On May 3, GQ Style dropped a piece that instantly caught the internet’s attention: an achingly vulnerable interview and photo shoot with post-divorce Brad Pitt. Shot by Ryan McGinley, the photos were set in three different national parks, where Pitt rolled and tumbled in loose-fitting printed shirts and baggy pants paired with a white blazer over a Dries Van Noten tank top. It was Brad Pitt as we’d never seen him before, but one man knew it was just the Brad Pitt we needed to see: the stylist, Mobolaji Dawodu.
The Nigerian-born, Virginia-raised Dawodu has been a stylist for over 15 years and became GQ Style’s fashion editor prior to its launch last year. Before that, he spent 11 years at The Fader, where (full disclosure) we worked together on shoots everywhere from Long Island to Estonia. Dawodu almost glides instead of walks, moving with an effortless grace whether chatting up PR reps or skateboarders he's street casting. Always impeccably dressed — he favors colorful textiles, a hat from wherever he's been traveling most recently, and, almost always, a pair of Nikes — Dawodu is an expert at reading people. On set, he can lower tempers and warm up frigid personalities with just a few sincere, authentic compliments.
Dawodu is unusual as a stylist: He prefers street-casting to professional models, a talent he was forced to develop due to budgetary constraints during his time at The Fader. It's an exhausting, unforgiving process (I can say this from personal experience), but Dawodu navigates it with his smile and an eye trained for finding beauty and grace in unexpected places. It's a flexibility he's been able to extend to styling celebrities, because, as he puts it, "celebrities are individuals, and street-cast people [are picked] because they have something about them that's individual." Unlike other stylists, Dawodu rarely goes into shoots with hard concepts in mind, preferring to work with the individuals he meets and is introduced to, harnessing their energy when they're on set together.
Now, at GQ Style, he works with subjects like Jared Leto and Mahershala Ali, translating his personal background into bright, colorful, instantly iconic shoots that are entirely his own. We asked him how he got from Virginia to styling celebrities around the world.
Let's talk a little bit about you and your background. What was your first impression of fashion?
Mobolaji Dawodu: I think that growing up in Nigeria had a really big influence on my idea of style and fashion. There’s parties every weekend, always a function my parents would be going to. People were quite extravagant, and both of my parents dressed very well. My mom had a small clothing business, so I kind of grew up around fashion, but I never wanted to do anything with style. In my early teens, we moved to Virginia. I used to come [to the States] every summer, because my mom is from Virginia and my dad is Nigerian, so there really wasn’t a culture shock. I lived in both worlds, which my style reflects to this day.
So you never thought about style or fashion as a profession?
Dawodu: No. But after high school I decided to leave home and take classes at a community college so I wouldn’t waste time in real college. And while I was in community college, I saw this brochure for a fashion marketing school called LIM in New York. And I filled it out, went to orientation, and then I started school that August. I went there for maybe a year and a half, so my parents wouldn’t sweat me moving to New York. Then I dropped out. New York just took me. New York became my teacher. Since I was 18, New York has been my home. I’ve spent more time in New York than anywhere else in my life now.
For my craft internship in school I started working at the Dolce & Gabbana showroom in Soho. That was the beginning of my awareness of styling. I didn’t even know what styling was until then. I was just an intern packing bags of samples for people. Then I began assisting Andrew Dosunmu, who used to work for Yves Saint Laurent. He’s a fucking beast. I assisted him kind of around the end of his [styling] career, when he was just beginning to transition into photography. I started styling on my own, and around that time I got introduced to The Fader.
Even when I started working at Fader, I was still working retail jobs at Barneys and Adidas. I think it's important to say this, because people think this shit is a dream.
And you were at Fader for 11 years, but always as a freelancer, right?
Dawodu: Always freelance. One of the most important things you can do as a stylist is have a magazine title that you're styling for. Always keep your name relevant, and on newsstands. Fader wasn't explicitly a fashion magazine, and it gave me freedom to kind of, like, create my own voice, and travel the world.
What would you say was your signature while you were at The Fader?
Dawodu: Street casting. We always did street casting at The Fader, partially because we couldn’t afford models. It shaped how I style: I can adapt to anything. We shot probably in 30 countries while I worked there.
What about aesthetically?
Dawodu: Color has always been a big deal for me. But as I've progressed in my career, it's shown up in different ways. It's kind of become my trademark in some ways. And styling for me is very much an expression of how I dress. There's a connection there. I would say my biggest hallmark with styling is that I never style with outfits. I think the best type of styling is done when you edit the pieces, and each individual piece stands on their own.
I remember once going with you to Dover Street Market and then you taking me to an Indian textile store down the street so you could pick up a thobe. How would you describe your own personal style?
Dawodu: I would describe it as contemporary and very modern. I get perks of getting clothes from designers, but I get clothes made when I travel in Asia and Africa. And hats are a big part of my look. These days I'm into a lot of traditional hats from Africa and Asia. I wear fezzes. And the fila, which is a Nigerian hat. And this hat from Southeast Asia called a songkok.
I feel like I can see your influence so clearly in your work still. Like that shot of Mahershala Ali from GQ Style, where he’s in profile wearing a hat and a coat and I just instantly thought, That’s so Mobolaji.
Dawodu: That was actually my personal hat he was wearing. He was cool. He's a very elegant man.
And what's the difference between styling people who are street-cast and styling celebrities?
Dawodu: I think it's really about embellishing a person's personal style. I would say street casting and celebrities are quite similar because the person you see on the street and the celebrity kind of wear what they want to wear, rather than models who are used to wearing whatever is dictated.
How would you describe your styling process? Like, say you have a shoot coming up — what's the first thing you do?
Dawodu: I would say depending on what season it is, we decide what standout trends for the season we want to highlight and work around that. And then I pick out the individual pieces I want to work with. And that way it doesn't look forced, or like a concept you're forcing on someone. I think that celebrities have people that are styling them all the time, and it's very easy to spot when the stylist is projecting an ideal or vision on them, rather than a collaborative effort.
In the recent shoot with Brad Pitt, there was a very vulnerable and revealing interview, and clothes we weren't used to seeing him in. What was that like?
Dawodu: It was quite simple. He was very open to the idea of what we were doing, he was invested. We just kind of worked together. “Are you comfortable with that?” “I think that looks good.” I never wanted him to feel uncomfortable. And we played with the clothes and made sure he was OK with it.
I thought it was a really good example of the ways clothes can add to a larger story. Sometimes they're discounted or an afterthought.
Dawodu: And I would say a lot of times, the best styling is when you're not sure whether it's styled or not. It just looks like they have good personal style. That's the vibe of what we do GQ, we want to enhance people's personal style. I want GQ Style to be a men's journal of what's happening now in style. Not in fashion, but in style.
Do you have any advice for young stylists trying to navigate the complexities of the fashion world?
Dawodu: If you are a young stylist, assist someone. Apprenticing and having mentors is the best way to get into styling without a doubt. And have a part-time job, because the money's not gonna be good in the beginning.