People First, Clothes Second: In Conversation With Mobolaji Dawodu

From Street Casting To Costume Designing, Styling Is A Free Flowing Thing For GQ’s Fashion Director

  • Interview: Durga Chew-Bose
  • Photography: Marc Baptiste

Stylist’s own. The editorial photo caption, near-negligible and often trailing a sequence of brands—i.e. sweater-vest, $850, by Gucci / Tank top (price upon request), by Dior Men / Ring, stylist’s own—has come to mean more than its function. Stylist’s own ascribes an element of the personal. A backstory or urgent need. The scarf wasn’t planned, it just happened. A leather jacket, perfectly worn. These sartorial punctuations complete a look. Like some sort of discreet autograph.

For Mobolaji Dawodu, the 38-year-old fashion director of GQ, the words “stylist’s own” typify the singular spirit of his work, which, time and again, is unconcerned by trends and focused instead on patterns and color as they evoke location, or details as they create romance, highlighting (or contrasting) a person’s bearing. How the pleats in one’s pants conjure handsomeness, or how unlikely a kurta looks paired with Camper sneakers (on J. Cole), how turtlenecks seem to suit everyone (from Ezra Miller to Tyler, the Creator, Willem Dafoe and Jared Leto), or how a gold pinky signet ring (Dawodu’s signature) adds an air of legacy to an otherwise young up-and-comer (Lucas Hedges for GQ’s spring fashion issue).

The Nigerian-born Dawodu—this month marks two decades in New York, having spent 11 years at The Fader (traveling around the world, street casting editorials)—has also worked in film, costume designing for directors like Mira Nair and most recently, Hiro Murai, in the musical film Guava Island starring Donald Glover and Rihanna.

Here, he speaks about his work, his travels, and what having style really means to him.

Durga Chew-Bose

Mobolaji Dawodu

Your role as Fashion Director at GQ—how much of it feels like business?

If you’re practical about being part of society, I don’t think there’s art without commerce, personally. What is my role? To shape American men’s style in some ways. To make people feel good. GQ is an institution, and I think my role is to learn about other people’s style.

What about your personality makes you a good stylist?

For me, people come first. Clothes are secondary. It’s really about connecting with people. Because once you gain trust, you can have a real dialogue and you can have a real exchange.

You probably have to develop that trust fast on set…

I pay attention. Styling is a feeling. I think I’m very observant. Details. Instincts.

Have you always been instinct-based?

I’ve always felt sure of how I feel. I don’t waver a lot.

Where does that come from?

Ever since I was 3 or 4—I’m not going to say I was different, because everyone is different, there are 6 billion of us, nobody is that special—I’ve always felt really happy to be alive. I always wanted to be free.

Is dressing part of that for you?

Absolutely. I think it’s fun, liberating to express yourself. But it’s not about styling, it’s about life. I hope I’m not styling in the next ten years. I’m not against it, but I’m open to doing other things.

Like what?

Me and my brother are raising chickens in Senegal right now. So that’s interesting to me. We want to do a farm in Senegal. I’d love to open up a general store.

You travel a lot for work, street casting around the world. Any standout trips?

My standout is probably India. But it’s not because the street casting. It’s because I got lost in the middle of the woods in India.

Where in India?

In Goa. It was a fucking life-changing experience.

Why?

I went to some bar, and I was drinking. And then I went to some after-hours joint, and things got kind of weird around me, and my instincts kicked in—[my instincts] said Leave, so I left. I had followed people to the middle of nowhere in the woods in Goa. It seemed like it was never going to end.

Do you keep a record of where you’ve been?

Sometimes on the plane, I’ll take notes. My mother always tells me I should keep a journal.

Do you talk to her often?

Yup. I talk to my family often. I’m very family-oriented.

When you’re street casting, what’s your approach? How do you open?

Just not being a creep. No, seriously. That’s what I tell people. The number one thing about street casting is, you cannot be a creep. No one fucks with a creep. You have to trust that your honesty will shine through. No one owes me anything. Having a magazine in your hand helps. You have to have a bit of charm. You have to tell them your spiel quickly before it gets weird.

Do you think there’s a flirtation involved in street casting and styling?

Absolutely. Absolutely.

How so?

Flattery. You’re trying to find the beauty in things. Definitely with street casting because you have to let the person know that you felt a certain way about them. You were looking towards them. But yeah, honesty. If people sense that you’re weird, then shit’s not happening. Zero. I was taking this ten day road trip around Ukraine and first of all, there are no black people like that in Ukraine—I had some interesting experiences. And we stopped in this small town and I spoke to this young lady, and took her a little out of town and shot her by a lake, and when we came back…Have you ever seen movies where people die? Where people die and then they’re back in the mix, and people don’t fucking acknowledge them because they don’t exist?

Yes.

Remember the movie, Ghost?

Yes.

I’m telling you that for a reason. Because we took this girl out of town and then brought her back, and then we got back to the small town, and we started saying hi to people, and everyone was ignoring us. It’s like we were in Ghost. And then someone said they could guarantee they’d never seen a black person. But back to why I was telling you that. Street casting is about adapting. All in a few minutes. You have to look at someone and see if they have a vibe. Doing street casting and styling into the unknown—no make-up, nothing—you start to see people. It’s not about the clothes.

But clothes. Back to the clothes. What do you like?

Wearable clothes. I like functionality. Raised in an African family, I mean shit’s functional. It’s practical.

What’s your styling…

Identity? I don’t know my styling identity? I have an obsession with hats. Travelling helped me with my identity. And my blackness. Real talk. Being a Nigerian. The duality of my life. I mean I’ve never said it out loud, I’ve never really thought about it—just being American, and being Nigerian. Where are your people from?

India.

I’m sure you understand. I don’t fucking eat burgers at home. There’s nothing at home that’s not a spice. Eating a burger is exotic in my life, in some ways. I can’t say I wasn’t raised like an American, but definitely a duality of life, for sure. But the other part is, I don’t feel like I need to explain myself to anyone. When you feel like you have to explain yourself, that’s where a lot of tension and wavering comes from. And that’s why, I don’t say much. I think people explain too much these days. People talk too much these days. I believe communicating is a personal thing. I’m not hiding, but I like personal interaction.

What’s your deal with pinky signet rings? It’s like your styling signature in shoots.

I lost mine.

I lost mine last week! I found it the next day, but I couldn’t sleep that first night. I hated not having it on.

You’re bringing back some shit.

Where were you when you lost it?

Man, it’s very painful for me. I went to Sri Lanka, not this past Christmas, but the Christmas before, and I bought this ring. Gold. Because I like Eastern gold, right. With a sapphire. This beautiful ring, shit. So yeah, I lost this ring at the airport on my way to Miami from LaGuardia. I didn’t sleep the night before and I had an early morning flight to Miami, so I guess I was kind of bugged out. And it must have flown off.

Are you good at letting go of things?

Yeah. But do you know, everyone at GQ, now, has pinky rings. All of them. Will [Welch] had one made. Noah [Johnson]. Sam [Hine]. They all have them. I was the first. I really miss my ring, man. I’m going to go to Sri Lanka and get another one.

But you’re fine with letting go of things and moving forward—

I would like to think so. You have to move forward because life doesn’t stop for anyone, and you’re just gonna live and then die.

Let’s talk about your work in film and costume design. What was the first film you did?

It’s called Restless City. With the director Andrew Dosunmu. And the second film I did was called Mother of George, same director, and the third film I did was Queen of Katwe.

While you were still at The Fader?

Yes, right at the end of my Fader days. The last six months I was gone for four months. I shot in Kampala, Uganda and J-burg, South Africa. My father died right at the beginning. The day that I left for Uganda, to do my research. He had some health issues, but it was a surprise. I talked to him the day before I left. It was a great conversation, too. And he was going to come visit me. And the day I got to Uganda, weird shit was happening to me. I went out that night and I felt weird, and sad. Some vibes going on. And then my brother texted me, and I was at Mira Nair’s house. I’ll never forget it. Me and Mira will always have a special relationship. I was overlooking Lake Victoria in Uganda when I found out. She was the first person to see me and comfort me.

Do you feel you have a natural ability to make people comfortable?

I’m sure I make some people uncomfortable. In the context of my job, I try to make people comfortable and I think I’m accommodating to how they feel. Yesterday I was shooting someone, and we’re trying outfits, going back and forth. And I ask, “Tell me how you feel, tell me how you feel.” And a lot of times, they’ll tell me the truth, like, “Uh, I don’t like that shirt.” And I’m like, “Alright, we’ll let that shirt disappear.”

Have you ever styled someone that’s really shy?

I’m sure I have. But nothing stands out to me. It’s rare. It’s not the norm. I also think, in the situation of actors and celebrities, they can be shy but when they go to a shoot, they switch on and perform.

Clothes bring something out in people.

And feeling like you’re heard, that’s really important. Listen, this happens all the time. I’ll ask someone—a model—what they think [of the clothes,] and they’ll be immediately like, “I dunno, tell me what you think.” And I push them, “No, what do you think.” Sometimes they don’t like that, sometimes they’re like leave me alone. I think it’s a shock to be asked your opinion.

Do you like limitations?

Yes. Because I like art and commerce. That’s why I like advertising. I’ve done some of the squarest advertisement. I’ve done Uber. Remember those iPod silhouette commercials?

Yeah.

I’ve done four of those.

Wait, are there clothes, or just silhouettes?

There are clothes. Not naked bodies. My iPod shit taught me so much about silhouettes, because of exactly what you just said. It taught me so much about balance and shape, and silhouettes. There’s this one I did with Wynton Marsalis called “Sparks.” When you watch it now, you’re gonna be like, Oh shit. The best kind of styling is the styling you don’t think about. That’s where a lot of motherfuckers go wrong.

Do you feel an urgent need to keep up with trends?

I want to be clear. People always ask me about my favorite designers, and what I like. And look, there are so many times when I don’t know what I feel like I’m supposed to know. People are having conversations, and I’m like, “Yo, I don’t know what you guys are talking about.” For real, I’m not even trying to be cool about it. I don’t follow the trends. I follow the streets, I follow the world as I’m traveling around it. Even though I go to fashion shows and I enjoy it, it’s not something I study.

Can you speak to your styling work as a platform, and who you work with?

It’s nice to be able to put somebody on. I want to get to the point where…well, I’m doing it already. It’s more quiet. Just kind of introducing people to the GQ platform, which I think in the past would definitely not be in the mix.

What do you mean by that?

Just giving people opportunities that might have been overlooked. There’s so many different elements of that conversation, but I would like to generalize it.

No specifics?

If I go all the way true, there will be problems for me for a very long time. Real talk. I’ve been having this conversation about my platform with my family, a lot, because they are my confidants and the people that I bounce off my ideas. Especially my brother, and he’s always saying to me, “You’re more influential than you realize.” And that’s never been a thing for me. I realize that I’m out there and my work is out there and present, but it’s not something I carry with me all the time. I let my work speak for itself. I mean, what greater gift can you have than expression, the expression of the work you do on an international stage.

Durga Chew-Bose is the Managing Editor at SSENSE.

  • Interview: Durga Chew-Bose
  • Photography: Marc Baptiste
  • Styling: Mobolaji Dawodu
  • Digitech: Joseph Borduin
  • Styling Assistant: Aidan Palermo, Paul Storey
  • Grooming: Junior