectful.
During his four-year tenure, the GQ brand has adopted a decidedly more daring and international point of view—see this spring’s internet-quaking Burna Boy spread, shot in Lagos and styled by Dawodu himself. While he thinks it’s important for GQ to reflect its “global” status in its pages, Dawodu doesn’t take an overly-precious approach to global fashion and personal style. “A Kurta is the same as a suit to me.” he says. “The other day, I wore a Dashiki set from Nigeria, but that’s like jeans to me. I had on a button-down shirt from Italy before I put this on,” he continues, gesturing to the clean-lined kaftan he had on during our Zoom call. “…It’s all style, really. I incorporate all sorts of heritage in my fashion.” Dawodu estimates he’s travelled to about 90 countries for both business and pleasure, collecting inspiration and pieces along the way.
Photo: Mobolaji Dawodu by Marc Baptiste
The crimson tunic with matching pants—made by a Ugandan tailor—he wore during our chat, was paired with one of his signature hats. My question about how to refer to his headgear sparks a philosophical reply: “It depends on where you are. It’s a Fila in Nigeria, but I actually don’t like to give it a name...I want it to be universal.” There’s freedom in acknowledging the cross-cultural heritage of this one accessory: “One of the things about style that’s not Euro-centric is that [Western] people are always trying to find a bullseye, a way to label it as one thing,” he says of how the well-intentioned Western tendency toward exoticizing and exalting clothes from other cultures as rarified artifacts ultimately robs such dress of its true significance.
Chatting with Dawodu feels like catching up with an old friend. He’s candid, warm, and deeply engaged. Whatever storms are raging in his inbox, I’ve got his full attention. As he reclines on the couch in his Crown Heights, Brooklyn, apartment, he’s framed by posters for films he’s costumed and an eclectic array of art from around the world. He gives me a tour of his apartment, lighting up at the chance to share the various “trinkets” he’s curated from his travels over the past 15 years: wood carvings, woven baskets, masks, magnets, dolls, rugs from Israel, Turkey, Azerbaijan and Morocco.
This love for all cultures has everything to do with Dawodu’s eclectic upbringing. Though he was born in the state of Virginia, his family moved to his father’s homeland when he was just five weeks old. “My formative years were spent in Nigeria. That’s my first identity,” he explains. Growing up around his American mother’s small clothing export business, he gained a number of useful skills. The most indelible imprint left by those early years, however, was a deep reverence for his Naija roots.
Even after his family returned stateside, when he was 10, to Richmond, VA—“the capital of the Confederacy”, he reminds me—he has never lost touch with the continent. “The difference [between] being Black in America versus being African in Africa has been the biggest learning experience...Navigating that in different ways has made me stronger, without a doubt. I can live in more than one world and feel comfortable.” This facility in engaging with all manner of persons is a major asset in his work. “You style better when you’re open and you can connect with whoever you’re styling.”
While his work often sends him abroad for long stints, Dawodu—who counts home as, “New York and the world,”—has managed to find peace amidst the chaos. The key to balancing constant travel with raising his 11-year old daughter, he says, is a great relationship with her mother, “full-stop.” Though the pandemic has clipped his wings, rendering much of his styling duties at GQ virtual, Dawodu isn’t missing living out of a suitcase. Instead, he’s relishing spending time with local friends and family. “[I’m] taking precautions and trying to stay healthy, but I embrace the pause whole heartedly.”
“The difference [between] being Black in America versus being African in Africa has been the biggest learning experience.”
The past four months have seen Dawodu’s longest stint in New York since his career took off 15 years ago. He worked his way up from humble beginnings at a mall in Suburban Maryland to style editor-at-large at music mag, The Fader, where he stayed for 11 years. He’s also styled everything from early iPod ads to a photobook on soccer players across Africa. “You wanna get even deeper?” he asks. “I did [The Black Eyed Peas’ video] ‘My Humps’. How real is that? I’ve been out here. I’m quiet, but I’ve been out here hard!” His oeuvre is also comprised of feature films. In 2013, he costumed Mother of George, an indie starring Danai Gurira, which tells the story of Nigerian immigrants in America. Since then, he’s brought his understanding of international artisanry to costuming other films including Guava Island—a 2019 Donald Glover/Rihanna musical—and the 2016 Lupita Nyong’o vehicle, Queen of Katwe.
Photo: GQ Spring/Summer 2020, Burna Boy, styled by Dawodu. Via @mobolajidawodu
Beyond film, Dawodu’s rise within the fashion industry has dovetailed with the growing prominence of Africa on the global cultural stage. He’s proud that American GQ has shot editorials in Kenya, Ethiopia, Uganda, and, of course, Nigeria under his leadership. It’s a pleasure for him to see culture from the continent spread worldwide, particularly through music. “Nigerian music put a light on Africa in an interesting way. I’m not saying that is the only way, but I think that that was one of the major ways,” he says. As global awareness of African contemporary culture expands, he notes that attitudes on the continent too are being reshaped. “There’s a changing of the guard of the generations all over the world... Africa and Nigeria are [traditionally] conservative. That’s shifting a bit,” he explains. This loosening of cultural mores has led to a number of younger Africans pursuing art and gaining traction internationally.
At the same time, Dawodu acknowledges that the relationship between the West and Africa is complicated. A self-proclaimed history buff, he advises pursuing a deeper understanding of Africa and her past, especially to descents of the continent. Greater African representation in media, he believes, can inspire people to do that learning. “Representation means seeing yourself and seeing others. We’re all a reflection of each other. Self-knowledge. Knowledge of yourself, knowledge of your history, knowledge of your culture, and knowledge of other people, and their culture and history: To me, that's true representation.”
Beyond reading about Africa, Dawodu strongly suggests travel to the continent. “People need to go to Africa for a visit. It doesn’t have to be a homecoming... You don’t have to land and kiss the ground. It doesn’t have to be so loaded,” he stresses. “Of course, it’s loaded,” he goes on, “but check it out how you check out London and Paris. If you go to Thailand, you can go to Africa. Be open and respectful and see what you get.”
Kind enough to share his insights on the destinations most worth the jaunt, he recommends Johannesburg (“vibes hardcore”), Dakar (where he has a farm), Maputo (‘fly”), Kampala (“fun” though he’s “biased”), Nairobi (“cool”), Maseru (for world class skiing), and of course, Lagos.
Dawodu believes fashion has a key role to play in bringing the rest of the world up to speed with Africa’s contemporary existence. “Personally, I normalize Africa with my dress,” he says. Designers from the continent he’s most excited about include Ivorian-American Loza Maleombho, Dakar-based Sophia Zinga, British-Nigerian menswear house A.Sauvage, and Nigerian industry darlings Lisa Folawiyo, Orange Culture, and 2019 LVMH-Prize-finalist and recently tapped Karl Lagerfeld Brand collaborator Kenneth Ize. In spotlighting these emerging designers through his work, Dawodu is fulfilling his mission statement. His greater goal, he says, is: “To speak to the youth. Speak to people now. Speak to the people in power and use [my] platform to show them that style is global and not necessarily Euro-centric.” To Western gatekeepers struggling to handle the outcry for greater diversity, Dawodu’s advice is straightforward, “Hire black people and people of color...The major shift actually begins with a simple change.”
Dawodu has conquered men’s fashion and traveled much of the planet; what’s next for him is equal parts vast and nebulous. The August issue of GQ he recently styled remotely will soon hit newsstands; The Lena-Waithe-produced Netflix film, Beauty, he costumed is currently in post-production; And there’s that aforementioned farm outside of Dakar he bought with his brother a year ago that needs tending to. Beyond that, Dawodu’s vision of the future isn’t quite so rigid: “I really follow my instincts,” he says. “I feel like life is about a bunch of forks in the road and you have to follow your instinct to [decide] which lane you’re gonna ride on...I wanna do more films. I wanna do a bunch of random sh*t! I wanna teach young cats about styling and career and competence. It’s not very specific: Farming, teaching, traveling.”
One thing is certain, however: wearing a multiplicity of hats suits Mobolaji Dawodu, no matter where he’s wearing them.
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