In our long-running series, "How I'm Making It," we talk to people making a living in the fashion industry about how they broke in and found success.
If you have a favorite GQ or GQ Style photo shoot from the past three years, chances are it's the work of Mobolaji Dawodu. The fashion director joined GQ Style back in 2016, and at the beginning of 2018, then-newly promoted editor-in-chief Will Welch promoted Dawodu to oversee all things fashion for both men's publications.
But before GQ, Dawodu spent more than a decade as the style editor-at-large for indie magazine The Fader, where he traveled all over the world to stage and street-cast (his specialty) photo shoots. At the time of our conversation, he'd recently returned from trips to Milan, Paris and, most recently, Los Angeles, and was already planning his travels to China, as well as Milan and Paris (again) and, possibly in July, Kazakhstan. Over the years, Dawodu has been keeping track of his nomadic lifestyle: At press time, he had visited 80-plus countries.
How Sam Lobban Turned His Teenage Fashion Job Into a Full-Fledged Career in Menswear
How Eugene Tong Climbed the Magazine Ranks to Work with Menswear's Most Exciting Brands
How Willy Chavarria Went From a Pack-and-Ship Job at Joe Boxer to Running His Own Menswear Label
And while Dawodu's global perspective has certainly informed his styling work, it's actually been ingrained in him since he was young. Born in Nigeria and raised in Virginia, his roots are split between African and American cultures, though most of his fashion sense stems from his parents. "Nigeria is such an extravagant place, so style was a big deal," recalls Dawodu. "My mother had a small clothing business growing up, and both my parents were stylish."
For college, he enrolled at LIM for fashion marketing, mainly as a reason to get out of his hometown and move to New York. (He attended for two years.) "It definitely gave me the foundation of what fashion was about," he says. "I interned at Dolce & Gabbana's showroom and that really opened my eyes to what styling actually was."
Ahead of men's fashion month, we sat down with Dawodu to learn more about his fashion vision for GQ and GQ Style, how he got his big break in styling and his advice on seeking mentorship and assistant gigs in the industry. Read on for highlights from our chat.
What was your first big break into the industry?
I was assisting and styling for a few years, but definitely The Fader. I had two breaks — two mentors, I would say — who supported me and pushed me any way they could when they could. A photographer named Marc Baptiste and Andrew Dosunmu. He was my real break because he introduced me to Phil Bicker, who's a well-known art director at The Fader. I did a fashion story in Jamaica and then it just kept going. I ended up freelancing for The Fader for 11 years.
What else were you doing in addition to The Fader?
I did music videos, movies, advertising, consulting, everything. I was also working full-time in retail. When I was younger, there were no days off. Seriously, though. When I was working at Lucky Brand as a key holder assistant manager, I opened and closed the store. No days off. Seven days a week.
How did you build your styling skills at the beginning of your career?
My styling for The Fader informed a lot for me because we didn't have a lot of budget, so I street-casted while I traveled around the world. That really gave me a foundation of feeling fearless because I did the whole thing. It was only me and a photographer. I would usually pick the countries, according to what was going on in the world, and do the research. I would try to get in touch with someone, and ask if they know someone there. Or if they didn't I would just roll and figure it out.
I would go for two weeks, 10 to 12 days and just talk to people. There's no production, I'm the production. I remember I went to Brazil once and we shot it in Favela. I was driving the car, casting the people, doing it all. Literally doing the itinerary, making the plans. So it empowered me to just be like, 'I can do it all.' It just made me feel free.
My path wasn't conventional because The Fader wasn't a fashion magazine. So I could do whatever the hell I wanted to do, and nobody was stressing me. I'm very happy about that because there are no rules to me.
How would you describe your styling process now?
I would say my styling signature is to adapt to what's happening. A lot of people have looks set. I personally don't believe in that. For me, it takes away the spontaneity and the artistry if you have everything so set up. Of course, I have an idea of a vibe. But my vibe is the element of surprise, the element of making it happen, the element of meeting someone and styling them and making them feel comfortable about introducing them to something. Maybe they introduce me to something.
What drew you to join GQ Style, and eventually GQ, too, as its fashion director?
Editor-in-Chief Will [Welch], who I used to work with at The Fader. We started our careers together, so we've known each other for 15 years. He was doing GQ Style at first before GQ, and he gave me a call and was asking me for recommendations [for a fashion editor], and I was like, 'I'm down.' I sent him a mood board and that's how it happened. If someone told me I'd be working for GQ I would be like, 'What?' Because I'm not conventional when it comes to styling.
What was on that mood board? Or what's your fashion vision for the publications now?
It needs to be a little more global. That's number one. We need to take cues from all over the world. Traditionally in America, you wear jeans. Traditionally in India, they wear kurtas. We should literally use things from around the world, and we should go to different locations around the world. We recently did a shoot in Senegal where I was there for three days and won a few awards with it. We shot in Nigeria, we shot in Uganda, we shot in Ethiopia. So it's been interesting. And I would say [GQ] is a little more casual, whatever that means.
Is working at a corporate publication any different than at an indie magazine like The Fader?
It wasn't so shocking to me because I was doing commercials before. High-budget commercials — I was doing iPod commercials when I was 25 — and advertising is hardcore corporate. Commercials are hardcore corporate America. It's even more direct. It's like, 'This is what we want; we're talking to this demographic.'
I had a double life when I was doing The Fader, where I was the one-man show, and then I would do a movie where I have a team of nine. So it's kind of easy to transition to the corporate environment. But I think it also helps that I have a great relationship with Will. He understands me.
What type of styling do you enjoy the most?
I enjoy the balance of it all. I think that editorial makes me stronger with costume design or films. Advertising makes me stronger because I have a strict agenda. It all balances out for me. What defines me is adapting. One thing that people feel out of my editorials is a slight collaboration. And I think costume and street-casting helped me balance that out, because it's not easy to style a world-renowned celebrity. They have opinions. You cannot impose. To me, a celebrity is the same as street-casting a person.
What's the biggest difference in your career today from when you first broke into the industry?
Visibility. I think stylists were not visible, or as visible when I broke into my career. The celebrity of being a stylist did not exist the way it exists now. There are a lot of extremities surrounding the idea of being a stylist. There are a lot of false ideas of the lifestyle of a stylist. I mean, it's definitely been an enjoyable career and it's great. But there's a lot of hype around being a stylist, and I think people can lose their minds. It's a lot of hard work. It's a lot of time. It's a lot of dedication.
What advice would you give to someone looking to break into styling?
Mentorship is very important. Not only assisting, but also mentorship from people in the industry from different angles. Because there are a lot of times where you might like something, but more than likely if you like one aspect of this industry, there are a few jobs that you could get into.
How would you advise on getting assistant gigs today?
With assisting gigs, you just have to find your way in. When I was young, mind you this was really underground, I used to go to parties and tell people what the deal was. It was like, 'Let me know if there's anyone you know who needs an assistant.' I was persistent. The dude that I got my break with, when I met him he was like, 'Just call me and remind me.' So I used to fucking call him every week on my days off like, 'You got anything going on?' You just have to be persistent. Skill is important, but your persistence will get you in the door to develop your skill. I was so hungry. I was down to assist anyone who'd listen. If you're not meeting people that means you're not hungry enough. You're not asking enough people.
And do your research. Google those people that you're following on Instagram. See what people's movements are because the more information you know, the more you're armed with when you do meet that person. Sometimes I meet people and I'm like, 'You're not serious. I guess you think I'm just going to hand something to you.' You got to do your research, man.
What do you find most interesting about the fashion industry right now?
The most interesting part, to me, is the start of the acknowledgement of Black culture and Black people's influence over fashion. In my opinion, it's one of the biggest stories going on in fashion actually right now. This is the beginning because there's still a long way to go.
So what do you want to see more of?
I'd like to see more photographers of color and also Black female photographers. I would also like to see people of color making decisions in the offices of fashion. Not just outside being models or stylists. The controversies with brands won't happen if you have multiple people of color in a room. There's definitely been instances where I'm in the room and I call stuff out. Absolutely. I've done that my whole career. We all have different cultures, and there's a way of actually respecting everyone's culture by including everyone.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.